The Border Patrol Agent Who Threw Away His Badge
How an open-hearted border patrol agent learned to see the world from the migrant perspective.
The chase was over. U.S. Border Patrol agent Brendan Lenihan had finally caught up with the group of undocumented migrants he’d been diligently tracking. Yet when he came face-to-face with the first man of the group in a remote stretch of the Las Guijas Mountains that marked the Arizona border with Sonora, Mexico, he didn’t arrest him.
There was something in the man’s eyes, Lenihan told journalist and author Todd Miller in a dramatic scene detailed in Build Bridges Not Walls.
Appearing at the midpoint of Miller’s book, the “open-hearted Border Patrol agent” is the centerpiece of Miller’s book. Echoing the book’s theme of seeking bridges between people to overcome the borders that wreak such death and destruction throughout the world, Lenihan had an out-of-body experience, shearing him of “his uniform, badge, laws, and gun,” Miller writes. “In their place was a bridge, across which [Lenihan] could see and feel the world from [the migrant’s] side—his longing, his love, his family, and his anguish and despair.”
Miller’s book, in my mind, completes Miller’s magnificent border quartet, an exquisite suite of cutting-edge titles, each of which provides a cogent angle into what Miller described to me as a “Global Border Apparatus”—much of it fueled or directed by the United States.
As in a cubist Picasso painting like Guernica, where all the angles of a grotesque atrocity are seen at once, Miller’s quartet of books, now including Build Bridges Not Walls, provide a multi-dimensional understanding about the violence and big business of border-building today. With his latest book, the quartet is greater than the sum of all dirty parts of the mega-border industry itself—precisely because Miller shows us the way around the juggernaut that lies in our path.
To Miller, the border machinery impedes justice and dignity. But all of us are also part of the impediment. Miller is the first to say that he, like any of us who participates in the system in various ways, need help to understand our way around it, and to extricate ourselves from its web.
After the Las Guijas incident, Lenihan would eventually leave the Border Patrol for good, joining the ranks of a small but voluble coterie of ex-Border Patrol agents such as Jenn Budd and bestselling author Paco Cantú.
In Build Bridges Not Walls, Miller puts the system on trial, and tears down borders between all of us—from agents to activists to migrants—and invites us to join to tear them down for good.
The following interview took place in Tucson, AZ in the U.S.-Mexico borderlands.
SCHIVONE: In your book, you describe Brendan Lenihan as an "open-hearted Border Patrol agent" who told you “one of the most powerful stories of empathy I’ve ever heard”—referring to an incident Lenihan had while on patrol in Southern Arizona. Guide readers through what happened.
MILLER: So, Brendan Lenihan was patrolling around the town of Arivaca and he got a call from dispatch that somebody or something had tripped a motion sensor. There are as many as 12,000 motion sensors on the U.S.-Mexico border, implanted so people can’t see them. Lenihan followed to where the dispatcher directed him, up a narrow road where there was an old mineshaft.
When I interviewed him, he talked about how he was looking at the view of this incredible landscape that you see in Southern Arizona—mountains going off into the horizon. And then he saw these footprints and he got out of the truck. He was going to radio dispatch to say he was going to track the footprints.
But at that same moment, a man appeared out of the ravine. The man was waving his arms at Lenihan, speaking in rapid Spanish, saying that his family member was in distress. At first, like any Border Patrol agent, he profiles the man’s clothing, his boots; he’s wondering about him. But then, Lenihan said there was something about his eyes that he liked and trusted. Which is very not-Border-Patrol-like.
And that was what began his journey of empathy. He slung an assault rifle over his shoulder and then he descended into the ravine following this man.
After racially profiling the man as probably undocumented, Lenihan didn’t arrest him outright?
No. Nor did he check for his papers, which is standard Border Patrol practice.
Which his doctrine was likely telling him to do.
Yes. He didn’t do it. He followed the man into a ravine against everything, probably, he learned in the Border Patrol. You know, the kind of lessons you learn in the Border Patrol: Us versus them, legal versus illegal, innocent versus criminal.
He broke protocol?
I mean, I don’t know. It seems like it goes against the training. Whether he actually, technically, broke protocol in that way, I couldn’t say. But he did follow this man, whose name he’d soon learn was Rogelio, into the ravine. At the bottom of the ravine was Rogelio’s brother, Roberto, who was obviously in terrible condition. Roberto’s eyes were shut but when he opened them in brief bursts, all Lenihan could see were the whites of Roberto’s eyes that were rolling back into his eye sockets. And Miguel, who turned out to be Roberto’s cousin, was sitting there rocking Roberto back and forth like a baby.
