Welcome to my world...
A DAY IN THE LIFE OF A BORDER PATROL AGENT...
Sweat’s dripping down my face, my uniform’s heavy with perspiration as I kneel under a mesquite tree on a humid South Texas afternoon. The brush is heavy and each bush, whether the dominant mesquite trees or the smaller huajillo bushes and catclaws, is armed with thorns making traversing off the trail in the dark a very dangerous game. The sun is setting and, although it's getting dark, no cool breeze relieves the heavy air. Giant thunder heads stretch high into the horizon, angry clouds of an ominous nature predicted heavy rains and more. They are nurtured by the heavy humidity but will eventually bring relief in the form of torrential downpours.
I’m kneeling near a path beaten into the earth by thousands of people, most coming to better their lives, but a few come with other intentions. A sensor a mile or so up the trail was triggered indicating several people coming my way; unless it turns out to be a herd of cows.
My backup’s a half hour away. By the time he gets here I will either have the aliens in custody or have informed him why not...
As the shadows lengthen, I hear movement, a kicking of rocks way up the trail causing my heart to pick up its pace. Is this them or just an armadillo making his noisy way through the brush. I picture them coming down the trail, single file as always, surprisingly quiet. How many are coming towards me? Will they just be walkers or will they have large bags of marijuana on their backs.
As a Border Patrol Agent, I know not to be complacent. I won’t know if I’ll I need my gun until they’re here. Will they, my quarry, after the initial surprise, be completely cooperative, even joking about the fact that tomorrow is another day and another opportunity to get past the Border Patrol's thin, green line? Most are like this, easy going, accepting their fate as just a minor setback on a long journey but a few are different and much more dangerous.
Yet I’ve known several of the agents that have died since my career started. I remember Jeff Barr, who worked the Eagle Pass Station only an hour away from my own. He was a family man with young children who loved the job. He answered a sensor, much like I’m doing tonight, only to encounter four drug mules. Fleeing to get away, one turns just before the river and shoots, the bullet hitting Jeff in the shoulder except it ricocheted downward nicking an artery near his heart. He fired back, wounding the assailant but then died in the hands of his partners.
At my feet I see movement, a large tarantula is moving to higher ground in anticipation of the coming rains. His movement attracts my eyes and I can't look away as his path will come only a few inches away from me. He walks like he's arthritic, his joints are stiff. He senses me, stopping and raises the rear of his heavily haired torso with two spine-like appendages. He’s close enough for me to clearly see the tan and black hair giving him a truly beautiful color while at the same time his appearance is frightening. He is trying to determine if I’m prey or an enemy and has stopped only a few inches from my knee. I’m ready to get up, to jump but I have to remain still. Finally he walks robotically by me, and disappears behind a bush.
I want to move to another location as the idea of the spider climbing up my pant leg causes a chill to go down my spine. He’s not poisonous but his bite must hurt. But I can't move. They should be here in just a couple of minutes.
I can't hear movement anymore but they'll come this way. They always do. I have to be patient.
Straining my eyes to penetrate the enveloping darkness, to see the ghostly shadows of people walking, is futile yet they will suddenly appear. My mouth is slightly open and I listen intently. I hear more movement but it's coming from an animal in the brush behind me-at least I hope it’s an animal.
I remember my firearms instructor at the academy, Paul Conover, telling of his shooting, of coming around a corner and seeing a man sitting in a lawn chair with a .30 caliber rifle, just waiting for Conover to come out into the open. He recalls he saw the flame shoot from the rifle and knew he’d been hit as the numbing of the bullet knocks him to the ground. He returns fire and lives but only after taking more rounds into his body. Then, the real story of his survival ensues. It's a story that still sends chills down my spine as I think of it
The cool, hard plastic grips of my pistol fill my hand, resting at my side. I doubt I’ll need it but I’m not so complacent to not prepare. Sometimes I pull my gun and sometimes I just have my hand on it. All left to the discretion of the officer. The U.S. Border Patrol’s policy never requires an agent to report drawing his weapon; a rarity in law enforcement.
Still no sounds. They should be here by now. I wonder if they’ve stopped. I wonder if these will be anomalies and take a less-traveled fork. Or was this triggered by animals; maybe a small herd of deer or cows or even goats following the well-beaten path. How long should I wait? How long should I give them before I walk up the trail?
Time passes and I don’t move. The darkness is thickening, requiring my eyes to strain even more. Finally, I see movement coming down the trail. In the dark I strain to see a gun or a hand with a machete. I watch the way they walk single file, becoming larger and larger as their surprising speed eats up the distance more quickly than one would think.
Three men. I hear the soft singing of a Spanish song coming from the group. Common. My heart slows a bit as I hope these are just regular migrants passing through the brush country of South Texas hoping to get to a better life. Finally, they’re close and I can see from their faces that they are just peasants coming to better their lives. I can’t articulate why I know but I do. Because of the hundreds of people I’ve arrested each year, I can tell. Yet, I look closely at their hands but can't see anything. No rifles but maybe a knife which can be just as deadly.
"Buenos tardes, muchachos!" I say with my most forceful voice. I stand up and greet them when they are only a few feet away trying to sound calm as if we had arranged this meeting. I’m watching to see how they react. Will one or two bolt and run? Have I misjudged them and will they fight me? Do they have a hidden weapon I can't see? All of these thoughts have crossed my mind so many times they’re now natural.
Of course they’re startled by my greeting, stiffening as their minds try to comprehend what has just happened. After only a few seconds a smile crosses the front man's face. “Buenos tardes, jefe,” He returns my greeting and adds that their luck isn't good.
I say in Spanish "Well, tomorrow is another day," which brings a smile across all of their faces as they know that this is just a monopoly game and they are being sent back to GO to restart their journey.
Each of them is well over thirty years old. They are dressed poorly, dirt and sweat soaked through their clothing. Two are wearing baseball caps and one has a small sombrero. Looking down at their feet, they are truly poor as their footwear, which is probably the most important item for the trip, consists of huaraches made of tire rubber. One has a filthy pair of once-white tennis shoes on. Their faces are tired and, although they are still young, the difficulty of life is easily readable on the many creases that crisscross their faces. I am confident they are not a threat but yet I keep my guard up. I don't want to be a victim.
I hold no contempt for them. They’re doing what any of us would do in their situation. They’re risking their lives, walking dozens of miles through inhospitable country, to earn enough money to send home to their families.
These three, like hundreds of others that I’ve apprehended in the same area, hold no real grievances against me. They know I have a job to do. They know it's a game. There are two classes of immigrants I’ve encountered over the years: men and women like these who are respectful towards me, who walk to better their lives hoping for a chance to earn enough money to send home, and those who are younger, often referred to as ‘broncos’ as they are different without the respect these men have, sometimes Americanized which makes them a much more dangerous quarry.