McALLEN, TEXAS—A little after 10 a.m. on a Tuesday morning, Border Patrol Agent Chris Cabrera enters the back room of a strip mall here, where the lone wooden desk inside is covered with sound mixing boards, wires, speakers and boom microphones. Behind the unmarked door of the National Border Patrol Council’s Local 3307, about a dozen miles north of the Mexican border, he settles into a chair and dons earphones to hear his union colleagues in Tucson and San Diego. Together, the three of them host “The Green Line,” which airs on Tucson’s KVOI 1030 AM and is the only conservative talk radio show in America run by federal employees.
It’s just days after the tragic shooting deaths of five police officers in Dallas, where Cabrera grew up, and the Army veteran, who started with the Border Patrol right after 9/11 and has spent his entire career here in Texas’s Rio Grande Valley, wants to get something off his chest about Black Lives Matter. The goateed Cabrera is a boxing enthusiast and fount of energy, his legs bouncing continuously, his front lip filled with tobacco dip. He’s an experienced fighter; he keeps in his office a canoe paddle that one illegal alien used to attack his partner when they were working river boats on the Rio Grande. His sidearm is loosely tucked under his t-shirt. Well-armed, out-spoken, and pugilistic, Cabrera is, in short, his union.
The National Border Patrol Council is combative and unabashedly conservative—a rarity in organized labor. “When you hear ‘union,’ don’t immediately turn off the dial,” Cabrera’s co-host Border Patrol Agent Shawn Moran, the union’s spokesman, warned listeners on their first talk radio show back in May. “This is a not liberal union. This is a very conservative union.”
The radio shows are feisty. This particular week, as the taping starts, Cabrera launches into his rant against Black Lives Matter. “It’s a terrorist organization,” he says into the microphone. It’s a “radical organization … trying to spread hate.” He then launches into a monologue about how the Dallas shooter was armed with high-profile weapons and body armor. “You see how so many people speaking up against the police looking like military. But that’s exactly what this guy was wearing,” he says. “There’s a reason police forces need to be using military gear now.”
A few minutes later, in the way that talk radio seamlessly blends coverage and advertising, the hosts segue from Dallas to talking about one of the show’s sponsors: Gerber knives, a brand favored by many Border Patrol agents. “It’s a great product,” Cabrera says. “It’s a great thing to have for tactical or for hunting or fishing.”
The talk show is the latest venture from the union, which over the last year has stepped into national politics in a big way, becoming front and center since the very beginning of Donald Trump’s surprising rise as a candidate last summer—a run that began with him talking about “The Wall,” “paid for by Mexico.” It’s a partnership and shared cause that will take center stage Monday night at the Republican National Convention, as the party focuses on the nation’s border security—the theme that, perhaps more than any other, has driven Trump’s candidacy.
If Trump’s take-no-prisoners, secure-the-border message animated a surprising number of voters throughout the country, it absolutely galvanized one group: the Border Patrol union. It was another union official, Agent Hector Garza, from Local 2455 in Laredo, who first invited Trump down to tour the border last July—the first high-profile trip of his unexpected presidential campaign. Trump, through his immigration adviser Stephen Miller, has been in regular contact with the union and agents ever since, and he refers to their support regularly on the trail. This spring, the NBPC, which represents about 16,500 of the nation’s 21,000 agents, became the first—and, so far, only—national labor group to endorse Trump.
“Our own political leaders try to keep us from doing our jobs. … There is no greater physical or economic threat to Americans today than our open border,” says the endorsement, signed by union president Brandon Judd. The union “asks the American people to support Mr. Trump in his mission to finally secure the border of the United States of America, before it is too late.”
The “Green Line” podcast and radio show has become the union’s primary cudgel to advance Trump’s border agenda. The radio show’s very first guest on KVOI was none other than Trump himself—the first time he’d done a regional radio show since becoming the presumptive nominee. “When I’m elected—if I’m elected, I have say because I have to be modest—if and when I’m elected I’m going to be relying very heavily on the professionalism of the Border Patrol to tell us what to do,” Trump said on the show. “I have you 100 percent in my mind and I have your back. You are incredible people and we’re with you 100 percent.”
The Trump endorsement by a federal employees’ union was controversial, given the presumptive Republican presidential candidate’s stance on the border, Hispanics, women and Muslims. More than half of the Border Patrol is itself Hispanic, and agents across the nation expressed concerns. The El Paso union local rebelled, encouraged by a coalition of community leaders appalled at what Trump represents. As 20 local officials wrote in a letter, “We do not believe this endorsement reflect the values of the Border Patrol agents that work in this region.” One signer, El Paso school board member Susie Byrd, told me, “I think at the core of Trump’s message is very much a dehumanization of immigrants. For a leading law enforcement group to essentially back that assessment is very problematic. If you dehumanize the group you interact with, that can lead to all sorts of problems.”
Similarly, the endorsement, the New York Times editorial board concluded, was a “bizarre choice,” representing “monumental dimness” and filled with “fantasy claptrap that feeds the thinking that dehumanizes migrants.” Polls suggest that most of the federal government workforce falls closer to the Times position than the union’s; one poll, by the Government Executive media group, showed this year that 1 in 4 federal workers would actually consider leaving their jobs if Trump were elected. But the Border Patrol union remains defiantly proud of Trump—the man who, they believe, can finally bring sanity to the nation’s borders, and, not coincidentally, bring them more resources, funding and manpower.
After all, if there’s one corner of the federal government that can count on job security in a Trump administration, it’s the Border Patrol. On his first night Friday as Donald Trump’s running mate, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence proclaimed to Fox News, “Building the wall, establishing border security, has to be job one.”
When Trump himself was a guest on the union’s radio show, he told the agent hosts, “I look at the border, how horribly it’s been run from the standpoint of the orders given. The whole concept of what they’re doing is so off.”
