After thirty years serving in the U.S. Border Patrol, Raul Ortiz expected to retire this spring. Instead, Joe Biden tapped him in June to lead the embattled agency as it navigates a pandemic with strained resources. A native Texan raised in Del Rio who rose up through the Border Patrol ranks, Ortiz soon found himself facing a crisis in his hometown that was making national news. In mid-September, as many as 15,000 Haitian migrants were camped under the international bridge in the South Texas town. The agency drew round criticism, slammed on the right for allowing “open borders,” and from the left for its treatment of migrants.
As the leader of one of the nation’s largest law enforcement agencies, with more than 19,600 agents under his control, Ortiz faces considerable challenges. He oversees security along thousands of miles of border with Canada and Mexico and territories in the Caribbean. During this fiscal year, amid shifting border policies, apprehensions of migrants have reached an all-time high. And Ortiz has had to oversee coordination between his agency and state police, complicated in Texas by Operation Lone Star, Governor Greg Abbott’s deployment of the Department of Public Safety and the Texas National Guard to crack down on the border.
Last Thursday, Ortiz traveled to Encino, Texas, for a speaking engagement at the sixteenth annual South Texans’ Property Rights Association meeting, where he discussed the influx of migrants in the region. I caught up with him at Felix Meat Market in La Joya, one of his favorite haunts in the Rio Grande Valley, to discuss the situation at the border, Biden administration policy, and Operation Lone Star. This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Texas Monthly: As someone who grew up on the border, can you talk about what your appointment means?
Raul Ortiz: I feel like my experiences across the world have really set me up for this. Growing up in a border community, I really understand what [security] means to those border communities on a national scale. People look at what’s happening on the border and I say, “well, that’s McAllen, that’s El Paso or San Diego, it doesn’t really affect me,” but it does. Border security, national security affects everybody in this country.
TM: Over the years, migration routes shift from one area to another. Now migrants seem to be arriving in towns across the border all at once, from McAllen and Del Rio to El Paso and Yuma. Have you seen anything like this before?
RO: I’ve got nine southwest border sectors. This past year, every one was busier than it was the year before.
As border security experts, our goal is not to stop everybody from coming into the country. It’s to manage this border environment so that we can focus on those highest threats, whether it’s fentanyl, methamphetamine, heroin, cocaine, marijuana—because it’s still coming in—or whether it’s folks that want to come in and do harm in this country. There are criminal aliens that come across that border each and every day. We have folks that have been identified as having ties to some terrorist organizations.
When it’s all said and done, immigration is going to happen ten years from now, twenty years from now, thirty years from now. We just have to put ourselves in a position where we have the confidence that we don’t have an open door to the U.S.
TM: Why has migration increased so dramatically over the last year?
RO: I think the health conditions here in the U.S. are and will become a greater pull factor in the migration patterns that we’re going to see. You think about how widespread our vaccination efforts are, and that we’re getting back to some normalcy, and that if you want to work, there’s a job out there. I think that presents opportunities for these migrants in different parts of this hemisphere and even across the globe.
TM: Governor Greg Abbott deployed state police and military to the southern border as part of Operation Lone Star. From your perspective, what impact have they had on fighting the smuggling of migrants and drugs?
RO: We will leverage those partnerships whenever we can, and they have made a huge difference. But you take Del Rio—when we had those fifteen to sixteen thousand migrants underneath that bridge, it was only Border Patrol agents that were putting them on buses. Border Patrol agents were treating them for their medical conditions. We had help from some other agencies, but at the end of the day, that’s my responsibility; that’s our responsibility.
TM: A feature of the governor’s operation is to arrest immigrants on state charges. Is there concern about the potential for overlapping jurisdictional issues?
RO: It’s a tremendous concern. Border security is as complicated as I’ve ever seen, and I say that because of the number of demographics that we’re dealing with. I have to ensure that if migrants have a legitimate asylum claim that they’re able to put forth that claim, or if they have a credible fear claim with respect to some sort of trafficking abuse that there’s a pathway for them. I don’t know that all of that is being considered when a migrant is apprehended by another agency. I really would prefer to see border security left to the border-security experts. I want other agencies’ help; I certainly need it at this time, but coordination has to happen. I understand wanting to ensure that there are consequences for people’s actions. But quite often the same person that was taken into custody for thirty days for trespassing could have already been repatriated back to their home country.
TM: Do you have the resources you need moving into 2022?
