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‘She’s the right person’

Gloria Chavez, interim Border Patrol chief for the El Paso sector, on Tuesday visits the 1-25 highway checkpoint near Hatch, where agent Yesenia León, right, checks vehicles. (Angela Kocherga/Albuquerque Journal)

Gloria Chavez, interim Border Patrol chief for the El Paso sector, on Tuesday visits the 1-25 highway checkpoint near Hatch, where agent Yesenia León, right, checks vehicles. (Angela Kocherga/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal

LAS CRUCES – When Gloria Chavez took over as the interim Border Patrol chief for the El Paso sector, she quickly enlisted the help of the leadership team and rank-and-file agents to improve conditions in the troubled sector, which includes all of New Mexico.

“One of my biggest concerns was the agents and what we put them through this last year,” Chavez said.

The Journal interviewed the interim Border Patrol chief at the busiest highway checkpoint in the sector on Interstate 25 near Hatch.

She reflected on the challenges ahead at the end of a tumultuous fiscal year. An estimated 182,000 people were taken into custody in the El Paso sector during fiscal year 2019, which ended Sept. 30, up from 31,000 the previous year. These are preliminary numbers. The official tally is pending.

“That is a huge increase, over 500% increase, on the apprehensions that we’re seeing here,” Chavez said.

As migration from Central America reached record highs, the Border Patrol became the public face of the Trump administration’s crackdown on migrants, which included myriad policies designed to deter them, including family separations. El Paso was the site of a pilot program before the zero tolerance policy was expanded to the entire border and later halted after a public outcry.

Border Patrol agents this year struggled to care for the crush of families and unaccompanied children in custody. The El Paso sector was thrust into the national spotlight because of “dangerous overcrowding” documented by the Office of the Inspector General. And lawyers charged with checking on standards for minors in custody said they interviewed children held at the Clint Border Patrol station east of El Paso who were hungry and dirty, and some kids said they were babysitting the youngest migrants. Border Patrol has disputed the allegations.

In March, families were held in an open air pen under an international bridge in El Paso as the head of U.S. Customs and Border Protection held a news conference nearby announcing CBP had reached “the breaking point.”

Months earlier in the fall of 2018, Border Patrol agents said they had sounded the alarm about the deteriorating conditions in holding cells designed for single adults that were crammed with parents and young children. Agents detailed their concerns in interviews with the Journal for a story in July.

The agents’ union said complaints “fell on deaf ears.”

Overwhelmed agents said they didn’t have the tools, training or facilities to handle the influx of parents with babies and toddlers, or very young children and teens arriving on their own in groups brought to the border by smugglers.

Three days after the story was published, Border Patrol officials announced El Paso Sector Chief Aaron Hull was being temporarily assigned to Detroit. Chavez was brought in as interim chief July 28. A month earlier, Mexico sent thousands of national guard troops to the border to stop migrants from reaching the U.S., and the Trump administration ramped up the migrant protection protocol forcing asylum seekers to wait in Mexico. The number of crossings had declined sharply over the summer.

“I did not experience the crisis at its peak like Chief Hull did,” Chavez said. “I give all the credit to him, and I give all the credit to the men and women of the sector who lived thorough that every day.”

The new chief wants to use the current lull in crossings to prepare for what may come next. She expects the new processing center in El Paso to open in early December. Combined with another temporary facility designed for families, there will be space for 1,500 migrants while they are in Border Patrol custody.

“We should ensure those folks are well-cared for,” Chavez said. “In that area we should be getting an A plus every day.”

At the same time, she’s focused on helping agents who have spent more than a year coping with the humanitarian crisis “stay resilient” and prevent burnout. Chavez has made it a point to visit the Border Patrol stations throughout the sector to meet agents in the field at their daily briefings to personally thank them for all they did during the crisis.

“She’s got a positive cloud around her, which gives us a lot of hope at least on the union side,” said Carlos Favela, vice president of the local union representing 1,400 agents. “She’s more engaging, more concerned as to what the agents in the field are going through and what they need to do as far as the mission. Also as far as the resources that they need to do the job. She seems to be very conscious of that.”

Gloria Chavez, interim Border Patrol chief for the El Paso sector, talks with agents working at the busy 1-25 highway checkpoint near Hatch. Chavez was assigned to lead the El Paso sector at the end of July. She said improving conditions for agents in the field is a top priority. (Angela Kocherga/Albuquerque Journal)

Gloria Chavez, interim Border Patrol chief for the El Paso sector, talks with agents working at the busy 1-25 highway checkpoint near Hatch. Chavez was assigned to lead the El Paso sector at the end of July. She said improving conditions for agents in the field is a top priority. (Angela Kocherga/Albuquerque Journal)

During her visit to the I-25 checkpoint, Chavez greeted Border Patrol agents and was soon surrounded by a handful of men who smiled as they listened to their new interim chief. She listened to them as well.

She has an easygoing nature and openness but is also a tough and effective leader, according to those who have watched Chavez rise through the ranks in the male-dominated Border Patrol, where only 8% of agents are women.

“Everything she’s done, she’s always done well. She’s worked hard and to boot she’s a nice person. It’s a good combo,” said Victor Manjarrez Jr., who served as Border Patrol chief in El Paso and Tucson before retiring in 2011. He is now director of the Center for Law and Human Behavior at the University of Texas at El Paso.

He first met Chavez as a supervisor when she was a “journeyman agent” starting out in the San Diego sector in the mid-1990s.

During the past 24 years in the Border Patrol, Chavez has held several leadership positions, serving as chief on the northern border in Spokane, deputy chief of operations at the national level in Washington, D.C., and chief of the busy El Centro sector in California in 2018 before being sent to El Paso.

“She’s the right person. At the right time at the right place,” Manjarrez said.

Her decisive management style was on display as the chief worked with her leadership team to reopen highway checkpoints that had been closed since the end of March.

“Realizing our checkpoints had been down so long was a critical concern for me,” Chavez said. The checkpoints are set up within 100 miles of the border to detect human and drug smuggling as well as immigration violations. Agents assigned to the checkpoints had been sent to help process the record number of migrant families and children arriving at the border.

“I was very pleased with the robust discussion among the patrol agents in charge of this sector,” Chavez said.

She gave them two hours to come up with a plan. She approved the plan, and the following Monday the five highway checkpoints in New Mexico and one in west Texas reopened.

Chavez said she does not know how long she’ll be interim chief but is happy to get her first assignment in Texas since joining the Border Patrol. She was raised on the Texas border in Brownsville by “traditional” Latino parents.

“I’m very proud of my parents and my upbringing. I think it has really helped me understand a lot of the complexities that come and challenges with this position or this job in the Border Patrol,” she said.

She was recruited to join the Border Patrol by a woman agent and now encourages other young agents to seek leadership positions. “They inspire me to continue doing what I’m doing. It is because of them I’m here doing the job of chief,” Chavez said.

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