That first statement is one place all sides of the immigration debate would likely agree: The Border Patrol and its parent agency, Customs and Border Protection, continue to rebuild from nearly a decade of neglect and mismanagement. That neglect at the hands of both the Bush administration and the Obama administration saw widespread corruption and calls for change from nearly every corner—the agent corps, good government groups, Congress, civil liberty advocates and immigration activists.
To critics, and there are many, the Border Patrol represents the extreme of worrying national criminal justice trends: It proudly stands as America’s most militarized police force, armed over the last decade by billions of dollars in surplus Pentagon hardware, from Predator drones and aerostat blimps that once patrolled Afghanistan to helicopters, boats, armored vehicles and weapons. As national media coverage shines a bright spotlight on police use of force, CBP and the Border Patrol remain the nation’s deadliest federal law enforcement agency, responsible for nearly 50 deaths in recent years—many in hazy and unclear circumstances—including people killed by agents shooting into Mexico and other unarmed people who were shot in the back. Changing that culture won’t be easy: The union last month blasted a CBP decision to recognize officers and agents who deescalate confrontations and avoid deadly force, calling the new award “despicable” and saying it “will get Border Patrol agents killed.”
Given the union’s strong support for Trump, you might be surprised to discover that many Border Patrol agents have one small policy difference with the candidate: Almost no one in the Rio Grande Valley—including the Border Patrol itself—thinks “The Wall” is a good idea. The Wall, from their viewpoint, is an expensive, pointless boondoggle, and wouldn’t solve the main problems with border security.
Nevertheless, understanding the attraction of the idea of The Wall is critical to understanding Trump’s plan to “Make America Great Again.” The border, after all, is where that slogan helped his improbable candidacy take flight on a chaotic day last July—almost exactly a year before the night Trump will accept the Republican nomination for president.
If the controversies swirling around the border represent a microcosm of the national political debate over immigration, security, and the shifting lines between “us” and “them,” then Texas’s Rio Grande Valley—known locally as RGV—represents a microcosm of the Border Patrol itself. It’s a heavily militarized and aggressively policed area where CBP has struggled on two fronts—with its own internal scandals and corruption, and, over the last two years, with an overwhelming migrant crisis akin to Europe’s struggles with Syrian refugees. It’s an area where drug smuggling is so rampant that agents barely even brag about marijuana seizures unless they top 500 pounds, and where there are so many people crossing that the Border Patrol doesn’t even have to track them down—border crossers actively seek out agents in order to claim asylum. At the same time, the valley is one of the safest places in the country, a community that has graciously welcomed new waves of Hispanic immigrants and benefited enormously from international trade.
The fact that most of the border crossers here hope to get found by agents helps explain why last Monday night, as I’m out riding with the Border Patrol, Chief Raul Ortiz sees the group walking up from the Rio Grande River at the same time I do.
“Annnnddd there we go,” says Ortiz, the deputy head patrol agent for CBP’s RGV sector.
It’s 8:15 p.m. and dusk is arriving—the prime time for smugglers to send their quarry across. The temperature has fallen into the mid-90s, from its daytime triple digits, but the humidity is still suffocating.
We’re driving through the no-mans land that marks much of the border area south of McAllen. Acrid smoke from a burning Mexican trash dump across the river fills the air, and cicadas chirp incessantly in the surrounding trees. The surrounding land is a thick, nearly impassable tangle of brush, so border crossers—that is, “illegal aliens” or “undocumented immigrants,” depending on one’s political persuasion—are naturally funneled onto the access road.
Since they’re seeking asylum, they could technically just walk up to CBP officers at an official port of entry, but the cartels that run the human smuggling networks—the other side of RGV’s border in Mexico is primarily controlled by the Gulf cartel—know that by sending migrants across the river illegally, they can help tie up Border Patrol resources, thus making it easier elsewhere to sneak high-value drugs across.
This particular day—Monday, July 11—has already been a historic one for the Border Patrol and its parent agency, CBP. It is the first workday for the new chief of the Border Patrol, Mark Morgan, the first outsider ever appointed to its top position. The selection of Morgan, who had been the assistant director of the FBI’s training division, appeared a not-subtle statement that CBP Commissioner Gil Kerlikowske, who took over the agency in 2014, had found deep, endemic issues in the Border Patrol’s culture and training.
Cabrera had told me earlier in the day that he wasn’t surprised an outsider had been brought in. Both of the previous chiefs—career Border Patrol agents—had retired under pressure, with allegations of misconduct swirling around them. “As much as we don’t want to be led by someone from the outside, the last two chiefs have given this commissioner all the ammunition he needs to hire an outsider,” Cabrera had said over lunch at a Texas barbecue roadhouse where the tables were filled with green-uniformed agents, as well as the blue polo shirts and khakis that denote agents assigned to CBP’s special task forces. “The Border Patrol has always been a good-ole-boy network. That’s always needed to be broken down. Maybe this is the first step.”
That same day, Kerlikowske himself announced in Arizona that he would step down in December, leaving little time to make much progress on his long, ambitious and incomplete reform agenda.
Little of that national news had trickled down to RGV on Monday, where on the border it’s just another hot summer day. And that means, as night falls, another wave of people seeking the safety and opportunity of the United States.
Ortiz noses his government SUV off the levee and onto on the access road that leads down to the river about a mile away. The crossers don’t run; they’re, in fact, thrilled to see the Border Patrol, as are most crossing in the Rio Grande Valley—the closest U.S. point for asylum seekers fleeing gang and drug violence in Central America. Two years ago, during the peak of a wave of children fleeing Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, the RGV sector alone stopped more than 256,000 people—a number greater than the entire population of Madison, Wisconsin—and this year it’s on track to stop around 180,000 people—more than the population of Providence, Rhode Island. On a normal day in 2016 that means that the 1,100 Border Patrol agents who watch the RGV sector during a 24-hour period stop around 500 people crossing the border.
