A Border Patrol agent stood in front of the open door of his official CBP SUV in the 50-yard strip of no-man’s-land between the rusting bollard border fence and the newer, silver fence on the American side, both running well into the Pacific Ocean. Another border agent manned a gate on the secondary fence, metering in a dozen people at a time to come and lean against the rusted border fence, talking with people, many of them close friends and relatives savoring direct human connection with loved ones on the other side, in Tijuana’s Friendship Plaza. The steps down to the Tijuana’s beach begin just a few feet away. On the Mexican side, the border fence has become a canvas for painted tributes to lost border-crossers, deportees, flags of resistance, professions of love and on the flat metal plates at the top of the fence, landscapes and portraits of imagined reunions.
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The agent in the no-man’s-land keeps an eye on the dozen Americans in that middle space, answers questions patiently, gently reminds them of the “no cameras, no pictures” rule he sees openly flouted all around him, and radiates a supportive discomfort with his job. He speaks with a slight American Latino accent and wears a laminate nameplate with a Hispanic last name. The people he gently watches either ignore him, or express kindness toward him with a few words, and he does the same.
How does he feel about his job? one has to wonder. Could he be against CBP policies or practices and still come to work? Does he feel, like an Immigration judge I know in Seattle, that while he executes harmful policies, if he left he’d likely be replaced by someone who would do the work with a harder heart and cause greater harm? Is that enough reason to stick with the work, to do harm and be harmed?
A growing cohort of former CBP and ICE agents – and a growing body of literature by and about them – reveal some of the lived experience of dissent in this para-military border force.
Border Patrol Agent Wesley Farris helped carry out some of the first family separations under the Trump administration’s aggressive expansion of the till-then little-used practice. In a new PBS Frontline documentary, Farris shares that “that was the most horrible thing I’ve ever done. You can’t help but see your own kids. I mean, none of us were happy about it, but everybody around me was just doing exactly what we were told… We were all told to do this.”
A bit later, when a CBP contractor was trying to take a small child away from his family. Farris reached a breaking point. “It was a young boy. I think he was about two. The world was upside down to that kid. So when the contractor tried to take him away, he reached for me and he climbed up on me again, and he was holding on to me. So that that one got me a little bit.”
“I said at that one, ‘I’m not doing this anymore. I won’t do it. I went back to the supervisor and I told him, ‘Don’t assign me to do that anymore.’”
Farris is now an official with the Border Patrol agents’ union.
In August of 2018 Border Patrol agent Joshua Childress resigned from his job as he lost faith in the legitimacy of his work. As Reason magazine reports, “Childress says that when he began at Border Patrol, he believed in the agency’s mission and thought he could apply useful skills he’d acquired while serving in the military.
” ‘It seemed like something that needed [to be] done,’ says Childress of his decision to join. ‘My understanding of the laws at the time was that there were proper ways to get into this country legally, and that the people that were coming across were just shirking those laws.’
“He says that in one memorable incident, he witnessed lash marks on a man’s back. Upon further questioning, the man revealed that the scars resulted from a whipping that a drug trafficker gave him for refusing to carry drugs over the border.
” ‘I didn’t feel good about sending that guy back,’ says Childress. ‘But there are countless others that don’t have a dramatic story like that. They just want a better life. I think most people in their shoes would do the same. And I stopped being able to reconcile that.’ “
Former Senior Border Patrol agent Jenn Budd, in a letter on the Southern Border Communities Coalition website, makes a plain case to CPB agents:
“I assume that like me, you joined the U.S. Border Patrol for many reasons: to serve and protect your country, to pay off that college tuition and to provide for your family or just to have a stable job. Maybe some of you were like me and had no idea what the Border Patrol did; perhaps the only thing you knew about the southern border was what you learned in the academy. . . .
“I mean, you didn’t really sign up to put babies in cages and babysit them…am I right? You didn’t really wake up one day and decide you thought sending people who were escaping violence and terror to concentration camps was a good thing…did you? That’s not why you went through federal law enforcement training, and not why you carry a badge and a gun. . . . I know that you know those laws and rights apply to immigrants, whether legally present or not. . .
“[W]hen the President of the United States orders you to put asylum seekers on a bus to be shipped to concentration camps on military bases so that they will be hidden from the public and the press…well, let’s be honest…you know this is not going to end well.
“. . . As I see it, if you intend to follow your oath, you are left with two choices: either resign in protest as I did many years ago or demand changes from management and your union. You swore to uphold the Constitution and the laws and treaties of the United States. Keep that oath. . .
“That is what being a law enforcement officer is about. It is not enforcement at whatever cost. It is a delicate balance of governance that is needed at the border.
“It is what Honor First actually means.”