Overwhelmed by desperate migrants and criticised for mistreating the people in their care, many agents have grown defensive, insular and bitter.
One Border Patrol agent in Tucson, Arizona, said he had been called a "sellout" and a "kid killer." In El Paso, Texas, an agent said he and his colleagues in uniform had avoided eating lunch together except at certain "BP friendly" restaurants because "there's always the possibility of them spitting in your food." An agent in Arizona quit last year out of frustration. "Caging people for a nonviolent activity," he said, "started to eat away at me."
For decades, the Border Patrol was a largely invisible security force. Along the southwestern border, its work was dusty and lonely. Between adrenaline-fueled chases, the shells of sunflower seeds piled up outside the windows of their idling pickup trucks. Agents called their slow-motion specialty "laying in" — hiding in the desert and brush for hours, to wait and watch, and watch and wait.
Two years ago, when President Donald Trump entered the White House with a pledge to close the door on illegal immigration, all that changed. The nearly 20,000 agents of the Border Patrol became the leading edge of one of the most aggressive immigration crackdowns ever imposed in the United States.
No longer were they a quasi-military organisation tasked primarily with intercepting drug runners and chasing smugglers. Their new focus was to block and detain hundreds of thousands of migrant families fleeing violence and extreme poverty — herding people into tents and cages, seizing children and sending their parents to jail, trying to spot those too sick to survive in the densely packed processing facilities along the border.
Ten migrants have died since September in the custody of the Border Patrol and its parent agency, Customs and Border Protection.
In recent months, the extreme overcrowding on the border has begun to ease, with migrants turned away and made to wait in Mexico while their asylum claims are processed. Last week, the Supreme Court allowed the administration to close the door further, at least for now, by requiring migrants from countries outside Mexico to show they have already been denied refuge in another country before applying for asylum.
The Border Patrol, whose agents have gone from having one of the most obscure jobs in law enforcement to one of the most hated, is suffering a crisis in both mission and morale. Earlier this year, the disclosure of a private Facebook group where agents posted sexist and callous references to migrants and the politicians who support them reinforced the perception that agents often view the vulnerable people in their care with frustration and contempt.
Interviews with 25 current and former agents in Texas, California and Arizona — some conducted on the condition of anonymity so the agents could speak more candidly — paint a portrait of an agency in a political and operational quagmire. Overwhelmed through the spring and early summer by desperate migrants, many agents have grown defensive, insular and bitter.
The president of the agents union said he had received death threats. An agent in South Texas said some colleagues he knew were looking for other federal law enforcement jobs. One agent in El Paso told a retired agent he was so disgusted by scandals in which the Border Patrol has been accused of neglecting or mistreating migrants that he wanted the motto emblazoned on its green-and-white vehicles — "Honor First" — scratched off.
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"To have gone from where people didn't know much about us to where people actively hate us, it's difficult," said Chris Harris, who was an agent for 21 years and a Border Patrol union official until he retired in June 2018. "There's no doubt morale has been poor in the past, and it's abysmal now. I know a lot of guys just want to leave."
Eduardo Jacobo, an Agent in California's El Centro Sector: The difference between doing the job now and when I started is like night and day. Before, it was a rush of adrenaline when you caught people with drugs. You were doing more police stuff. Now it's humanitarian work. If you ask anybody about being in Border Patrol, they're playing a movie scene in their head, jumping into a burning building and saving people. Now, it means taking care of kids and giving them baby formula.
By and large, the agency has been a willing enforcer of the Trump administration's harshest immigration policies. In videos released last year, Border Patrol agents could be seen destroying water jugs left in a section of the Arizona desert where large numbers of migrants have been found dead.
Some of those who worked at the agency in earlier years said that it had changed over the last decade, and that an attitude of contempt toward migrants — the view that they are opportunists who brought on their own troubles and are undeserving of a warm welcome — is now the rule, not the exception.
"The intense criticism that is being directed at the Border Patrol is necessary and important because I do think that there's a culture of cruelty or callousness," said Francisco Cantú, a former agent who is the author of "The Line Becomes a River," a memoir about his time in the agency from 2008 to 2012. "There's a lack of oversight. There is a lot of impunity."
The Border Patrol was established in 1924. Early agents were recruited from the Texas Rangers and local sheriff's offices. They focused largely on Prohibition-era whiskey bootleggers, often supplying their own horses and saddles. Though horseback units still exist, the culture of the agency bears little resemblance to its past.