As Ortiz pulls up to the group—four teenaged girls—they smile at us broadly. The girls are dressed as if they were heading to an afternoon at the McAllen mall. One is wearing a Hello Kitty t-shirt, another has a “My (heart) belongs to Hollister” t-shirt. A third is wearing a red glitter-covered t-shirt reading “I have been good for the last week or so,” without any apparent sense of irony that she’s just technically committed her first federal crime in the United States. Expecting to be picked up quickly, only one is carrying any provisions—a plastic one-gallon water jug. The girls have been on the road for a little over two weeks.
Aged 14 to 16, they’re all from El Salvador, and immediately pull out birth certificates and national identity cards to hand to the Border Patrol agent taking down their information. Thanks to tips posted on Facebook and Snapchat from those who have come before, asylum seekers now understand the process ahead of time and know it’s critical that their names be spelled correctly at the start. They’re ready too with the names and contact information for family in Missouri, New York and Maryland, where they can be sent after they’re processed and released into the United States awaiting a distant court date.
Another group isn’t far behind them, still trudging up from the river. An agent walks down to meet them—eleven more crossers, including three young boys and a young mother juggling both a baby and a diaper bag.
As other agents arrive to begin processing the group, Ortiz heads back out “on the line,” as agents call their patrols. The radio chatters with an unfolding chase upriver, where Border Patrol boats on the Rio Grande are landing agents to track a group of five who just crossed—they’re “run-aways,” not “give-ups” in the patrol’s parlance, which means they’re likely either smugglers, criminals, or Mexican. Mexican nationals aren’t granted asylum as routinely as Central American crossers and thus must dodge the Border Patrol if they want to enter.
Not five minutes pass of bumping along the dirt road before Ortiz’s SUV rounds a curve and a third group of border crossers come into view. Three, five, seven, too many to count easily. Ortiz drives over a gray sweatshirt, abandoned in the road, left by some previous crosser days, weeks or even months before. Mesquite slices along the side of the Chevy Tahoe on the narrow path.
“It’s gonna be a 600, 700 day,” Ortiz says.
There are 15 in this third group, and another seven, as it turns out, behind them.
Whereas the first two groups were all children, these two groups are, as the Border Patrol says, “family units,” adult parents and kids. One mother has a five-month-old baby named Haley. It’s common for the cartel smugglers on the Mexican side to organize their crossing groups in the same ways that the Border Patrol will divide them into detention facilities on the U.S. side—children in one set of rafts across the river, families in another.
In 30 minutes, without really trying, Ortiz and his team have found 37 migrants. As heated as the political rhetoric nationally is over immigration, here, on the Texas border, this seemingly momentous and potentially dramatic—even life-altering—confrontation with 37 humans seeking a new start played out with all the banality of a parking ticket. There’s no tension among the responding agents, who already have clipboards and forms ready as they get out of their green-and-white trucks.
As an agent commands in Spanish that everyone remove their belts and shoelaces, one mother helps her young child and then ducks her head, whips out her cell phone, and furtively calls a loved one to say she’s safe. Ortiz is chatty and relaxed, raising his voice only once, when a father downs the bottle of water handed to him by the Border Patrol and then casually discards it into the brush. “Pick it up,” Ortiz commands in Spanish. “We don’t litter here.”
By the end of the day, across RGV, the Border Patrol’s busiest sector, has apprehended 764 people crossing the border, 515 of them at McAllen alone. Nationwide, on that Monday—exactly a week before the night when the GOP Convention in Cleveland will shine its light on border security—the Border Patrol stopped 1,286 people crossing from Mexico.
According to senior officials, that probably represents only 60 to 80 percent of the total crossers; CBP estimates it apprehends 8 out of 10 crossers that it sees, and it doesn’t see everyone crossing. The union’s estimate is even lower: Cabrera estimates the Border Patrol stops only 30 to 40 percent.
That, Cabrera says, is why he’s buoyed by the idea of Trump’s Wall.
While Donald Trump’s candidacy started with his escalator ride in Trump tower last June, his campaign really began with “The Wall.” The Wall is Trump’s single biggest and most famous idea. As he phrased it in Trump Tower that day, “I would build a great wall, and nobody builds walls better than me, believe me, and I’ll build them very inexpensively, I will build a great, great wall on our southern border, and I will make Mexico pay for that wall. Mark my words.”
Weeks later, Trump journeyed to Laredo, where Border Patrol union executive Hector Garza invited him to tour the border. Garza, under pressure since the union hadn’t yet endorsed, ultimately backed out of participating, but the Republican hopeful flew his blue and red Trump plane south and donned for the first time his now-iconic white “Make America Great Hat” to tour the region for four hours inside a massive motorcade trailed by two buses of reporters.
“The Border Patrol—they’re the ones that invited me here,” he said as he emerged from the airport on the way to the see the nation’s largest inland port, confusing the union with the official government agency. He visited the border, Trump said, “despite the great danger” to himself, although Laredo actually ranks as one of the safest cities in the country. During a 10-minute press conference, he said America “absolutely” needed a wall.
In a campaign that’s seen Trump take many different sides of many issues, sometimes changing positions or denying previous statements in even the same day, his vision of a wall has proved the campaign’s one true north star. In November, during a GOP debate, he promised, “We need borders. We will have a wall. The Wall will be built. The Wall will be successful. And if you think walls don’t work, all you have to do is ask Israel. The Wall works, believe me. Properly done. Believe me.” It’s a theme he returns to nearly every day in nearly every speech.
In the year since his original comments, The Wall has become the most popular applause line of his rallies. Its core premise has become a popular call-and-response line for the candidate on the stump. “Who’s gonna pay for it?” he’ll shout. “MEXICO!” The crowd will roar, notwithstanding the flat-out denial of Mexico’s current president, Enrique Peña Nieto, that there’s “no way” his country would ever do so. His predecessor, former president Felipe Calderon, was even more blunt (“Mexican people, we are not going to pay any single cent for such a stupid wall”) and another former president, Vicente Fox, was the bluntest of all: “I’m not going to pay for that fucking wall.” When Mexican officials dismiss The Wall, Trump retorts: “The Wall just got 10 feet taller.” Depending on the day, Trump’s Wall ranges from 30- to 50- to 80-feet high.