RO: We should be investing in satellite technology and all these things that make us better at our jobs. I don’t need thirty thousand more patrol agents; I would like to see us get back to about that twenty-one thousand number because I think it really reflected a time when I didn’t have to bring agents from the northern border to cover the southern border. [In 2013 U.S. Border Patrol had more than 21,000 agents, close to 2,000 more than it currently has.] But resources, whether it’s vehicles, whether it’s facilities, whether it’s equipment, whether it’s having enough training—all of that in a COVID environment, it’s just been strained significantly.
TM: Border Patrol has been under tremendous scrutiny, from COVID to the incident in Del Rio, where some mounted agents waving split reins were accused of using them as whips against Haitian migrants. Do you have a response to that scrutiny?
RO: We had about two weeks of anywhere from sixteen to seventeen thousand migrants underneath that bridge in Del Rio. No migrants got hurt. No officers or agents or volunteers got hurt. Nobody talked about that. Everybody talked about a thirty-second video and pictures of agents engaging with migrants on a boat ramp right next to the river. Everybody wants to make that the face of what happened in Del Rio, and that couldn’t have been further from the truth. What I saw during my nine or ten days there was the complete and utter display of professionalism and humanity.
I’ve got to let agents know that we’re fighting to make sure they have the resources they need. I’m going to do everything I can to mitigate and prevent them from becoming a target, whether it’s by political outlets or media outlets. I’ve got to tell the story about all the tremendous work that happens each and every day by these agents.
TM: The Trump-era Migrant Protection Protocols, or Remain in Mexico policy, under which migrants have to await asylum hearings south of the border, is scheduled to start up again soon, after the border was shut down during the pandemic. What impact has the policy had on immigration?
RO: The Migrant Protection Protocols was one of the safest ways to manage the border environment. We need to make sure that people still have a legitimate opportunity to claim credible fear or some sort of asylum claim, or if they are eligible for some immigration benefits that that opportunity exists. But you can’t just say, “Hey, here’s an open door, guys, everybody come in.” Every policy has its flaws. From a border-security perspective I want to make sure that our agents have the resources and have these pathways to be able to address these flows, so we don’t have fifteen thousand people showing up underneath the bridge.
I have to provide the right guidance to the secretary and the commissioner and the administration on what works and doesn’t work. There were things under the previous administration I didn’t agree with; I’ve never been a fan of building a wall from sea to shining sea. There are certainly going to be things under this administration that I’m going to challenge. But at the end of the day, I’m a public servant. My job as a law enforcement official, you give me the policies, you give the guidance and left, right limits, and I’m gonna do everything I can to execute the mission.
TM: There are migrant camps all along the border, where criminal organizations exploit them. Isn’t it a danger to send migrants back to those environments, not only for migrants, but also for the Border Patrol?
RO: Migrant camps are already in existence, and they could be compounded as you put more people through this process. We’ve got to build greater capacity on the U.S. side and then we’ve got to ensure that we’re coordinating with Mexico. We’ve learned an awful lot over the last couple of years, so I think we will be more efficient. Mexico doesn’t want to see these migrant camps. It’s not good for their communities. It’s not good for business; it’s not good for anything. If somebody is staged in Chile and they’re thinking about coming to the U.S., but they know that if they get here, they’re going to have to be stationed in a camp, chances are they’re going to stay in Chile.
With respect to the dangers of these criminal organizations, we started an operation called Operation Sentinel where we’re going to do everything we can to take the bank-account assets from these criminal organizations that are preying on these migrants. We’ve seen migrants being forced to smuggle marijuana or narcotics to pay for their smuggling fee. We had five migrants shot here in Hidalgo a week ago supposedly for not paying the smuggling fee. And so, yeah, these are dangerous environments.
TM: Can you talk about the task of vaccinating your agents, and how you handle immigrants who arrive with COVID?
RO: Under [the Biden administration’s] executive order [on COVID-19] all federal employees have to be vaccinated by November 22. We had in some sectors tremendous success vaccinating our workforce. And then in some areas, I had only twenty percent of our workforce vaccinated. And so we’re messaging. At any given time, I’ve had two or three hundred officers in quarantine, and at one point I had two thousand officers in quarantine due to COVID. I’ve lost fourteen Border Patrol agents to COVID. I have had two contractors die of COVID. I’m tired of handing out flags. I’m honored to do it, but when I see agents that were unvaccinated die because of COVID exposures, that’s a concern.
With respect to the migrant population, I don’t know that I have the capacity as an organization to vaccinate the amount of people that we encountered this past year and potentially what we’re going to see in 2022. Health and Human Services and other agencies potentially can put a shot in the arm as opposed to having somebody in an ICU bed. And we could push the vaccinations into some of these shelters, leveraging our non-governmental organization partners. I’d much prefer the investment in the vaccination. We’ve got to do a better job of ensuring that these communities are protected, our workforce is protected, and the migrants are protected.