It has become a sprawling arm of Customs and Border Protection, the country's largest federal law enforcement agency, which is responsible for 11,200 km of America's northern and southern borders, 152,00 km of shoreline and 328 ports of entry. On a practical level, the Border Patrol's hubs along the Mexican border, known as sectors, operate in some ways as fiefs.
In border cities, sector chiefs become household names, delivering annual State of the Border speeches. In the 1990s, an El Paso sector chief, Silvestre Reyes, used his popularity to win a seat in Congress.
In El Paso and other border communities, becoming an agent has long been viewed as a ticket to the middle class. A starting agent with a high school diploma and no experience can expect to earn US$55,800 ($87,500), including overtime, climbing to US$100,000 ($157,000) in as few as four years.
But given the long, solitary work, often in punishing heat and far-flung locations, and a growing workload, the agency has had difficulty recruiting: It remains about 1,800 agents short of its earlier hiring targets.
Some trace the increasing bitterness and frustration among agents to 2014, when large numbers of migrant families, as well as unaccompanied children, began arriving at the border. Many agents said they weren't given the money or infrastructure to handle the emerging crisis. Desperate mothers and sick children had to be herded into fenced enclosures because there was nowhere else to put them.
Some agents blamed migrant parents for bringing their children into the mess. Their anger began building under President Barack Obama. Then, with Trump's election, it found a voice in the White House.
Trump "said it to us, he said it in public, 'I'm going to consider you guys, the union, the subject-matter experts on how we secure the border,'" said Harris, the former agent and Border Patrol union official from Southern California who retired last year. "We had never heard that from anyone before."
The private Facebook group, which was created in 2016 and had more than 9,000 members, became a forum for agents to vent about the increasingly thankless nature of their jobs and the failure of successive administrations to fully secure the border.
Some agents who were members of the group said the tone of the posts shifted after Trump's election, becoming raunchier and more politically tinged. A post mocked the death of a 16-year-old migrant while in custody at a Border Patrol station in Weslaco, Texas, with an image reading "Oh well." A member used an expletive to propose throwing burritos at two Latina congresswomen
An Agent in South Texas: What really pisses me off is that the agency knew about this group for a while. Those stories are true. There were patrol agents in charge on there. They knew it was wrong.
Most agents interviewed said a minority of those in the Facebook group were responsible for the most offensive posts.
Brandon Judd, President of the National Border Patrol Council, the Agents' Union: We have been pointed at with this broad brush and there are certain segments trying to make this out that all agents are bad and 'Here's the proof, look at these Facebook posts,' when really the vast majority of our agents are very good people.
In some ways, though, the posts reflected a culture that was long apparent in parts of the agency. For years, the Border Patrol has quietly tolerated racist terminology. Some agents refer to migrants as "wets," a shortened version of "wetbacks." Others call them "toncs."
"Tonc" may have originated from an acronym referring to unknown nationality, but that is not how it is widely understood these days. Jenn Budd, a former agent of six years who is now an outspoken critic, said a supervisor at her Border Patrol station in California had explained the term to her: "He said, 'It's the sound a flashlight makes when you hit a migrant in the head with it.'" All the agents interviewed by The Times concurred.
Josh Childress, a former agent in Arizona who quit in 2018 because the job had begun to wear him down, said the Facebook posts hinted at a deeper, darker problem in the agency's culture. "The jokes are not the problem," he said. "Treating people as if they aren't people is the problem."
Calexico, California, 120 miles east of San Diego in Southern California's agrarian Imperial Valley, offers a glimpse of the relationship between a border community and the agents. Hemmed in by rugged mountains, desolate desert and the Colorado River, the valley has an economy that revolves around seasonal farm jobs and government work. Temperatures top 110 degrees during the parched summer months.
About 800 Border Patrol agents work in the vast El Centro Sector, which runs about 70 miles across the Valley. They patrol on bikes and in their white vehicles in Calexico, whose downtown sits up against the rust-coloured bollards that separate the United States and Mexico.
When Trump visited the city in April to tout 3.7km of a new border barrier — a row of 10m tall, slender steel slats with pointed edges — Angel Esparza organised a binational unity march that drew 200 people. But he said the march was to protest Trump, not the Border Patrol.
Esparza has featured Border Patrol agents on the covers of two issues of Mi Calexico, a magazine that he produces and distributes sporadically in this town of 40,000.