The idea of The Wall and Trump’s plan to force the bill onto Mexico, which relies on withholding remittances sent back to the country, is so central to his campaign that it’s one of just seven issues outlined on his website. President Barack Obama’s one comment on what he says is Trump’s “half-baked” payment scheme? A dismissive “Good luck with that.” Similarly, Pope Francis, after visiting Mexico in May, blasted Trump’s plan, saying, “A person who thinks only about building walls, wherever they may be, and not building bridges, is not Christian.”
In other comments, Trump’s expanded on his seal-the-border plan by promising his administration would also deport the roughly 10 million to 12 million undocumented immigrants already inside the United States. “You are going to have a deportation force, and you’re going to do it humanely,” he told MSNBC’s Morning Joe last November. Trump’s said it would take two years to remove everyone in the country illegally—a timetable that would represent an exponential, expensive and all-but logistically impossible rise in deportations, which hit a historic high during the Obama administration of around 400,000 a year.
To its proponents, though, Trump’s proposal represents more than merely the largest construction project since the interstate highway system. It’s captured Republican primary voters because it represents a forceful stand against globalization—a stand against open borders, free trade agreements and global immigration that many aging white voters in the Republican Party feel is undermining America’s mojo. Polls show seven in 10 GOP voters wholeheartedly embrace Trump’s Wall. To them, it’s not just about building a 2,000-mile-long concrete edifice, it’s about drawing a literal line in the sand and restoring the primacy of the American worker, about unwinding the international trade agreements that have become the default position of both parties’ monied elites and retreating from global alliances like NATO and the United Nations. “I am ‘America First,’” Trump has said, echoing an isolationist and nationalistic phrase that dates back to the 1930s.
Trump’s critics argue that there’s a racist angle to a wall, too—that it’s meant as a stand against the rise of Hispanic populations in many areas of the country and a changing America that looks less white than it ever has before. “Make America Great Again,” in the eyes of Trump’s critics, is code for “Make America White Again.” On the campaign trail, Trump has repeatedly tussled with Spanish-language media, especially Univision’s star political correspondent, Jorge Ramos, who was forcibly ejected from one Trump press conference last year.
Even as Trump’s Wall has gained popularity and come to define his tough-talking-but-light-on-the-details approach to politicking, the reality of the southern border is vastly more complicated.
The McAllen Border Patrol station experiences immigration at an industrial, almost dehumanizing, scale. Over the last three decades, the tides of illegal immigration have shifted steadily east. In the 1990s, San Diego experienced record levels of migrants, so much that the area erected yellow road signs warning drivers to watch for fleeing families darting across highways. Gradually, as the then-small Border Patrol cracked down and built increasingly sophisticated tall double-layer fences, the migration pattern shifted to Tucson and the Arizona desert, which experienced its peak of apprehensions, 616,000, in 2000—a year that saw the Border Patrol’s 8,000 agents stop some 1.6 million border crossers.
Now, though, San Diego is quiet, and Tucson, while still a hotbed of drug smuggling, sees comparatively few migrants.
RGV, instead, is the center of the action.
Unrest from drug and gang violence in Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador has driven a massive surge of immigrants to the Texas border; in 2014, the tidal wave of “unaccompanied children” (“UACs”) swamped the Border Patrol, CBP, and the immigration system, overwhelmed detention facilities and led immigrant rights’ activists to raise serious humanitarian and legal concerns.
Today, a more orderly, assembly-line-style system awaits those apprehended at the border. Across the nine Border Patrol stations that make up the Rio Grande Valley sector, upwards of 200 agents spend their entire shifts processing migrants. Everyone caught at the border is brought to the McAllen station’s crowded bullpen—packed with agents, contractor security guards and those caught crossing. Adjoining cells divide people by age, gender and “family units.” Giant stacks of copier paper and printer toner line the walls, hinting at the sheer size of the population processed daily.
In the center of the room—after they’ve been fingerprinted, photographed and had scans taken of their irises—those caught entering the U.S. illegally line up on seats facing a line of computer monitors and pick up a telephone handset, where 18 Border Patrol agents from other quieter, lower-traffic stations interview them via video chat and gather nine pieces of information—including name, birth date and parents’ names—to run a background check and begin either the deportation or asylum process. The information goes into individual hard-copy colored folders—plain manila for migrants caught crossing for the first time, green for those who have been caught crossing before, and red for people who have a criminal record.
Amidst the shouts and barely controlled chaos of the McAllen Central Processing Center, there are a lot of people carrying green folders.
While those with criminal records or who have been caught crossing before generally face jail or lengthy deportation procedures, in practice, the vast majority caught crossing the border in RGV are eventually released into the United States with what’s known as a “Notice to Appear” (NTA) for a later court date. Technically, they’re free until they face the nation’s small number of overwhelmed immigration judges, whose cases are backlogged for upwards of three to six years. The dates are so far in the future—and the future of the U.S. immigration policy so in flux—that they know that if they stay out of trouble they’ll have years to establish new lives in their new country.
The Border Patrol union calls it President Barack Obama’s “Catch-And-Release Program,” or “CARP” for short. But it’s not really the Obama administration’s policy alone—the same policy has guided U.S. immigration policy for decades. “If you are arrested in the United States and you ask for any sort of asylum, what we do is we will process you, and we will walk you right out our front door, give you a pat on the back and say, ‘Welcome to the United States,’” union president Brandon Judd told Congress in May.
