Editor’s note: When the numbers of asylum seekers spiked along New Mexico’s border, Border Patrol agents found their job duties transformed from law enforcement to caretakers. Today, several of them describe the humanitarian crisis from their viewpoint.
Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal
SUNLAND PARK – As the number of migrant families in U.S. Border Patrol custody reached a record high in May, Border Patrol agents said, they discovered a shortcut designed to speed up processing.
Medical screening forms appeared to have been filled out ahead of time and signed, indicating migrants had been “cleared to travel” and didn’t need medication even before they had undergone any medical screening. The agents said the only blank space on the form was where they were supposed to fill in the migrant’s name.
“The agents were the first ones to say, ‘Hey, you can’t be doing this,’ ” said Carlos Favela, vice president of the local union that represents 1,400 Border Patrol agents in the El Paso sector.
The previously completed forms were removed in mid-June, according to the union, after it notified El Paso sector “headquarters” of the practice and raised concerns that bypassing medical screenings posed a risk to migrants, agents and the public.
Border Patrol officials declined to discuss the forms specifically but insisted that all migrants are screened by medical personnel. The concern over the forms was one of several issues raised by Border Patrol agents during interviews with the Journal the past couple of weeks.
The agents said conditions have improved as Border Patrol streamlined processing. Also, the numbers of migrants arriving declined sharply last month as Mexico sent troops to the U.S. border, helping prevent many Central Americans and other migrants from crossing into the U.S. In the El Paso sector in June, 13,508 families and 1,311 children on their own were taken into custody compared with 29,815 family units and 3,256 unaccompanied children in May.
“Now it’s flowing a lot better,” said an agent at the Las Cruces station.
But the agents remained frustrated by what they called dangerous overcrowding for months, insisting that they had sounded warnings as early as last October about the deteriorating conditions when the number of asylum seekers spiked – but to little avail.
The Journal interviewed half a dozen agents across the El Paso sector, which includes New Mexico, seeking their views on what has occurred along the border the past eight months. The agents asked that their names not be used because they do not have permission to talk to the media and fear they could lose their jobs for speaking out. The Journal also interviewed former agents, who were willing to be identified and are close to those still working.
The agents described overcrowded holding cells, filthy conditions in overflow tents and migrants left out in the elements at various Border Patrol stations throughout West Texas and New Mexico.
“At first it started out just the holding cells,” an agent said. “Then it turned to outside and tents and bigger tents.”
Regarding the medical screening forms, Favela, of the agents’ union, said it’s not known how many of the forms were used or at which of the 11 Border Patrol stations. A form obtained by the Journal had yet to have a migrant’s name filled in, but the departure screening section was circled and signed by what appeared to be a certified medical assistant at the Lordsburg station.
El Paso Sector Border Patrol chief Aaron Hull said he is not sure whether the issue was brought to his attention, but “we are always looking for ways to do things efficiently without compromising any of the quality that we do.”
The Border Patrol – in response to a question about the forms – said, “100% of the people who are brought into our facilities are provided a medical screening. If there is further action needed, the medical personnel on sight will refer them out to local medical facilities.”
The embattled Border Patrol has faced criticism for the treatment of migrants crammed into holding cells, but Border Patrol agents have also had to cope with deteriorating conditions on the job.
In the El Paso sector, the agents said they became “babysitters” and “detention officers,” jobs they were not trained to do. Border enforcement duties took a back seat to dealing with the humanitarian crisis as agents were pulled off patrol to do processing full-time.
As the president and Democrats in Congress bickered in Washington over funding for the border wall, agents in the field said they were left to cope on their own.
“Right now border security is a political pawn, where everyone is fighting. Everyone is blaming one another,” said Victor M. Manjarrez Jr., who served as Border Patrol chief in El Paso from 2007 to 2010 and was chief in the Tucson sector for a year before retiring in 2011.
“Politics has a big impact on the agents,” added Manjarrez, who is now associate director for the Center for Law and Human Behavior at the University of Texas at El Paso.
“In 2020 I’m actually hoping for relief. Right now it’s so toxic that nothing is getting done,” including long-term solutions like immigration reform, he said.
Jimmy Stack, a longtime union leader who retired from the Border Patrol in 2016 after nearly 30 years, still keeps in touch with agents in the field, especially in New Mexico, where he lives.
He said Border Patrol should not be holding migrant families for weeks on end, which was frequently occurring earlier this year.
“We are not trained for this. We are a law enforcement organization. Just like any other law enforcement agency, we’re not trained to be HHS (Health and Human Services) or social workers – we’re not,” Stack said.
Agents said they had to “scramble” to cope with the day-to-day overcrowding issues, and Border Patrol leadership was slow to respond as the number of migrant families and children arriving at the border soared.
“We blew this whistle back in October, November of last year, and we feel that our words have fallen on deaf ears only,” Favela said.
“We’re not happy about the influx, not being able to provide the care, not being able to transfer them over as soon as we can, or not having enough people to work the line or work the checkpoints,” Hull said. “No one’s going to say they’re happy about that, but I give the agents credit as professionals for working through this and doing it with dignity and continuing to do the kind of things that brings them positive recognition.”
But some agents said they struggled to do their jobs as the number of migrants in custody continued to grow. The agents who talked to the Journal are assigned to a variety of Border Patrol stations large and small in the El Paso sector. Several are veteran agents, including one with nearly 18 years on the job who said he “bleeds green,” referring to the color of the Border Patrol uniform.
Trying to help
All expressed concern not just for themselves but for the migrants in their custody, including a veteran agent who in March witnessed 400 migrants “standing outside in the sun with mylar blankets for shade because nobody ever thought these people are going to be standing on pavement, in the sun. It’s hot, the desert. How are we going to care for them?” he asked.