"The Border Patrol agents are part of the community," he said.
Natalia Nunez, a College Student in Calexico, California: Being in the Border Patrol is a normal thing around here. I have three cousins who are agents. I have friends whose parents are agents. They aren't supposed to talk about it. I wonder how they can sleep at night if they have to lock up kids in cages like animals.
David Kim, the El Centro Sector's assistant chief patrol agent, is the son of a South Korean immigrant who worked for the Postal Service. He has been with the Border Patrol since 2000.
Asked about the agency's relationship with the community, he recalled the government shutdown that began in December 2018, when Trump was locked in a standoff with Congress over funding for an expanded border wall. Border Patrol agents, who were working without pay, were offered food vouchers by restaurants. Jujitsu academies and gyms offered free passes. Kim's chiropractor waived his copay.
Kim, seated in the sector headquarters building, went silent for about a minute as he talked about it. Tears rolled down his face. "The community," he said finally, "stepped up for the Border Patrol when we were furloughed."
But with the fraught atmosphere across the country over immigration policy, hostility can emerge even within agents' own families.
Brandon Judd, President of the National Border Patrol Council: I just had a relative four days ago send me one of the nastiest emails I've ever had in my life. How bad of people we are. How taxpayer dollars should not be used to abuse individuals.
Operating in communities that are often heavily Hispanic and quietly hostile to Trump's immigration agenda, the Border Patrol has become more openly political than at any time in its history.
Agents have nurtured a strong loyalty to the president, whom many of them see as the first chief executive who is serious about border security. The union endorsed Trump in 2016, a move that gave the Border Patrol a line of communication to the White House but has also created friction in Democrat-dominated border communities.
A 10-Year Veteran Agent in South Texas: I have personally not come across any agents that do not like Trump's positions on border security, on immigration. Hispanic, Latino, black, white — it doesn't matter the origin of the agents, they all have a strong border-security mentality. So they love what Trump brings to the table. What they hate, what is detrimental, is the complete opposite feeling from the Democratic side.
Democratic lawmakers flocked to the Texas border throughout the spring, many holding news conferences to criticise the filthy, crowded conditions in which migrants, including children, were being held — some with unchanged diapers, little access to showers and little or no hot food.
Agents said they had done the best they could — some bought toys for the children in their care — but were overwhelmed by the number of new arrivals.
An Agent in the El Paso Sector: 'Oh, that kid's cute' turned into, 'Oh, there's another one, there's another one.' We've done more for these aliens than these senators and congressmen that come down here. They make this big scene but then the next day they get on a plane to go back home. They didn't take any of them with them, right? They're going home to their running water, to their nice, comfortable bed, and meantime, we're here dealing with them.
The Border Patrol's culture is unabashedly self-reliant and male-dominated. Agents operate largely alone in the desert and brush, using neither body cameras nor dashboard cameras.
About 5 per cent of agents are women. Some interviewed spoke highly of the agency and their male colleagues. Others described a culture in which women were demeaned, passed over for promotions and assaulted by co-workers. A supervisor in Chula Vista, California, pleaded guilty in 2015 to seven counts of video voyeurism, admitting that he had placed a camera in a drain in a women's restroom.
In a written account of her time at the agency, Budd described women being forced to perform oral sex on fellow agents and subjected to humiliating labels. "I never, ever met a female agent that was not targeted by the male agents," she said.
The job has taken a psychological toll on men and women alike.
From 2007 to 2018, more than 100 Customs and Border Protection employees, many of whom had worked as Border Patrol agents, killed themselves. Ross Davidson, who retired in 2017 after 21 years with the agency, said he was certain that stress from the job has been a factor.
"The repetitive monotony of doing the same thing over and over and seeing no outcome, seeing no end to it and nothing changing," he said. "It's just going deeper and deeper, and getting worse and worse."
Sergio Tinoco, an Agent in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas: Now, with all this rhetoric, I actually have to go home where I want to unwind, and hear my wife tell me the comments she was told, and my kids tell me the comments they're told. So at what point do I relax? The only time I relax is when my eyes are closed and I'm dead asleep.
Written by: Manny Fernandez, Caitlin Dickerson, Miriam Jordan, Zolan Kanno-Youngs and Kendrick Brinson
Photographs by: Kendrick Brinson and Ilana Panich-Linsman
© 2019 THE NEW YORK TIMES