Rory Carroll, The Guardian, December 12, 2016
Vicente Paco was born in Mexico and while in school, he learned about how United States marines invaded Mexico, slaughtered Mexicans and annexed Mexican territory. Their green uniform was so hated, it allegedly produced the term gringo – “green go”.
Paco now wears the green of a US Border Patrol agent in a desert that used to be Mexican. He also does everything he can to stop Mexicans, and others, from illegally entering the US. In the economic and political logic of today’s border, this makes complete sense.
“Look. That’s where they slid down,” said Paco, indicating hand marks on the 18ft rusting steel fence separating the Arizona town of Nogales from the Mexican city of Nogales. “If they make it into town they try to blend in with the local population, but the fence often rips their clothing and leaves rust on their hands. That’s what we look for.”
Paco, 35, trim and fit, has a 4×4 vehicle with a green stripe plus a gun, Taser, knife, handcuffs, binoculars and radio connecting him with 4,000 colleagues who control the 262-mile stretch of border in the Tucson sector.
He is a naturalized US citizen and believes in the Border Patrol’s mission. “Our job is to secure the border. When I put on the uniform I’m a Border Patrol agent before anything else.”
No matter that Paco may cheer Mexico’s soccer team when it plays the US (he declined to say whom he would cheer for), he does his job. “I’m always a Border Patrol agent regardless of my heritage or where I come from,” he said.
Under ordinary circumstances, that should hardly be news. About half of the agents who patrol the 2,000-mile southern border are Latinos and no one has questioned their commitment.
But the election campaign injected race and ethnicity into politics, especially the immigration debate. Donald Trump denigrated Mexicans, calling them rapists and criminals. He accused a US federal judge, Gonzalo Curiel, of bias because of his Mexican heritage. He vowed to deport millions of undocumented people and to build a wall along the entire frontier to keep out “bad hombres”.
In the past two decades, the Border Patrol has ballooned from 4,000 to 21,000 agents. A border once marked by a chain-link fence, if that, now bristles with Normandy-style barriers, sensors, cameras, drones and helicopters. Barack Obama’s administration deported 2.5 million people, a record.
The numbers crossing illegally are near historic lows. More Mexicans are leaving the US than entering.
Yet Trump won the White House last month by conjuring an invasion of “illegals” across an open border which only he could fix. The brouhaha over white nationalism and stories of Latino intimidation have overshadowed the fact that Trump will rely on thousands of federal employees of Mexican heritage to enforce any crackdown.
On a tour of the fence last week, Paco, an agency spokesman, said that would not be a problem. “We have a mission. I’ll never jeopardise my job. Heritage is not to be confused with patriotism,” he said.
Patriotism – an America-first, beware-all-threats brand of patriotism – is the first thing to understand about the Border Patrol. The agency sees itself as the nation’s first line of defence, frontier sentinels on perpetual guard.
The National Border Patrol Council, a union which represents agents, backed Trump’s candidacy, saying the improved interception rate – about half of crossers are caught – was not enough.
“Knowing that we have no idea of who and what the intentions are of half illegal border crossers is frightening. They very well could be immigrants looking for a better life in America, or they could radicalize terrorists seeking to harm America. We do not know, and in these dangerous times, that is unacceptable and reckless,” the union said.
The union hailed Trump as a pro-military leader who did not bow to the media, political correctness or foreign dictators: “We look forward to working with the Trump transition team to finally give the American people the border security they have been demanding.”
Some of the union’s 16,500 members publicly disapproved of the endorsement but it reflected a culture forged by 9/11. Before the terrorist attacks, the agency was part of the justice department. After it was folded into Homeland Security, its focus became counter-terrorism. Military veterans swelled the ranks.
Paco, who went to college in California, served as a mechanic for F/A-18 fighters aboard the USS Nimitz in the Persian Gulf before joining the Border Patrol.
