I began my career as a border cop in October 2006, when I entered the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center in southern New Mexico. My decision to apply had come down to one thing—a thirst for adventure. I dreamed of tracking cartel operatives and rescuing migrants lost in the desert, of riding horses and dirt bikes, and confronting danger in a dangerous place. A part of me knew the job would not be so romantic. After all, the mission was to apprehend anyone who chose to cross the border illegally, regardless of their reason for doing so. In the end, I found the adventure I was looking for, but as you might imagine, it came at a cost.
My fellow recruits at the training center were mainly blue-collar workers and ex-soldiers recently returned from tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, and together we bonded over intensive training in Spanish, immigration law, use-of-force protocols, and firearms proficiency. As we marched in formation from one training venue to the next, I would hoist into the air our class flag with the words honor, integrity, and vigilance emblazoned around a grimacing skull wearing a campaign hat and sunglasses.
After graduation, I was assigned to help patrol hundreds of square miles of desert south of Tucson, Arizona. Some of the migrants I was to encounter there came with guides, some came alone. Some drank from cattle tanks, others from ponds on golf courses. Some walked in battered shoes and socks bloodied from the festering blisters on the soles of their feet. Some were pregnant. Some were dead, slowly disintegrating back into the land itself.
I can still picture the wet eyes of a Mexican campesino covered in cactus spines. I found him about 20 miles north of the border on a remote footpath in Arizona’s Altar Valley. He tried to run from me but fell and gave up. As I helped him to his feet, I could feel his lean, sinewy muscles. He was emaciated and seemed emotionally crushed by his failure to get past me, embarrassed for having broken the law. Yet he was not so much a criminal as a man cornered by the indignities of poverty. As he wiped his runny nose on his forearm, he asked me if I understood the way things were south of the border. I lied and told him I did, but of course I did not. Not really.
On another occasion, I responded to a radio call of someone wishing to turn another person in. When I arrived at a gas station, a Native American man wearing a Vietnam-veteran ball cap waved me down. His wife of many years was undocumented, he said, and he was tired of hiding her in the shadows. A well-dressed woman stepped from the passenger seat of his car. They hugged each other and cried, and then she apologized to me through smeared makeup as she stepped into the cage of the transport van.
Some Americans disparage illegal immigrants as enemies of the state. Others denounce Border Patrol agents as bigots with badges. But most people I know are somewhere in the middle, distrustful of easy answers and unsettled with the idea of completely open or closed borders. As for me, when the hiring committee asked what I thought of illegal immigration and why I wanted to be an agent, I told them that law and order mattered and needed defending—and I stand by that answer. But for all my training, I was left unprepared for the reality that awaited me on the line. The federal government taught me how to shoot an assault rifle from a moving vehicle and how to fast-rope from a hovering helicopter, but never did anyone explain how to go home at the end of a shift and forget about the migrants I’d apprehended and their stories. All too often, I came to see in their faces a reflection of myself.
The summer monsoons were on their way, and fractured columns of light cut through the clouds that had begun to amass on the southern horizon. The basin and range country of Arizona’s Sonoran Desert—a polarized land of crucifixion thorn and resurrection fern, shin-dagger and teddy bear cactus. I was out on patrol when I heard noises above me and turned to see four men descending a steep mountain trail with pistols strapped to their thighs. They held giant tumors of chewing tobacco in their lower lips and cradled their assault rifles at the low-ready. The volunteer militiamen shook my hand one by one like old friends and debriefed me on the fresh footprints up in the pass.
“Illegals are trashing the land,” they said. “It’s a goddamn invasion and nothin’ less.”
We tipped hats, and I continued my ascent, relieved to be alone again and away from the angry men with firepower that far exceeded my own.
I summited at midday and walked aimlessly in the shadows of granite domes that ran along the ridgeline like the spine of some slumbering monster. A turkey vulture hovered on a thermal, passing in and out of Mexico with seeming disregard for international boundaries. All around me the mountainsides sparkled in the sunlight from the rubbish discarded by clandestine border crossers—Red Bull energy cans and Pedialyte baby bottles; children’s backpacks and Mexican water jugs. Among the hastily discarded objects were others on deliberate display. More than once on patrol, I had stumbled upon desert altars full of votive candles, rosary beads, and prayer cards commemorating Juan Soldado, patron saint of undocumented immigrants, and Jesús Malverde, patron saint of drug smugglers.
