‘Pickle suits’ and putting on the gun

The border fence along the U.S.-Mexico border is comprised of multiple different types of sections. Five miles east of Nogales, AZ, the tall fence becomes a series of vehicle barriers. (Photo by Erik Kolsrud/Arizona Sonora News)

NOGALES, Ariz — They wear “pickle suits,” ride horses, and read books to elementary schoolers. Being pelted with rocks is a daily hazard, as is occasionally being shot at. Make no mistake — being a part of the Border Patrol is not an easy job.

On one hand, it’s hours of sitting in a car, watching a section of the border. On the other, it is dealing with potentially dangerous situations involving drug runners or heartbreaking scenes of desperate families in peril.

This double-edged sword is just one facet of a deeply complex institution that guards nearly 2,000 miles of border between the United States and México. Hot-button issues such as immigration or the war on drugs, so commonly spoken about on the national stage, are a fact of life for olive-uniformed agents walking the fence or trudging through the desert.

Agents Daniel Hernandez and Chris Sullivan don’t pay much attention to the politics — they say agents on the ground worry more about doing their jobs than they do about policy.

Agents Daniel Hernandez and Chris Sullivan point out the differences between types of barrier on the U.S.-Mexico border. (Photo by Erik Kolsrud/Arizona Sonora News)

“Where they are, whether in the United States or México, doesn’t matter for the agent going home that night,” Sullivan said.

 The Trump administration promises many more agents. Trump signed an executive order that called for an additional 5,000 Customs and Border Protection agents. According to Border Patrol, 17,000 of its more than 19,000 agents nationwide were assigned to sectors in the Southwest in fiscal year 2016.

Training of BP agents lasts six months and encompasses a suite of firearms training, legal instruction and Spanish-language education in a setting that resembles a cross between a police academy and boot camp. Agents are trained for the realities of the job: spending a lot of time in the desert, often times alone.

“A lot of these situations you’ve done a hundred times in training,” Hernandez said. “You really got to love the outdoors.”

While the agents watching the border are adept at traversing and surviving in the desert, the people they are tasked with apprehending rarely are. The summer months see a transformation in the type of operations performed by the Border Patrol: search and rescue.

“We don’t want people to die crossing the border,” Sullivan said. “We have a lot of resources. We want to help people.”

In Sullivan’s case, this is where his EMT training comes into play. Migrants picked up in the remote sections of the Sonoran Desert are often suffering from heat stroke, dehydration, blood loss and other complications stemming from crossing the border. In many cases, the predatory guides who bring migrants across rob or abandon them without water. In the Sonoran, this can be a death sentence — and yet, people still come.

West of Nogales, AZ, the U.S.-Mexico border fence transitions from a tall fence, to vehicle traps, to a barbed wire cattle fence. (Photo by Erik Kolsrud/Arizona Sonora News)

“We didn’t make them walk in the desert, they made a conscious choice,” Sullivan said. ”Sometimes you have to take the law enforcement hat off and do medical care.”

Dealing with what is essentially a humanitarian crisis takes a toll on agents. The turnover rate approaches 30 percent of new agents. The job is isolating, difficult to talk about with people who don’t know or understand what agents go through, which is why the Border Patrol has several avenues of help for those seeking a way to talk about what they’ve seen.

“There’s some times where I’m crying on the way home,” Hernandez said.

However, it still can be too much. Paco Cantu joined the Border Patrol in 2008, serving chiefly in an intelligence role until he decided to leave in 2012. Cantu worked on identifying the bigger picture of what the cartel smuggling operation looked like across the southern border.

A camera tower watches the U.S.-Mexico border, just east of Nogales, AZ. (Photo by Erik Kolsrud/Arizona Sonora News)

“My time in the Border Patrol was an accumulation of info and actions that led me to feel overwhelmed,” Cantu said. “It wasn’t until years later that I started to process it.”

While the mental health of agents is rarely discussed, their role in the national conversation about immigration is — though rarely in a positive manner.

Confusion about the roles of Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the Border Patrol leave many under the impression that Border Patrol tracks down migrants in the cities, which is ICE’s job. The Border Patrol is generally painted in broad strokes and is the poster child for actions regarding immigration — whether or not the Border Patrol was actually involved.

“Some people don’t like us, so we just try to do our best,” Hernandez said. “We aren’t an evil organization by any means.”

Some of that distrust comes from controversy of the overuse of force by agents. The two biggest in recent memory include the 2010 killing of Mexican national Sergio Hernández Guereca by BP agent Jesus Mesa in Texas, and the 2012 killing of Mexican national Jose Antonio Elena Rodriguez by BP agent Lonnie Schwartz in Nogales. Both victims were in México and were shot through the border fence.

“The role of the Border Patrol is important in enduring for the time being,” Cantu said. “Border Patrol agents are the first Americans, first representatives of the U.S. government that migrants encounter. At the same time, you have to balance that with the violent reality.”

That violent reality is part of what the proposed 5,000 agents will have to face, as the Trump administration takes a harder line on immigration and smuggling across a border where you never know who or what you may encounter.

“You put on the uniform, you put on the gun,” Sullivan said. “You never know when you’re going to have a bad day. And when you have a bad day, it’s a bad day.”

Erik Kolsrud is a reporter for Arizona Sonora News, a service from the School of Journalism with the University of Arizona. Contact him at ekolsrud@email.arizona.edu

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