He and others tried to figure out quick solutions to shelter migrants but ran into red tape. “We just can’t go into a hardware store and buy everything we want. There’s a process.”
Hull said the agency had to comply with government contracting rules, which takes time, but later the agency did hire “monitors” to care for migrant children, as well as crews for cleaning and food service.
Each Border Patrol station has temporary holding cells that officials have repeatedly said were designed for single adults and not large numbers of families, much less children. Border Patrol was forced to keep people in custody much longer than the 72-hour guideline when Immigration and Customs Enforcement and Health and Human Services did not provide an alternative, according to officials. During this time Border Patrol also released thousands of parents with their children into various communities. Many of those families, with the help of churches and volunteers, then traveled to meet up with relatives while they waited for their immigration hearings.
“They just kept saying we’re not a detention facility. We’re not a detention facility. That’s what we are right now,” one agent said.
The “dangerously overcrowded” conditions for adults in the El Paso area were confirmed in a recent Office of Inspector General report based on visits to five Border Patrol facilities and two ports of entry in El Paso and southern New Mexico during the week of May 6. Investigators with the internal watchdog for the Department of Homeland Security noted several examples, including a cell with a “capacity for 12 that held 76 detainees.”
“The morale is in the gutter. It’s nonexistent. Right now we’re having a huge increase in our retirements,” an agent assigned to a station in northeast El Paso told the Journal. The El Paso sector has 2,400 agents and 300 vacancies.
The agent was often told to pick up migrant families after they turned themselves in at the border seeking asylum. He said as a parent of a toddler, it was especially difficult seeing the children after they arrived.
“You look down, you see these little baby girls, little baby boys. They have no clue where they’re at or what’s going on. You can just by looking at them as a parent, see they haven’t probably been changed in 24 hours. When was their last meal? Who knows?” he said.
Agents without parenting experience had to learn on the job.
“Now the service wants you to put a car seat, put five car seats in a van, strap it in correctly, go pick up some children that are unaccompanied, transport them to another station while also caring for them. And they can’t walk because they’re 2- or 3-year-olds, because they’re mixed ages. There’s no training,” the agent said.
Unaccompanied children include those who arrive at the border with a relative who cannot prove they are a legal guardian at the time so they are separated until HHS tracks down a parent. But agents have also on occasion found very young children alone in large groups of migrants that they suspect were sent across the border by smugglers. Most of the children have a parent in the United States. Five migrant children and one teenager have died in U.S. custody.
Another single agent who does not have children learned how to “prepare a bottle” so mothers in a holding cell could feed their babies.
Several agents said they made frequent trips to grocery stores to pick up formula, baby food and diapers as well as snacks they thought might appeal to the children and families, including “Oreos, Cheerios, Famous Amos cookies, White Castle hamburgers, Hot Pockets.” Border Patrol now has supplies delivered to some stations.
Other agents brought in toys for the children.
Favela, a father of four, said it’s hard for agents not to think of their own children when they see the migrant children, especially in holding facilities. He said that during a visit to the Clint Border Patrol station, where unaccompanied children were housed, he read messages in Spanish written on cots by some children to encourage others who were arriving.
“Some are really well-versed, like little poets,” he said. Other children wrote, ” ‘Hang in there. Stay tough. This jail is only temporary,’ or ‘I pray for you. You’ll be OK. You’ll be out soon,’ ” he said.
Maintaining sanitary conditions in some holding facilities and tents was extremely difficult because of the overcrowding, agents said.
One said his workplace “smelled like a dump all day.” The stench was so strong many agents chose to shower and change out of their uniforms at work to avoid bringing anything home to their families.
Several agents said they got sick on the job during the past several months. “I got sick twice. You can’t help but get sick. You’re right there with everybody,” one agent said.
Safety was a concern for others in overcrowded tents that housed single adults where tensions were running high and migrants outnumbered agents.
“Sometimes they can get really angry to the point where they can get confrontational. And they’ve gotten confrontational in the past, so even the agents are concerned about a potential riot or uproar from the tents from the people in the tents,” Favela said.
Another concern was migrants in the overcrowded single-adult area fighting with each other.
“There for a while they were making shanks out of the toothbrushes,” he said.
Border Patrol broke up groups and separated some migrants by “demographics,” including Cubans, Favela said.
Agents are concerned the growing tension and frustration among both migrants and agents could lead to violence.
“What worries me is a tragedy, an unnecessary tragedy, will occur. Someone will get hurt or killed,” Stack said. The OIG report also listed violence as a concern.
The frustration on the job has spilled over onto social media, prompting an investigation into secret Facebook groups with 9,500 current and former agents as members. Some posts included offensive remarks, images and memes of Hispanic women serving in Congress. One post with a photo of the bodies of a father and 2-year old daughter who drowned in the Rio Grande questioned whether it was “staged.” At least 62 current agents are under investigation and could face disciplinary action, including losing their jobs. Chief Hull declined to say if any agents in El Paso are under investigation, but he said those who violated policy or standards would be held accountable.
Agents said while the flow of migrants at the border has “slowed down” in the last few weeks, they anticipate it will pick up again.
“It’s the calm before the storm,” one said. “We all know it’s not gone.”
Agents said they hope Border Patrol will use the lull to do some training and plan for the possible next wave of migrants who need care.
“We’re going to do our job because that’s what we’re here to do. But it doesn’t mean that if it’s not right we’re just going to be quiet about it. We need to make it better, and we need to do it to the best of our ability,” a veteran agent said.
Angela Kocherga reported in collaboration with Alfredo Corchado of The Dallas Morning News.