This time, I came upon a velvet mesquite tree draped in women’s lingerie. Faded pink bras and lacy black panties drooped from the twisted limbs. The Border Patrol calls these “rape trees.” It’s difficult to know whether these displays are merely symbolic of a woman’s vulnerability in this place or are the actual trophies of sexual violence. Either way, women who understand the risks of this desert sometimes ingest morning-after pills before even attempting to cross.
I continued onward, tracking the footprints of foreigners intermingled with the paw-prints of bobcats and kangaroo rats. Eventually, I discovered a three-foot-high shelter of stacked rocks that looked out on the valley floor as a functional, if rudimentary, sentinel outpost. I crawled under the low-hanging branches of a tree that sprouted from the floor of the shelter and maneuvered into the dank confines of the smuggler’s den. Piles of old burlap sacks cushioned and insulated the floor. Each sack could hold about 50 pounds of compressed marijuana, and the skunky aroma of stale weed lingered in the air.
A Border Patrol helicopter zipped low through the canyon, jolting my attention. I peered through the cracks in the masonry shelter like a man sitting within a relic of the past, looking out upon the future. Far below me in the Altar Valley, the border wall protruded skyward from the soil as one more inanimate barrier in a desert full of obstacles.
Outside the shelter, the arms of the yucca plants waved in the breeze as the thunderclouds rolled in from the southwest. The summer rains were nearly here, and the footpaths that traversed this desert like so many branching arteries would soon rage with rusty red water. The rains would scrape the slopes clean and push the cans and bottles and backpacks down the talus hillsides and into the arroyos. To some, this flotsam was the product of generations of un-Americans polluting our lands and disregarding our laws. To others, this was the debris of a humanitarian crisis that demanded attention. Along this border, even the garbage was political.
A five-strand barbed-wire cattle fence was all that existed to designate the U.S.-Mexico border along this sliver of southern Arizona. A pot of stew bubbled on an open fire in Mexico, and the air smelled of horse manure, beans, and campfire smoke. I exchanged nods with a group of strangers on the other side of the line. They wore Disney T-shirts and carried Marvel Comics backpacks. The men studied my boots with envy, the boys admired the pistol strapped to my hip, and the women looked me in the eye with defiance. It was always this way.
Eventually, an elderly man broke the silence as he extended a bottle of tequila in my direction.
“No, gracias,” I replied. We shared an uneasy laugh.
There was no point in pleading with them to turn back. As the guardian of a nearly 2,000-mile border, I was not about to change any minds. Instead, I warned them that they would need more water. They thought they were prepared, but they were not. They were not ready for the thugs and thieves and rapists who lurked in the Arizona desert. They were not properly dressed for nature’s temperature swings from day to night. I had retrieved the corpses of other border crossers who had also believed that they were ready.
The old man agreed about the water. But I could not account for the severity of the world they were leaving behind. They shared the common misfortune of having been born on the wrong side of a line in the sand, and they had taken it upon themselves to remedy this. There was no turning back.
“You will wait for us?” he asked. His English was good.
“Yes,” I said.
“But we are people just like you. You will not let us go?” He looked around, holding his hands in the air to emphasize the secrecy of our bargain. “Nobody will ever know.”
He was right. Nobody would ever know.
I tried to read his intentions in the lines of his leathery face. I could hardly fault him for wanting a chance at a better life, but I had my own allegiances.
“No,” I repeated. I would not let them go.
He stood there quietly, perhaps pondering why the world had to be this way, then nodded like a man who had accepted his fate with grace.
“Good luck,” he concluded, raising his bottle once more.
“Y a ti también,” I replied.
The author on patrol near the small town of Sasabe, Arizona, in 2008: “As the guardian of a 2,000-mile border, I was not about to change any minds.” (Courtesy of the author)
Several months later, I crouched behind a boulder just north of the borderline and listened as migrants prayed under a waning moon in Mexico. The red eyes of thermal-imaging surveillance towers north of the border scanned the horizon, and a surveillance drone glided overhead.
“Amen,” they said in unison.
