Article - Summer 2019

Rape Trees and Rosary Beads

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Field notes of a Border Patrol agent

By Brendan Lenihan | June 3, 2019
A U.S. Border Patrol 
agent arrests an undocumented migrant who was caught while trying to cross the Rio Grande River near Roma, Texas. (Alamy)
A U.S. Border Patrol agent arrests an undocumented migrant who was caught while trying to cross the Rio Grande River near Roma, Texas. (Alamy)

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.

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