On a cool Sonoran Desert evening, just west of Yuma, Arizona, I sat in my white Chevy U.S. Border Patrol truck. An auxiliary cord connected my phone to the vehicle’s stereo system so I could listen to podcasts while scanning the desert for border crossers.
This particular night, I was assigned to work along the Colorado River, or what’s left of it. A little farther down from where I was, the river dries up completely and becomes just a strip of soft sand winding its way through the desert. The center of this blurry line is the international boundary between the United States and Mexico.
The night was shaping up to be a quiet one when my service radio interrupted. I pressed pause so I could listen. My partner in the next zone over, where the river still flowed, said he had “sign,” lingo for footprints, for a group of two or three. The fields were muddy, making it hard to tell the exact number. I sped off and took the first road east, assuming they would be heading toward town.
By the time I got there, two had been caught, but there was sign for one more. I ran along an irrigation channel in a lettuce field, flashlight in hand. My boots grew heavy with mud. Quickly I found some tracks that looked promising. I followed them east before they crossed over a hump and turned back toward the river. I began to jog while I kept my light on the tracks. Up ahead, I saw a dark heap on the ground. My adrenaline spiked as I stepped closer.
As I shouted commands in clumsy, gringo Spanish, the mass, which I could then see was wearing work boots, finally lifted his hands from the ground. I grabbed his shoulders and pulled him up to his knees, keeping a close eye on the hands. Something was off. For the size of this guy, he was too light. As I helped him up to his feet and turned him toward me, it made sense. The rough face of an old man looked back at me, full of deep lines. He wore a puffy jacket which filled out his slim frame.
I began with my usual questions about his place of birth, citizenship, and such. Before I got too far, he interrupted and told me not to bother with Spanish. He’d lived in the United States for almost 30 years and he spoke English. My line of questioning shifted. Where? Why? How? He came for work, and had a job lined up in a tire shop. He had gone to Mexico to visit his aging mother and was on his way back. He said he was surprised we caught him, because he used to cross here often.
I walked him back to my truck, patted him down for weapons, and loaded him into the cage in back. According to the law, he was a criminal.
I never followed up on what happened to the old man, but it was predictable. Nearly all the migrants we caught would spend some time in jail, see a judge, then get sent back to Mexico. This tended to be a cyclical story. The old man would probably try to cross again somewhere else.
First timers usually say they’re going to do it the right way next time, until you tell them they are banned from even applying for a visa for five years. After the second time, it’s 20 years. This was one of the first policy details that didn’t sit well with me. If we are actually concerned with people entering legally, why ban them from doing so?
The average migrant who crosses the Southern border illegally is anything but average. All of them risk their lives and their freedom to make the crossing. Most are from desperately poor parts of Central and South America—toward the end of my career, people from Mexico were in the minority of those we encountered. The older men usually have rough hands, simple dress, and little education. Most of the younger men can read and write and are concerned with fashion. The women usually wear looks of desperation, for themselves and for their children. Some of the people we caught were violent criminals. Some were model citizens. All of them were people who had lost the geographical lottery.
For almost seven years, under presidents Obama and Trump, I enforced policies that separated children from their parents, husbands from their wives, and millions of ordinary people from their dreams of living better lives. The policies remained generally consistent between the two administrations I worked under, but Trump’s flagrance made people pay attention. The public outcry was so great, and the government reaction so strong, that family separations became far more difficult to accomplish than under Obama.
It took me several years to understand the impact of what I was doing as a Border Patrol Agent. There were contradictions I could not reconcile. I ultimately realized that I was putting people in cages for non-violent offenses, something I opposed in every other area of the law. I was impeding the movement of people when I wanted to be able to move freely around the world. I was enforcing the rules of a game I had won simply by being born on the right side of a line.
In August of this year I approached my supervisor and explained that my views had changed and that I needed to quit. Respectful but taken aback he remarked, “people don't usually quit this job” and so he wasn't sure of the proper procedures. Calls were placed, and the next day I turned in my badge and gun.
Currently, approximately 1.26 million people from Mexico are awaiting visa approval. The numbers for Central and South Americans are in the hundreds of thousands. Many of them applied in the 1990s. This is because that according to federal law no more than 7 percent of visas may be issued to people from any country in a single year, whether they are from a place with a large demand for immigration into the United States, like Mexico or El Salvador, or from a place with little or no demand, like Norway or Luxembourg. Last year, only about 84,000 visas were granted to applicants from Mexico. The number of visas granted for Central and South American countries vary, but all are far lower than that of Mexico.
The rules are almost absurdly arbitrary, and yet my job was to punish those who failed to abide by them. The consequences of this realization were staggering. I could ignore my own convictions and keep doing the job, or I could walk away from financial security, status, and close-knit associations. The decision took months of agonizing examination. In the end, principle won over profit. As I left, a weight was lifted. It was soon replaced by the new, more bearable weight of uncertainty. The same kind most Americans face.