The staples popped loose from the cattle fence, and the rusted barbed-wire creaked and moaned as it begrudgingly scraped along the wooden posts. Silhouettes crept north along the footpath and into a country that had already passed judgment on them. A human smuggler led the procession with confident, measured steps. A little girl came next, escorting a woman by the hand. Then a man who favored his right leg, followed by a boy straggling far behind. He kicked a rock that ricocheted and tumbled off the trail. Two women scolded him in hushed Spanish and urged him to walk faster. Somewhere farther up the canyon, a coyote—a four-legged one—cackled and howled as if amused by this ragtag procession.
Another agent with whom I was partnered, named Jack, ordered a group of young men and boys to remove their shoelaces so he wouldn’t have to handcuff them together. Anyone willing to run down the side of the mountain in unlaced shoes was welcome to try. The boys sat in front of us, and Jack told them to drink water or tequila or whatever they had with them. The night was young, and we were going to wait to see who else might emerge from the darkness.
One of the boys was interested in a pair of old shoes that had been tossed into the chaparral. He pulled them from the brush and studied the worn soles. He thought it over, then tossed the shoes back where he’d found them.
The young boy sitting next to me pointed to the south and told me that more migrants were coming. A few hours ago, he had passed a group of men and women, but no children. They seemed tired and were moving slowly. I thanked him for the detailed and unsolicited information. By his smile, I could tell that he had something else on his mind. I waited in silence until he could resist no longer.
“Hay trabajo con la migra?” he asked. He was looking for a job with the Border Patrol and assured me he was a valuable asset and a good worker. After all, he said, he already knew the good hiding spots.
I told him that I appreciated his enthusiasm, but unfortunately, he was too young and his citizenship status would be a problem for someone seeking employment with U.S. Customs and Border Protection.
“Well, hold on now,” said Jack with a chuckle. “Seems to me he’s got the spirit. Hear him out, Lenihan.”
I ignored Jack and turned my attention to a third boy who was drinking from a jug of filthy water he had likely refilled at a cattle tank. I told him to dump it and promised I would give him a fresh bottle back at the truck. He examined his container of bacteria-infested sludge, trying to understand what the problem was, before regretfully dumping the water onto the parched earth.
We waited for more than an hour and finally decided to call it a night when one of the boys started snoring. I had to kick his foot more than once to keep him from giving away our position. Jack led the procession down the mountain, while I took up the rear. In the middle of our descent, a helicopter abruptly banked over the ridgeline and headed south for the border. My young would-be recruit stumbled over the loose scree as he craned his neck to see the chopper fade into the night, awed by the mechanized thunder of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.
When we reached the base of the mountain, we loaded the men and boys into our trucks, and I handed them a crate of fresh water jugs. We then dropped them off at a prisoner transport bus that was idling along the side of State Route 286. The boys shook my hand one by one, and the young recruit gave me a salute. I wished them luck and said I’d be seeing them all again soon, I was sure. One boy winked, another flashed a thumbs-up.
The Tucson processing center is a temporary holding facility for recently arrested undocumented immigrants. In the sally port, private security guards pat down migrants, place their belongings in cubbies, and escort them inside the processing facility. Sometimes phones ring in the cubby area—parents looking for their children; smugglers coordinating their drop sites.
The interior of the processing center had the feel of an underground bunker. The holding cells lined the periphery and faced inward upon a central control room known as “the bubble.” A stainless-steel counter covered with computers, web cameras, and digital fingerprinting machines encircled the bubble and served as the zone of interaction between agents and prisoners. Doors buzzed open and closed with an electric hum while rock music blared from a boom box above a printer. On this occasion, there had to have been more than 70 people in the various holding cells—Mexicans, Guatemalans, Hondurans, Salvadorans, even a few Chinese at the end of a journey from across the Pacific Ocean—and the stench of soiled clothes and fetid bodies hung heavily in the air. The detainees’ eyes were swollen and bloodshot from dehydration. Many hadn’t eaten for days and chewed silently on government-issued cheeseburgers and crackers. Others slept on the benches and floors of their cells.