Lenihan radioed dispatch for a medical evacuation, but the helicopter couldn’t go down into the ravine, so he knew they had to get Roberto to another place where the helicopter could land—on the road near his truck. Lenihan clasped arms with Rogelio, holding each other’s elbows with their hands to form a bridge, like a stretcher. They started moving up the ravine. The sun is burning down. They’re sweaty. Roberto is stocky and heavy, so it’s hard to go up the hill. Roberto starts to vomit black bile. As they’re moving up the hill, the sweat makes Lenihan’s hands slip and slip until he’s holding hands with Rogelio.
Lenihan says, it was a “strangely intimate” moment. He is holding hands with somebody he would normally arrest. The moment is so intimate that something snaps in him. He no longer sees the young man in his arms as Roberto because Roberto suddenly becomes Lenihan’s brother. Lenihan has this long moment where he looks down on Roberto, who appears to be dying, and he sees him as if he were his own brother. This happens until his radio crackles and he’s brought back to reality of being a border patrol agent. But he has changed in that moment.
They bring Roberto up to the top of the hill, by a clearing. Eventually the EMT unit comes and they apply a medical machine to Roberto. The machine pumps oxygen into Roberto’s lungs that then go up and down. Lenihan thinks Roberto has been saved. But he really hasn’t; it’s just what the lungs always do when hooked up to the machine. The EMT says Roberto is dead. Lenihan realizes that Roberto probably died in his arms.
After that, Lenihan ends up going to a bar with other Border Patrol agents, who say, this is the “border game.” What they mean by that, of course, is that a lot of Border Patrol agents have encountered people who have died. There’s so many deaths that everyone has an experience. Part of the “border game,” literally, with the Border Patrol’s “prevention through deterrence” strategy, is meant to make the deaths of some people be a deterrent for others crossing the desert.
But that was no salve. The next day his supervisor called Lenihan because he knew he was in distress. The supervisor told him the group were drug smugglers, like that was supposed to make him feel better.
When Lenihan first told me this, he said, “What do I care?” raising his hands up in the air.
That they were drug smugglers?
Yeah. And right after that conversation with his supervisor came a moment that Lenihan, in dismay, was sitting in his apartment and smelled a waft of marijuana come up from somewhere below. He says, the very thing he was told to stop was what his neighbor was smoking.
When I further asked him about the experience, he said that later, after the incident when he saw Roberto as his brother, he imagined him and his own real-life brother in similar circumstances. And I asked him, did it matter to you that they were drug smugglers? He said, no. He said: Would I have done the same thing with my own brother, cross the border smuggling drugs if I were in their situation? I look back to that comment as a really insightful one, especially when you look this idea of how a border actually functions.
Lenihan’s observation is one that shows the inequalities of borders, the inequalities of life opportunities—including who would consider earning money by smuggling drugs and who would not—that are essentially preserved by a border system that is designed to keep people in their place.
You start the book with another powerful story about when you're driving through a remote stretch of the scorching Sonoran Desert, 20 miles north of the borderline. You see an ailing man on the side of the road who desperately flags you down, waving his arms like Rogelio did to get Lenihan’s attention. The man’s clothes are bedraggled; his skin complexion is dark; he speaks only Spanish. You learn he has come from Guatemala and has been braving the deadly desert heat for days. He’s thirsty, so you give him water. Then he asks you for a ride to the nearest town. But you hesitate. Why?
The hesitation came from a very unnatural place. Before I answer, I should step back and say where I was driving from. Just before that happened, I was climbing up the Baboquivari Peak with an elder from the Tohono O’odham Nation. I remember looking back and seeing a borderless world. We were so high up in the air, in the mountains, and you can see mountain ranges going off into the distance. It occurred to me that I might be looking into Mexico, but I wasn’t sure. Then it occurred to me that that didn’t even matter. You couldn’t even see the border. And for a fleeting moment, you could see how a borderless world would look.
