‘Come On Down to the Rio Grande Valley. I’ll Show You Around.’

Would patrolling with the Border Patrol change your mind about the border?

A Border Patrol agent apprehends an immigrant near Laredo, Texas, in November. Photo: Kirsten Luce
A Border Patrol agent apprehends an immigrant near Laredo, Texas, in November. Photo: Kirsten Luce
A Border Patrol agent apprehends an immigrant near Laredo, Texas, in November. Photo: Kirsten Luce

On the outskirts of McAllen, Texas, a few miles north of the Rio Grande, a dun-colored warehouse squats on the corner of West Ursula Avenue and South Ware Road.

Formally known as the Central Processing Center, it is surrounded by a chain-link fence and numerous signs prohibiting photography. A few years ago, it was occupied by an injection-molding company. Since then, it has been retrofitted by the federal government to lock up as many as 1,000 children at one time.

The Central Processing Center is a monument to “deterrence,” the idea that undocumented immigrants will stop showing up at the border if the punishments inflicted upon them there are severe enough. Deterrence dates back to Bill Clinton’s presidency, but it reached an unprecedented level of harshness in 2018 inside the Central Processing Center and at least two other facilities, where hundreds of children were forcibly taken from their parents under the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” policy. The forced separation lasted from April until mid-June, when Ginger Thompson of ProPublica obtained a now-infamous audio file from the interior of a processing center with the sounds of children wailing in Spanish for their parents. Two days later, Trump signed an executive order that effectively ended across-the-board family separations.

But the broader policy of deterrence has persisted. Legal border crossings continue to be shut down arbitrarily through “metering,” a practice that has been criticized by the Department of Homeland Security’s own inspector general. Asylum seekers who try to cross at designated points of entry are forced to turn back and wait in Mexico until their turn is called. Those who try to cross elsewhere have been subject to prolonged detention; those who protest have been tear-gassed. Trump has spoken approvingly of the use of deadly force against them. “When they throw rocks … I say, ‘Consider it a rifle,’ ” Trump said in early November, while in the process of sending troops to the border. A few weeks later, John Kelly, Trump’s chief of staff, signed a memo authorizing the military to use “lethal force.”

The effect Trump’s rhetoric has on Border Patrol agents will never be fully known. But there are clues. The number of deaths along the U.S.-Mexico border rose during Trump’s first year in office, even as the number of crossings fell sharply. There are well-documented cases of uniformed Border Patrol agents destroying caches of food and water left for migrants who are passing through dangerously desolate areas. It is hard not to think of the rhetoric of deterrence when considering the cases of the two Guatemalan children who died in December while in the custody of the United States Border Patrol.

Near the end of the audio from Thompson’s reporting, an anonymous Border Patrol agent can be heard responding with an attempt at humor to the sound of the sobbing children in his agency’s care. “We have an orchestra here,” he says. The words couple a need to somehow contain the anguished cries of “Mami!” and “Papá!” with a denial that those sounds are being produced by human children.

The orchestra joke hints at the precarious moral situation faced by the 19,000 agents of the Border Patrol, more than half of whom are Latino. That same month, in Washington, D.C., I met two representatives of the Border Patrol union. Brandon Judd, the union’s president, and Art Del Cueto, another union official, assured me that the hysteria over family separation was unwarranted. In fact, they argued, the problem the Border Patrol faced was that Trump wasn’t doing enough. He had the right vision, they said, but he had been undermined by others in the White House and career civil servants, holdovers from the Obama years.

When Senator Jeff Merkley of Oregon toured the Central Processing Center in June, he asked a group of three or four agents if they had concerns about the impact of family separations on children. “There was an uncomfortable pause,” he told me. “They said, ‘We just follow directions. That’s our job.’ ” That was the closest any agents on the ground came, he said, to expressing qualms about carrying out the president’s orders.