A door buzzed, and a boy walked cheerfully across the processing center with his mother. He wore a pair of shiny sneakers that lit up in a display of red pulsing lights with every step—not the best choice of footwear for a journey that required hiding from federal agents at night. A woman, her beauty in stark contrast with her surroundings, convulsed with gentle sobs in her cell. In another cell, two young brothers stared through the window with an unsettling vacancy in their eyes. Some of these people would successfully claim asylum and be allowed to stay, but most would be sent back home.
A little girl with skin as white as my own walked freely from cell to cell. No one else was allowed such freedom of movement, but my fellow agents seemed almost grateful for the girl’s uplifting presence. Several agents looked up from their computer terminals to watch me hand her a package of crackers. A horrific stench of stale sweat and excrement suddenly overwhelmed my senses, and I lurched back. The room erupted in laughter as the little girl thanked me and scampered back to her cell. She handed the crackers to an indigenous woman sitting on a bench. A Hispanic agent seated at the computer terminal next to mine watched this take place.
“Her mom?” I asked.
“Nope,” he replied, shuffling the forms on the counter. He seemed irritated by my curiosity, but then explained that the girl had come alone in search of her parents somewhere on the East Coast. The other prisoners were strangers she met along the way.
“She looks white,” I said absentmindedly.
The agent stopped typing. “She’s from Guatemala,” he said. “You don’t have to be brown to be illegal, bro.”
An agent standing to my right pulled a latex exam glove from a box and stretched the opening over his head. He exhaled through his nose to inflate the glove. The result was a tall, lanky clown of a man wearing an absurd cockscomb. He danced a jig as the latex fingers flopped from side to side. The prisoners exploded into applause, and the children giggled and pointed. The agent took the glove off his head and bowed theatrically while his audience called for an encore.
The jeep trail into the mountains was trenched and gutted, making progress interminably slow. The engine roared and the suspension grunted as the branches of overgrown mesquite trees ripped paint off the doors. Twenty minutes later, I parked near an abandoned mine shaft and stepped out to stretch and study a trail that climbed from a ravine to the south, crossed the road in front of me, and headed up the hill to a saddle a couple hundred yards to the north. The soil on the trail was a mosaic of sneaker and boot prints, sharp and fresh.
Someone yelled from down the road, and I turned to see a man jogging toward me. He waved his arms in frantic arcs, then pointed back into the ravine and spoke in rapid Spanish with an awkward, grimacing smile. His brother was very sick, he said, and needed urgent medical attention. As he pleaded for help, I studied his footwear—the first thing to check when judging a man’s intentions in this desert. Smugglers tended to wear heavy-duty boots whereas migrants usually wore street shoes. I grabbed my rifle from the truck and followed cautiously behind the stranger. Something didn’t feel right.
As we walked, he told me that he had crossed the border with his brother and his cousin in search of work. Later, they had linked up with another group of migrants in the desert and paid a coyote to guide them. When his brother fell ill, the coyote continued on with the others and abandoned his family.
We turned a bend in the rocky canyon and found an elderly man cradling a young man in his arms in the shade of a mesquite tree. They were both muscular and rugged with the leathery skin of men who had spent their lives outdoors. The introductions began as my guide turned and shook my hand with respectful formality. His name was Rogelio. His sick brother, Roberto, lay in the arms of Miguel, their cousin. They thanked me profusely for coming and explained that Roberto had fallen ill two hours ago. Piles of corn tortillas, baggies of homemade salsa, carne seca, and jugs of fresh water lay scattered about.
I keyed my radio and contacted the dispatch center to request a medical helicopter. As I waited for a reply, I realized a helicopter would not be able to land here. Our best bet was the flat turnabout where I had parked.
The radio buzzed again: “Air support en route.”
I slung my rifle over my back and grabbed Roberto’s legs as Miguel and Rogelio together lifted his torso. Roberto vomited black bile onto his chest, which rolled off his rib cage and onto the arms of his brother and cousin. Tired from struggling through the sand, I called a break. We rolled the young man on his side to clear the vomit from his throat. Then I slipped my arms under Roberto’s back and locked wrists with Rogelio, forming a seat, with Miguel supporting Roberto’s head and shoulders. The bile rolled onto my arms now, too, and I pretended to ignore it.