And then when the man, whose name I’d soon learn was Juan Carlos, asked me for a ride, all of a sudden, the border came back to me. I hesitated. After more than 15 years of reporting on the historic expansion of the border over the last few decades, I could feel the heat of the surveillance apparatus. Was there a camera with its long-range cameras that could see us? Did we trip a motion sensor? Was there a Predator B drone overhead? Was there a vehicle from the U.S. Border Patrol nearby?
If any of these things were watching you, what could happen?
If I gave him a ride, I could be charged with a felony. I could face prison if I were to “further [Juan Carlos’] presence in the country.” So, if Border Patrol were to pull me over, it was possible they could charge me with a smuggling offense. And I hesitated because of that. And my hesitation made me infuriated.
Because, here I was, in the desert, the man was obviously in distress. It turns out he had been walking in the desert for days. He was from Guatemala. And the values that I’ve learned from a very young age, when I was a kid, from my parents, is that you help somebody in need.
What I was being told, by the law, was that I could not help this man.
From inside your head.
Inside my head, but it was the law. People have been charged with it. It was inside my own head but it was not based on a delusion. It was the actual law. People have been charged for smuggling for what I was contemplating doing.
I mean, the law hopes you’ll enforce it for them, censor yourself with this unnatural directive—
And you could look at it any other way. You could look at what I was taught from a young age about how to treat my fellow human beings. Or you could look at religions or spirituality. In the scriptures of any religion, hospitality is central. You are hospitable with human beings in need. In fact, not doing it is against religious law.
Welcoming the stranger.
And other religious values. Or you can look at ethical values, if you want to go secular. Of course, if you are thirsty—if you say, “I’m thirsty, I’m dying of thirst.” Me not giving you water could be an act of murder. You could it look at it that way. The whole contradiction of the human rule of law—in this case U.S. law—versus a more universal, spiritual law. In that sense, I was infuriated by the fact that I was even thinking of not giving him a ride.
These contradictions banged against each other: the meditation on all these years of reporting, and my fury that some human law is saying that I cannot give this man a ride. And that’s where this book was born, from that moment, those tensions coming together, and from that moment of hesitation I consulted with all kinds of different people—from visionaries, philosophers, politicians, children—including my own children—about the border—and this includes border industry representatives and Border Patrol agents. I came to a very strong conclusion that the border itself is an impediment to a free and dignified life. For those who are concerned with justice in this world, the U.S.-Mexico border, but also what I would call the Global Border Apparatus is an impediment.
But what else did it teach you about what to do about it?
After doing nonstop reporting and I’ve written three books—the expansion of the U.S. Border Patrol in my first book [Border Patrol Nation, 2014], or how climate change impacts the border apparatus [Storming the Wall, 2017] or how the U.S. border apparatus is expanding around the world [Empire of Borders, 2019], I now found myself in a reflection about borders. That reflection, with the consultation of all the different people that I mentioned, is that the border is an impediment to a world of justice. What I mean by that is by its very nature it keeps horrific inequalities in place. It keeps a global status quo of 2,000 billionaires having more wealth than the 4.6 billion poorest people, in place. And as we contemplate climate catastrophe it creates a militarized divide between the environmentally secure and the environmentally exposed.
The biggest thing I learned from that moment of hesitation and the ensuing reflection and consultation, is that, really, this thing, borders and the system that perpetuates borders, has got to go. It’s as simple as that. The border apparatus needs to go. I don’t see how anyone who honestly unpacks it, looks at its components, and understands what it does, could draw any other conclusion.
Did that encounter that you had on the side of the road affect you personally?
One of the biggest conclusions that I came to throughout the book is, in a very personal way, that it started with my own benevolence—would I give Juan Carlos water? Would I give him a ride?—but I was the one that actually needed help. Reporting on the border all these years I often get questions like: What can we do? Is there reform? Is there abolition? Maybe I’m supposed to think of the answer, but rarely is it thought that the answer might be coming from the people actually crossing. It is Juan Carlos who understands the original injustice, the root cause that needs to be addressed, about why he left in the first place.
When I see that I’m the one who needs help, too, to understand this world of injustice, it is at this moment we’re more on an even playing field, and that’s what leads to what I think is totally essential in this world: global solidarity. This idea of solidarity between me and this man, Juan Carlos. In this moment. But it’s not just me and this man. It’s a metaphor for something much bigger, of people coming together across borders to really understand what’s going on in the world, and to maybe hash out some of the globe’s most pressing problems. And when you think of it that way, all of a sudden the questions, the solutions, everything becomes drastically different.