Before that figurative pat-on-the-back, the next stop after processing in RGV—while crossers await Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to take custody of them and the bureaucracy to process their case—is an unmarked warehouse down the street from the Border Patrol’s McAllen station. Known as the “Ursula facility,” after the street it adjoins, the building was transformed during a crash 30-day program during the 2014 migrant crisis into a temporary holding pen for up to 1,000 people. Migrants are given showers, lent clean clothes and fed baloney sandwiches. The warehouse walls are lined with shelves packed with Huggies diapers, stacks of clothing and pallets of Osito Poky fruit juice in bear-shaped bottles, a popular children’s drink in Texas. Green sleeping mats and mylar blankets are available for anyone who wants to nap, and TVs play constantly in the background. On Monday night, an entire line of teen boys were wearing identical plain gray sweatpants and bright orange t-shirts reading “Wipro San Francisco Marathon 2011 Volunteer.”
The U.S. government ultimately deposits many asylum seekers at the McAllen bus station, where buses depart for far corners of the United States and a Western Union office sits ready to receive funds for bus tickets from migrants’ relatives. At the station, the city of McAllen partners with Catholic Charities to provide food, showers and phone calls before border crossers begin their journey.
If all of that infrastructure—the agents, the vehicles, the facilities—sounds big and expensive, it is. In fact, the border security complex today is almost mind-boggling expensive, more than the combined budgets of the Interior Department and the Commerce Department. Today, even as Trump bashes the Obama administration for a laissez faire approach to the border, the U.S. already spends more money each year on border and immigration enforcement than the combined budgets of the FBI, ATF, DEA, the Secret Service, the U.S. Marshals—plus the entire NYPD’s annual budget. Over the last 15 years, more than $100 billion has poured into border security, including more than 660 miles of fences and walls, and the Border Patrol has seen a transformative and dramatic growth spurt. The patrol, which doubled during Bill Clinton’s presidency to around 8,000 agents, surged again after 9/11, and doubled a second time in the final years of George W. Bush’s presidency. The Border Patrol’s parent agency, Customs and Border Protection, has grown now to more than 46,000 gun-carrying law enforcement officers and agents—the largest police force in the country—and DHS is trying to hire an additional 2,000 CBP officers right now.
It’s a law enforcement presence that holds sway across a surprisingly vast territory of the United States. The Border Patrol, which—based on a little-understood 1953 Justice Department rule that’s never been reviewed by Congress—asserts jurisdiction over a 100-mile-wide swath along the nation’s borders. Civil liberties groups like the ACLU say that such expansive enforcement creates a “Constitution-Free Zone” technically encompassing some 200 million Americans nationwide and including 10 entire states, from Florida to Maine, where the Border Patrol can insist on arbitrary and warrantless searches.
The long reach of that enforcement can be seen at the first stop outside McAllen for many of the Greyhound buses carrying asylum-seekers out of RGV—yet another Border Patrol checkpoint, just south of Falfurrias, Texas, on Highway 281. The mandatory roadside stop is one of around 170 interior checkpoints designed as a final line of defense before migrants or smugglers disappear into the nation’s interior. As recently as the 1980s, the checkpoint was just a few shacks along the two-lane highway; today, an expanded facility built after 9/11 can support up to five lanes of northbound traffic, and construction is already underway on a new eight-lane checkpoint that could expand up to a total of 12 lanes during peak travel times. Similar checkpoints guard the only two other routes out of the valley, along Highway 77 and Highway 83.
At the Falfurrias checkpoint, some 70 miles from the border, lines of green-uniformed agents armed with automatic license-plate readers inquire in the sticky Texas summer heat about the citizenship of drivers and passengers while drug-sniffing canines patrol the lines of cars. A massive Pentagon-surplus blimp, known as an aerostat, watches over the surrounding brush and ranch-land to catch migrants or smugglers who are dropped off south of the checkpoint to walk around it.
Smugglers use “stash houses” around the Rio Grande Valley to hold drugs or migrants once they’re ferried across the border until arrangements are made to get them past the interior checkpoints and on into the United States. The night that I was on patrol with Chief Ortiz, RGV Border Patrol agents raided a stash house in Edinburg and arrested 35 migrants; the following day, agents and the Hidalgo County Sheriff’s Department raided another such facility in nearby Donna and arrested 31. Provided that those caught in the stash houses seek and qualify for asylum—as, statistically, most from Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras will—they’ll eventually get DHS Form I-862, a Notice to Appear, and paperwork from the U.S. government to pass legally through the Falfurrias checkpoint—papers that, ironically, they wouldn’t have received had they not been caught and instead had to be smuggled past the checkpoint.
Situations like that are precisely what frustrate agents like Chris Cabrera: “We’re doing the same thing we’ve been doing for 20 years—and expecting a different result.” To the union, that’s where Trump comes in. As Cabrera sees it, Trump’s promise isn’t really about building The Wall. His stance represents more broadly finally, at long last, taking border security seriously—and forcing feckless politically correct bureaucrats to start enforcing the nation’s existing immigration laws. It means sending people back across the border when they’re caught, not coddling them and letting them start new lives here. And it means actually prosecuting and jailing those cross repeatedly. “You need to crack down on the end result. If you continue to reward people by letting them into the country, they’re going to keep coming,” Cabrera says. “If we don’t like these laws, we need to change them. We’re a nation of laws—and until we amend them or change them, we need to enforce them.”
The catch-and-release program came home personally to the Border Patrol in August 2014, when, in the midst of the UAC border crisis, agent Javier Vega Jr. was fishing with his family about 40 miles east of McAllen, and was shot and killed during an apparent botched robbery. The two suspects, arrested the next day and set to be tried this fall, had been previously deported a total of six times. The Border Patrol union says they encounter such repeat offenders all-too-often. Cabrera says his own personal record is arresting the same woman crossing the border three times in one 10-hour shift.
The case of “JV,” as Vega was known, has since become a campaign trail talking point. While statistics show that immigrants are actually less likely to commit crimes than native-born Americans, Trump has latched onto several high-profile murders allegedly committed by people in the U.S. illegally to highlight the risks of unchecked immigration. Monday night at the Republican convention will feature other stories from families who have had loved ones killed by repeat border offenders, including Jamiel Shaw Sr., whose teenage son was murdered in 2008 by an undocumented gang member in Los Angeles.