My backpack and rifle strap pinched the muscles in my neck as we grunted on through the dry heat. Rogelio’s sweaty wrists were slipping from my grasp, so I changed my grip, clasping Rogelio’s hands in my own. I could feel his coarse, calloused fingers locked like a vice onto my smooth hands. We shared nothing in common, yet when I looked at Rogelio’s blanched face, I felt as if the man in our arms were my brother—as if Rogelio’s loss would be mine, too. Then my radio began to crackle and buzz on my shoulder, and I was a stranger once again, saddened and scared by the intimacy of death.
Roberto vomited, this time followed by a thin trickle of bright red blood from the corners of his mouth. Reaching the road, we placed him in the shade of a mesquite tree, and I sprinted to the truck for a CPR facemask. By the time I returned, his chest had stopped moving. I sealed the plastic barrier over his mouth and exhaled into the young man’s lungs. A noise like water draining from a bathtub gurgled in his throat. His right eye had turned red, bubbles frothed in the corners of his mouth. I checked Roberto’s pulse and could feel nothing but the deceptive drum of my own heart pumping blood to the tip of my finger.
I yelled, “When did he stop moaning?”
Rogelio shook his head. He said his brother was all right, he just needed to get to a hospital. Rogelio’s voice cracked feebly, but he continued to smile at me as if he still believed that I could make it all better—as if America in all its glory, wealth, and power could fix the brokenness inside his dying brother. But it could not.
That night at a bar in central Tucson, my fellow agents hugged me and punched me in the shoulder. They bought me shots of liquor, called me “brother,” and assured me that this was all just part of the border game. I thought about Rogelio, who no longer had a brother, and repeated their words—it was all just part of the game.
The next day, I received a phone call from my supervisor. He was a good person, like most of my fellow agents, and I appreciated his concern. He informed me that upon further investigation, Rogelio, Miguel, and Roberto were not migrants but drug mules. They were related but had lied to me about everything else. He said this as if it changed everything. I thanked him for his consoling words and pretended they made a difference.
I stood in silence next to Alejandro, watching the twilight hour come and go. For a fleeting moment, our bodies cast two soft and opposing shadows—one from the residue of the sun over the hills to the west and another from the rising moon in the east. I studied the Mexican seated at my feet, so far from his home in a distant village. Technically, I suppose, he was my prisoner, but considering the circumstances, he seemed more like a fellow companion in a desert hostile to us both.
Like Alejandro, almost all of the migrants I arrested were short and dark-skinned, indigenous people from the south of Mexico and Central America. Many didn’t speak English or Spanish, seemed unsure of how to hold a pen, and signed their arrest paperwork with an X. If we were in the middle of nowhere, and we usually were, we shared whatever snacks we had while waiting for transportation. I traded protein bars for dried jerky, Gatorade for spiced candy. I talked with Mexicans about the cathedral in downtown Morelia and the street food of Mexico City. I bantered with Guatemalans about the vibrant Chichicastenango market and the blue waters of Lake Atitlán—places I had visited as a tourist. Sometimes the detainees would forget themselves while telling idealized stories of their families and villages and homes, as if everything was so much more beautiful in their memories that they couldn’t remember why they had left.
Alejandro didn’t appear regretful, just resigned. He told me of his home and his children and asked me if I had children of my own. I shook my head, and he paused, perhaps struggling to comprehend how a lawman who might be faced with taking a life knew nothing of creating it.
Alejandro pointed toward the mountains to the south.
“Chupacabra,” he said.
I looked into the pool of blackness.
“Also, there is La Llorona,” he added. “She roams the desert looking for her dead children. Sometimes you can hear her screams.”
“I know the story,” I said, “but I thought she drowned her children.”
“No, no, officer! She doesn’t kill them!”
I spat into the grass and looked at the little old man. “They tell ghost stories a bit different up here, I suppose.”
“Bueno,” he said, and we agreed to disagree.
Then he said that the souls of many dead Mexicans roamed these borderlands. You could hear them in the night.
It occurred to me how very differently we saw the landscape. To me, the desert was beautiful but defined mainly by its features—trees, cacti, dirt, and snakes. To Alejandro, it was filled with fateful significance. The souls of other Mexicans, the ones that hadn’t survived the journey (maybe some of his own family members) were still out there. Maybe that was why I found him sitting on the side of the road—his destiny was beyond his control, so why fight it?