“I think gulag is a fair term to use,” Senator Merkley told me. “It’s a string of prison camps with very little oversight from the public.” He was the first elected official from Capitol Hill to travel to the southern border during the family-separation crisis. Others followed, and some went so far as to compare the Border Patrol to the Gestapo.

A second front had opened in the border debate. After Trump’s repeated attempts to paint asylum seekers as criminals, rapists, and possible terrorists, his opponents had now called the humanity of the border’s official guardians into question.

Immigration hawks believed the Border Patrol deserved the same halo of service as the post-9/11 military. Liberals saw it as something closer to Trump’s personal militia, tasked with carrying out an inherently racist agenda. Judd himself, a familiar character on cable news, had an innocent faith in his side’s righteousness. He believed that the facts on the ground were persuasive; all I needed to do was see them with my own eyes, in the Rio Grande Valley near the southern tip of Texas, and I would come around.

A Border Patrol agent apprehending an undocumented immigrant near Nogales, Arizona, in June 2017. Photo: Kirsten Luce

Judd sent me to see Chris Cabrera, a Border Patrol agent and union official stationed in McAllen. It was September. The midterms were on the horizon, and Trump’s immigration rhetoric had returned to some familiar themes — a fervent economic nativism tinged with deniable racist allusions: The immigrants themselves posed a clear and present danger, the wall was the answer, and Congress was the obstacle. “His presidency is over if he doesn’t build the wall,” Steve Bannon, Trump’s former executive campaign manager and White House chief strategist, told me later. “He knows that.” With the family-separation debacle now behind it, the Border Patrol had resumed its old role of substantiating the crisis narrative with firsthand accounts from the ground.

Cabrera met me at the union office, an unmarked suite of rooms behind a buzzer and mirrored windows. “We keep a pretty low profile,” he said. “We don’t want any problems, protesters.” The office had some evidence of the union’s recent turn toward political activism. Fox News played nonstop in the lounge. A red MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN mug sat on the desk of chapter president Paul Perez. Cabrera had sometimes appeared in national media as a Border Patrol representative, reliably defending the administration’s policies. I’d also heard him denounce liberal activists during his appearances on the union’s weekly podcast, The Green Line.

Border Patrol agent Chris Cabrera. Photo: Kirsten Luce

Cabrera presents himself as a classic Texan — bullish, with a black goatee, a pickup truck, a tin of Copenhagen chew, and an unholstered 9-mm. sidearm resting beside his badge on his desk. He is 45 years old with four children; his right shoulder is marked with a tattoo of his youngest son’s footprints. He co-owns a boxing gym and has steered some of the young athletes who train there toward careers in law enforcement. In our conversations, he praised Trump in general terms and bridled at the image of Border Patrol agents as jackbooted keepers of the gulag. He had already gotten some hard questions about family separations from his own family. His niece had put it this way: “How can you do that to your own people?”

“It boils down to compassion,” he said when I asked how he had answered the question. “If I quit, how am I going to know that the next guy is going to do the job with compassion?” The Border Patrol were more than enforcers, he said. They cared about the welfare of the people who were coming across. He pulled out his phone and showed me a picture of a Border Patrol medical technician who had delivered the children of pregnant asylum seekers in the field. He swiped to another picture — two little girls, ages 7 and 10, whom he had found in the middle of the night near the border. “All they had was their parents’ phone number,” he said. “These folks put their kids on top of a train through three countries. The teenage girls will be on birth control, because their parents realize that’s part of the journey.”

Like most Americans living in the region, Cabrera has roots that can be traced back to Mexico, though the question of whether those he was arresting were really “his people,” as his niece had suggested, was complicated. He had, after all, grown up in Dallas, speaking English. At one point, during the 1980s, his family had opened its home up to a family of refugees from El Salvador, but they were political refugees with a valid asylum claim. This, he felt, made them different from the newcomers. Or were they? It was almost as though he’d been split down the middle, like the land itself, into two men, the Texan who wore the green uniform and the son of the Rio Grande Valley who was raising four children on the same soil as their ancestors.