Professional and courteous, he peppered his conversation with military terms. “This RVSS – remote video surveillance system – lets us identify incursions,” he said, standing on a sunbaked hilltop beside a white tower topped with cameras. “It gives us situational awareness and acts as a force multiplier.”
Of his sector’s 262 miles, 212 have synthetic barriers and the remainder have mountains or canyons as natural barriers. Extensive surveillance and rapid-response systems cover the entire sector. “We have layers of defence,” Paco said.
Even so, the Sonoran desert can feel immense and hostile, with sand and scrub stretching into the horizon. “Are they watching us now? Of course,” said Paco.
“They,” he elaborated, are “trans-national criminal organisations” also known as cartels. Their lookouts occupy vantage points on both sides of the border. Those in the US camp on hilltops with camouflage and use encrypted radio transmissions to direct smugglers, he said.
Smugglers deploy kids to hurl grapefruit-sized rocks over the fence to intimidate and distract agents, said Paco, indicating the rock-strewn roof of a parking shelter. “They pick up velocity and can do serious damage. If we start getting rocked, we have to make split-second decisions,” he said.
Threats also come underground. Agents have discovered more than 115 tunnels in the Tucson sector alone – evidence of a well-funded, determined foe, said Paco.
Cartels have also muscled out the mom-and-pop coyote operations which used to spirit people across the border. They charge would-be crossers thousands of dollars or force them to haul drug-filled backpacks. “Many give in to the pressure and carry the drugs,” Paco said.
Migrants, in other words, bankroll ruthless criminal empires which flood the US with drugs – and often end up betrayed, he said. “People get raped, killed, robbed. They get abandoned. They run out of water.”
According to Paco, the Border Patrol, in contrast, is a humane agency which operates desert rescue beacons for the stranded and desperate. “We often become first responders. It shouldn’t be a death sentence to come across the border,” he said.
He tried to save a suspected drug mule who had tumbled down a ravine. “I had a guy die in my hands. As I was trying to resuscitate him, I could feel the bones collapsing,” he said. There was no justification to illegally sneak into the US, no matter your motivation, he said. “The system is not broken. I am living proof of legal immigration.”
For Paco, all this adds up to a compelling mission that eclipses any school history lesson about the 1846-48 US-Mexico war, or which soccer team he cheers for. “I cheer for the winner,” he said with a smile.
Here is the other thing to understand about the Border Patrol: the job offers good pay – some agents start on $49,000 – plus excellent health, retirement and pension benefits. “In border areas, there are not always a lot of job options. This is a great career,” said Paco.
No wonder, then, so many Latinos wear the green uniform: decent salary, serve the country, maybe save some lives. An attractive package, Trump or no Trump.
The agency’s critics do not see it that way. Immigrant and human rights advocacy groups say the Border Patrol is part of a cynical strategy to funnel would-be border crossers – increasingly Honduran, Guatemalan and Salvadorean – into the path of human predators and remote wilderness, so that the skeletons of those who don’t survive deter others.
“The response is pushing people into the far western desert, which is way more dangerous,” said Robin Hoover, a veteran Arizona-based activist. “They’ve tried to make it expensive and that fuels the coyote industry, which transfers billions of dollars to the cartels. They make it more dangerous so you’re more likely to die.”
“There are good agents but the institution has certain issues it needs to address: transparency, accountability, use of force,” said Father Sean Carroll, a Jesuit priest at a shelter run by the Kino Border Initiative group in Nogales.
Some deported migrants resent the lack of Latino solidarity. “They treat us like dogs, like trash,” said Gerson Rayas, 34. Caught and deported to Honduras in March, he had clung to train roofs back through Mexico for another try over the US border. If caught again, he will probably spend several months in jail before being deported.
In contrast, Elmer Castillo, 26, a farm labourer from the Mexican state of Oaxaca, bore no grudge against the horse-mounted agents who intercepted his group last week shortly after it crossed.
“It’s their job. If they let one pass, many others would cross thinking they’ll help them too.” Will he try to dodge them again? Castillo shrugged. “Maybe.”