Yet the irony, of course, is that even as the Border Patrol union and other groups have hammered the supposedly soft-hearted Obama administration for its welcoming and forgiving attitude to illegal immigrants, including a plan to let so-called DREAMers stay in the country, the Obama administration has also struck a relatively hard line, deporting more undocumented immigrants than any other administration; The Economist even labeled Obama “deporter-in-chief.” DHS also comes under frequent fire from immigrants’ rights and Hispanic groups appalled at the idea of Border Patrol agents and ICE agents deporting undocumented mothers and fathers who, other than arriving illegally, have led peaceful, hard-working lives in the United States.
If the influx of migrants to McAllen showcases the massive challenges of securing the southern border, the Rio Grande Valley also demonstrates the near physical impossibility and the massive infrastructure costs associated with building Trump’s Wall—as well as the economic costs of erecting barriers between two vibrant trading partners.
The very idea of the U.S.-Mexico border as a fixed line is actually a relatively recent political phenomenon. As recently as 30 years ago, the line itself was barely policed, allowing an ever-shifting population to travel—and move—back and forth easily. “For years, we didn’t have any attention for the border,” recalls McAllen’s Mayor Jim Darling who has spent decades in the city. Primary border enforcement near McAllen focused on the inland Border Patrol checkpoint in Falfurrias, nearly 70 miles north on the U.S. side, and a Mexican police checkpoint about 20 south of Reynosa on the Mexican side. “A lot of grandmas and grandpas here came over 70, 80 years ago and no one cared,” Darling says. “We’re both figuratively and literally the same people.” McAllen and the encompassing Hildalgo County is between 80 and 90 percent Hispanic.
Today, there’s a tremendous daily flow back and forth across the border; many wealthy Mexican families send their children each day to parochial schools in McAllen. NAFTA has been an economic boon to the region (and, the traditionally Republican U.S. Chamber of Commerce argues, to the nation as a whole), as numerous multinational companies now have warehouses and factories along the border. Texas exports nearly $100 billion of goods annually to Mexico. Much of McAllen is given over to mile after mile of warehouses and truck yards, and there are so many multinational companies in the city that it even hosts a chapter of the Japanese Chamber of Commerce.
The Wall is not popular in McAllen—nor, actually, is Trump’s plan particularly respected by almost anyone who knows much about the border. “It’s not just Donald Trump. A lot of people don’t understand the border,” Darling says. “Donald Trump is just a symbol for the lack of knowledge on border issues.”
While Obama’s criticism that Trump’s plan was “impractical” might be expected, condemnations have been bipartisan; Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) has called the plan “naive,” and one Republican congressional candidate in the Rio Grande Valley who supports Trump has called his idea a “12th-century technical solution to a 21st-century problem.”
“The most beautiful tall wall, better than the Great Wall of China, that will run the whole border, that he would somehow magically get the Mexican government to pay for. You know, it is just fantasy,” presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton said during a March Univision debate. “We have done, what by any fair estimate would have to conclude is a good job ‘securing the border.’”
Indeed, a careful examination of the state of the nation’s border security and immigration picture shows that a wall along the southern border isn’t necessarily the most pressing—or modern—problem. Despite the massive numbers of UACs and asylum-seeking families arriving in RGV, apprehensions are actually at a long-term low across the southwest border. Data from the Pew Research Center show that the since the economic crisis of 2007-2008, the flow of Mexicans north is the lowest it’s been since the 1990s and that actually there’s been a negative net migration since 2005, with about 160,000 more Mexican nationals returning there than moving into the United States.
Nationally, new data show that a huge driver of illegal immigration isn’t border crossing but so-called visa overstays—people who enter legally and then don’t leave as scheduled. Last year, DHS estimates more than 416,500 overstayed their visa, and government reports over the years have estimated that roughly 30 to 40 percent of people in the U.S. illegally originally overstayed their visa.
Trump’s Wall also belies another complicated reality: Security experts and CBP officials say that from a terrorism perspective they’re more concerned about the northern border, which is much more loosely patrolled and has virtually no fencing, even as Canada struggles with its own home-grown radicalization problems. While there’s plenty of human and narcotics smuggling across the U.S.-Mexico border and nearly 90 percent of the Border Patrol is focused on the southern border, no terrorist has ever used it to enter the United States illegally. For all the heated political rhetoric about ISIL sneaking over from Mexico, all domestic terror attacks have been carried out by people who flew into the United States on commercial airliners or by terrorists who were legally in the country—and would-be terrorists have only been stopped sneaking across one of the U.S. land borders: The northern one.
While Trump’s campaign speeches might make the southern border sound like a wide-open expanse and a neon blinking “Smugglers Welcome” sign, the building boom that encompassed the post-9/11 border security bonanza poured $2.4 billion into fencing and “walled” nearly all the border that makes sense to secure with physical barriers. Today, across the southwest, roughly a third—about 660 miles—of the 1,969-mile border is fenced, mostly in California, New Mexico and Arizona. The barriers range from massive double-chain-link fences lined with razor-wire along San Diego—where the fence even stretches out into the Pacific Ocean—to metal 18-foot pedestrian barriers in places like Nogales to low anti-vehicle barriers in the Arizona desert. In places, the Border Patrol has also built earthen dams to fill in popular smuggling routes. The remaining, still-unfenced portions are generally either far too remote to secure or protected by natural barriers, like the Rio Grande River, that serve as a rough equivalent to a fence.
In fact, talk to almost any Border Patrol agent and they’ll tell you they don’t want a wall on the southern border. Not, at least, in the way that Trump envisions it—a massive, concrete edifice stretching nearly 2,000 miles from the Gulf of Mexico to the Pacific Ocean, a wall that’s more impressive than the Great Wall of China or the Berlin Wall. For one thing, building such a wall would require ceding thousands of acres of U.S. territory.