Alejandro turned and sat facing Mexico as if in meditation, legs folded and palms up. The creases in his hands stood out in the moonlight like the lines of a topographic map. In the dimness, my own hands appeared to be the same color as his, and I imagined the old man I would become. Some fragment of a memory from long ago—a nostalgic feeling that I could not quite put my finger on—swelled in my throat.
In that moment, wrestling with the cognitive dissonance that plagued my mind, I did something out of character: I asked Alejandro if he thought I had a right to patrol the border. He took a moment to mull it over, then said, yes, I did have the right. Then he quietly asked me if I thought he had the right to seek a better life than that which was he was born into. I told him he did. We left the contradictions of our shared existence at that—two righteous and justified men finding consensus on a border that has no patience for moral ambivalence.
A processing center near McAllen, Texas, holds migrants who were captured by the Border Patrol while trying to cross into the United States illegally. (Alamy)
Every day that I spent patrolling the border was a reminder of how arbitrary my good fortune in this world really is—how but for the circumstances of my birth, I myself might easily be the one trying to sneak across that line in the sand. By July 2011, I had seen enough and turned in my badge and gun. I left the Border Patrol because I was exhausted by the tragic stories and the damaged people; and because the more I saw, the less affected I was by events that had once seemed shocking. Returning to civilian life, I began to reflect on my years in the desert. Strangely, the images of traumatized men, women, and children bothered me more in my memory than they ever had in the moment. Time does not always blunt the edges of past experience. Sometimes it sharpens them.
Soon I entered a graduate program in Latin American studies. On the first day of a class on immigration and education policy, the professor asked us to introduce ourselves and explain why we were there. The young man to my right confessed that he had crossed the border illegally as a little boy with his family. He said the guilt of that day had weighed on him ever since. He had joined the military to give back to his adopted country and to repent for his violation of its laws. But even then, he never felt American enough to be accepted by the native born. He hoped this class would help him understand the sense of rejection that would not go away.
I thought of Rogelio and his dying brother, Roberto. I thought of Alejandro’s ghost stories and the old man offering me a sip of his tequila across the fence. I thought of the little girl running through the detention center with crackers in her hand and the boys giving me the thumbs-up as they stepped onto a prisoner transport bus. I would never be able to look at the border the same way again.
Before I met those people, the world had seemed more logical and more just. I had always understood that life could be brutal, but I naïvely assumed that there was an underlying moral coherence to the law. Now I’m not so sure. I continue to believe that countries must control their borders and enforce immigration laws, but I also know I would not hesitate to cross a border illegally if it meant reunifying my family, fleeing from violence, or finding a job that payed a livable wage.
Borders are necessary, but they are also cruel. As mechanisms of exclusion, they are designed first and foremost to protect those within and only secondarily to address the legitimate concerns of those without. Where do we draw the line between our right as Americans to protect ourselves and our duty as human beings to treat others as we would hope to be treated in similar circumstances?
My answer is that our obligation to help those less fortunate than ourselves should only be circumscribed by the limits of our capacity to do so. But that is, of course, a deceptively simple statement. There is no universal consensus as to the harms and benefits of immigration. As a consequence, there is no agreement as to our nation’s ability to absorb and assimilate new arrivals. But there is one thing I know for sure: the young military veteran who shared his story with my class should never have felt any less than fully American.
Border policy is not sacred or immutable. We should continue to mold our laws to more accurately reflect our values. And as our nation looks to create a more nuanced and informed approach to immigration and security, it will do us good to remember that most undocumented immigrants have the potential—given the chance—to become proud, productive, and ambitious Americans. Perhaps that is what I learned from my five years patrolling the line—all too often our fear of the other is an act of self-defeat more than an act of self-preservation. With a closed border comes the responsibility to keep an open mind, lest we fall into the trap of believing our own salvation is through a Fortress America mentality. It is not.
As long as it is the will of the American public to have laws restricting who enters this country, and when, and how, then let those laws be made and enforced with empathy and respect for those who are guilty of little more than aspiring, without permission, to be a part of this country of immigrants. Anything less is a betrayal of the great American undertaking that draws those tired, poor, huddled masses to come here in the first place.
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