As the crow flies—or as CBP’s twin-engine Huey and A-Star helicopters fly—RGV covers just a little over 100 mile linear miles of border, but with the twists and curves of the river, its border actually stretches some 316 miles. There are places where the river winds so tightly that you can look north from Texas into Mexico, and plenty of places where it dips south such that you can look east and west into Mexico from the same vantage point. One particularly exaggerated dip, not far from the world-renowned butterfly refuge outside McAllen that encompasses a huge swath of borderland, has the appropriately Texan and visually evocative name of the “Bull’s Balls.”
To solve these geographic challenges—and comply with international treaties that govern the watershed of the Rio Grande—the 55 miles of border wall that does exist in the RGV is often set hundreds of yards back from the river itself, fencing off America from America. To accommodate farmers and irrigation needs, there are dozens of purpose-built gaps in the border walls that do exist, where Border Patrol agents sit idling in their pickups and SUVs to ensure that migrants or smugglers don’t escape through the hole.
“If you make [The Wall] continuous, you’re creating a no-mans-land—you’re giving up ground. And you’re making it really dangerous for agents to work there,” Cabrera says.
While Congress has exempted border fences from complying with numerous government regulations, building any large-scale project would inevitably require seizing vast amounts of private property along the border and bisecting hundreds of ranches and farms. “Trying to build a fence without affecting lots of property rights is impossible,” McAllen Mayor Darling says. “It makes much more sense to expand electronic detection and build roads. A fence, they’re going to get over or under.”
Indeed, building a wall would be just one part of a phenomenally logistically complicated construction project, involving numerous environmental, engineering, political and property rights issues. (And more than 10 percent of the nation’s concrete.) Much of the border—even much of the relatively populated Rio Grande Valley—doesn’t have easy land access, meaning that road networks for Border Patrol vehicles would have to built out to help apprehend smugglers whenever someone did cross over or under The Wall. Otherwise, as one Border Patrol spokesperson put it, you’re just building “a speed bump in the desert.”
“You still need an agent to close that last 50 feet,” the Border Patrol’s Ortiz says.
To spend time along the border is to marvel at the idea that anyone could think that border security is somehow under-resourced. Even as much as international trade has helped areas like McAllen, almost no industry is as visible or seemingly prevalent here as the border security industry itself.
CBP’s work represents just part of a massive security operation along the border; Texas has allocated $800 million to building its own border patrol along the Rio Grande, saturating the area with black-and-white Department of Public Safety cruisers and heavily-armored gunboats armed with up to six M240 machine-guns. Texas game wardens also patrol the river, and Texas DPS and Air National Guard planes and helicopters supplement’s CBP’s eyes in the sky; nationwide, CBP’s law enforcement “air force” of some 250 planes and helicopters is roughly equivalent to Brazil’s entire combat fleet.
McAllen area hotels are filled with state troopers and elite Border Patrol search-and-rescue agents who spend two-month deployments in RGV patrolling the ranchland north of the border to find illegal migrants or smugglers. The local construction industry has seen hundreds of millions of dollars pour into the Valley to build gleaming new CBP facilities as well as new walls and levees. Thousands of new, well-paying government jobs have arrived as the RGV sector has swelled from 600 agents in the 1990s to more than 3,100 today.
Ask CBP, Border Patrol or local officials in RGV what they need and virtually no one says they need a wall or more fences. Instead, they all point to the need for basic infrastructure—like roads—and better technology. “Border security is simple: There’s the detection piece and the response piece. You have to be able to see the traffic crossing the border and then respond to those places,” says Border Patrol Sector Chief Manuel Padilla. “We still have gaps in technology. We have some awesome technology from DOD reuse. Those are an interim solution; that’s a stop-gap measure. … The first thing we need in South Texas is a formidable tech plan to be able to detect traffic.”
Local officials also suggest that much simpler solutions might yield more results than building a wall. The land along the Rio Grande is lush farmland created by generations of rich river silt, terrain that represents a daily challenge for the Border Patrol. Padilla, who transferred over the winter from Tucson, the Border Patrol’s second-busiest area and a heavy narcotics-smuggling corridor, says that coming from the open desert mountains of Arizona, the Rio Grande Valley initially misled him. “Seeing the flat land, I said this is going to be easy,” Padilla said. “Boy, was I wrong. The thick vegetation along the river [and] the lack of access laterally is a huge challenge for detection.”
Mayor Darling says that money dedicated to a wall—estimates for Trump’s idea range from his suggested $8 billion to upwards of $20 billion from independent groups, not counting ongoing maintenance and repairs—would be much more cost-effectively spent encouraging border farmers to convert sugarcane fields and orange groves to crops like cotton and peppers that are less dense and low to the ground. “It’s a lot easier to catch someone running across a cotton field than a sugarcane field,” Darling says. Sugarcane fields are notoriously difficult for the Border Patrol, both because of their height and because their roots trap water that glows brightly on the infrared cameras that CBP aerial units use to help crossers at night, rendering the surveillance tools all-but useless. “If you take two steps into sugarcane, you’re gone,” says William Durham, the CBP’s director of air operations in the valley.
Even putting aside the cost and logistics of a wall, whether the Border Patrol and CBP itself is organizationally up to the challenge of further securing the border is another question entirely. Every campaign trail proposal seemingly involves pouring even more billions into manpower and security materiel, but CBP is still struggling to make sense of what it already has—and how to get the most out of its existing workforce.
CBP, created in 2004 out of the government reorganization that launched the Department of Homeland Security, has been perennially mismanaged—with poor oversight, ever-shifting leadership and employee morale that ranks at the bottom of government workforce surveys.
The Border Patrol particularly suffered during that decade of well-intentioned but badly executed growth. It’s long occupied a strange middle ground between a police force and a military one, and that tension has been exacerbated by its rapid growth and militarization since 9/11. In recent years, numerous watchdogs, both inside and outside the government, have accused agents of excessive force and questionable shootings; one internal report found that Border Patrol agents often fired their guns out of “frustration” rather than fear.
CBP’s problems, meanwhile, don’t stop at the Border Patrol; the agency remains beset by an insular culture as well as endemic and systemic corruption, nearly a decade after its massive Bush era hiring surge brought tens of thousands of new hires into the agency without adequate hiring or security oversight. Those problems were compounded by a revolving door atop CBP, as various controversies and the slow pace of Senate confirmation left the agency adrift through much of the Obama administration. Kerlikowske became Obama’s first Senate-confirmed CBP commissioner five years into the administration.
The problems by that point were all too clear: From 2005 to 2012, one CBP officer or agent was arrested almost every single day for crimes that ranged from DUI and domestic violence to drug smuggling and rape. In fact, the head of the DHS office in charge of investigating CBP misconduct in the Rio Grande Valley was, along with another agent, indicted himself in 2013, in part because the office was so overwhelmed by corruption cases that they started falsifying records. Nationally, CBP’s problems were so deep that, according to two top CBP officials, DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano’s office ordered the agency to redefine “corruption” in order to lower the numbers of misconduct cases being reported to Congress.
While employee arrest rates have dropped over the last two years, there were still more than 500 CBP officers and agents arrested in 2014 and 2015, and CBP corruption continues to haunt border areas like McAllen. Overall, roughly a third of CBP’s known corruption cases have focused on the Texas border, and in May, one Border Patrol agent hired in 2007, was indicted for attempting to smuggle 17 kilograms of cocaine—part of a much larger, still unfolding investigation into drug smuggling involving local law enforcement.
The idea that the CBP or ICE could successfully grow as large as Trump’s proposals would require is belied by the history of its previous hiring surge, where CBP struggled to recruit agents and cut corners to meet its congressionally mandated hiring schedule. That newly indicted McAllen agent was hired during a year when the Border Patrol scrambled to find enough qualified candidates and spent $8.4 million sponsoring NASCAR driver Kenny Wallace, painting his Chevrolet in the green and white Border Patrol motif. At the time, the agency also raised its recruiting age limit from 37 to 40, and, according to CBP officials, regularly sent new agents through the academy and out into the field before completing full background checks. By the end of 2008, more than half of the Border Patrol’s entire workforce had less than two years on the job.
Those shortcuts in the mid-2000s, former CBP Commissioner Ralph Basham admitted in a 2014 interview with POLITICO Magazine, led the agency to unknowingly hire the very people it was trying to protect against. “We made some mistakes,” Basham told me in 2014. “We found out later that we did, in fact, hire cartel members.”
Recruiting challenges persist. Today, the RGV sector is nearly 100 agents under-strength because of hiring shortfalls, and CBP’s aerial operations in the Valley lack the number of pilots it’s supposed to have.
Problems linger more broadly too. A blistering report by the Homeland Security Advisory Council in March said the agency’s culture and poor oversight “leaves CBP vulnerable to a corruption scandal that could potentially threaten the security of our nation.” While the agency has made strides—albeit small—towards being more transparent about internal investigations into use-of-force and corruption, steps by Kerlikowske to change the culture itself during his two years in office seem to be bearing little fruit so far. His early promise to explore equipping agents with body cameras has stalled, and HSAC concluded “true levels of corruption within CBP are not known.” It predicted “pockets of corruption could fester within CBP, potentially for years.” According to POLITICO’s reporting, high-level CBP officials admitted in meetings with FBI agents that as much as 20 percent of the force might need to be weeded out.
Ending a decade-long bureaucratic turf battle that prohibited CBP from even investigating charges against its own employees, Kerlikowske in late 2014 finally gave CBP’s internal affairs investigators the power to conduct criminal investigation, though few agents I spoke with said they’ve noticed any difference in its effectiveness—perhaps because the office remains woefully understaffed. It has fewer than half the number of internal affairs agents as the NYPD, despite CBP’s having nearly 10,000 more armed officers.
Today, even the agents’ union is pleading for better training and a more effective oversight system. “There are agents getting away with stuff because [Internal Affairs] is bad at what they do,” Cabrera says. “If there is corruption, I want it out. I don’t want that tarnishing my badge.”
Given the change in administrations ahead and Kerlikowske’s pending retirement in December, it’s likely that CBP’s reform efforts will drag out even longer.
Those are all problems no amount of poured concrete can solve.
Yet as the Republican convention kicks off this week in Cleveland, the Border Patrol union sees the party’s controversial Twitter-powered real estate tycoon as its best hope to finally have an ear in the White House—even if his most grandiose idea won’t solve much. “We put up that 18-foot wall [in the 2000s], the next day they had 19-foot ladders. It’s not going to stop them, but it’ll slow them down,” Cabrera says. “The Wall—is it a be all or end all? No, it’s a tool. It’s a help.”
To the union, Cabrera explains, Trump simply represents the chance to do the job the American people asked agents to do: Stop people from crossing the border illegally. He says, as we’re sitting in that Texas strip mall after the radio show’s taping, “As Border Patrol agents, we’re not anti-immigrant. And I don’t think Trump is anti-immigrant. His wife’s an immigrant. He’s anti-illegal immigration. We’re for the immigration system—just against the illegal part.”
Notwithstanding the questionable shootings, the civil liberties concerns, the corruption investigations, Cabrera dismisses the nickname that CBP officials in Washington use to describe his proud fellow troops in their dark green uniforms. “People see us as the ‘Green Monster,’ but we’re fathers, we’re mothers. We’re going to stop you, but once you’re here, we’re going to take care of you,” he says. “You won’t find anyone who rescues more people, saves more aliens’ lives, aids more drowning victims or recovers more dead bodies than the Border Patrol.”
Sitting in his office, feet up on his desk and his green bulletproof vest in an adjacent chair with its bright yellow letters declaring CBP Border Patrol Federal Agent, Cabrera says, “If you look at the Border Patrol, we’re the largest humanitarian organization on the southwest border.”