Running down the center of Cabrera’s forehead to the bridge of his nose is a faint line of scar tissue. During his time in the Army, while stationed in Hawaii, he was talking to a woman in the noncommissioned officers’ club. Her sister’s husband, another soldier, didn’t like the looks of Cabrera. “He called me a spic,” Cabrera said. “I told him, ‘You don’t know me. I’m not Puerto Rican.’ ” The man smashed a pool cue over Cabrera’s head. Cabrera didn’t take it personally. “That was just cockiness,” he said. “Military guys, different units, you end up butting heads. And then you go downtown and if something happens to the same guy, you jump in and help him out. That’s just how it is. It’s a big family.”

Cabrera served around the Pacific Rim and never saw combat. His contract as an enlisted man ended three years before the 9/11 attacks. He had been out of the service for just over a year when he chanced across a Border Patrol recruiter while shopping in a mall. The appeal of the new job was self-evident. “It’s like playing hide-and-go-seek, but you’re always ‘it,’ ” Cabrera said. “When it’s muddy, you get to go four-wheeling. You get to go to the range and shoot fancy guns.” Sometimes he thought about the road not taken, especially after his old military unit did a combat jump into Iraq. “That would have been the only thing I really would have wanted to hold out for,” he said. “If they recalled me, I’d go.”

Cabrera’s move to the Border Patrol coincided with the sweeping post-9/11 effort to militarize the southern border. Now operating as part of the newly formed Department of Homeland Security, Border Patrol doubled its number of personnel from 10,000 in 2001 to 19,000 today, and its budget nearly tripled. Overall, about $263 billion has been spent on the border and immigration since 1986, a figure that approaches one-half of the cost of building and maintaining the entire U.S. interstate-highway system from 1956 onward.

Meanwhile, the number of apprehensions, the best statistic available to objectively measure how many people attempt to enter the U.S. without documents, has steadily fallen from just over 1.6 million in 2000 to 303,916 in 2017. Comparing apprehensions and budget is a rough measurement, one that doesn’t account for the greater numbers of families and unaccompanied children fleeing instability in Central America. But it does seem to suggest that the Border Patrol has never had less work to do or more resources to do it with.

Judd may have sent me to the Rio Grande Valley because the region flouts these broader trends. For more than a century, migrant workers moved relatively freely along its eastern stretch, until the mid-1990s, when stepped-up enforcement measures in California, Arizona, and New Mexico pushed many trafficking routes into eastern Texas. The area has seen several arrests for buying weapons and smuggling them south to Tamaulipas, one of the most violent states in Mexico. Even as apprehensions declined nationwide, they rose sharply in the valley, which now accounts for around a third of the borderwide total. The Trump administration has already approved contracts for 14 miles of new wall for the sector, which runs from Falcon Lake through McAllen to the Gulf of Mexico, at a cost of $312 million.

Cabrera printed out a map and drew a small circle around a stretch of river west of McAllen, an area known as Rincon Village. For asylum seekers and the coyotes who profit off them, Rincon Village had become the ad hoc port of entry, the American equivalent of Sicily circa 2014, when boats containing hundreds of African refugees were drifting to shore. “This is the busiest area in the nation right now,” he said. Reports put daily apprehensions in the hundreds. Cabrera suggested we go take a look. His truck was parked outside, a white Ford F-250 with extra-large wheels and an engine that spits out a black cloud of diesel smoke during rapid accelerations. A loaded AR-15 rifle lay across the rear footwells. “Good to have it along, just in case,” he said.

A raft transporting immigrants across the Rio Grande into the United States. Photo: Kirsten Luce
Asylum seekers walk up a dirt road just after crossing the Rio Grande to turn themselves in to the Border Patrol. Photo: Kirsten Luce

We drove west along Highway 83. Cabrera pointed out culverts and thick brush that some border crossers use for concealment. Above us in the distant sky floated a Tethered Aerostat Radar System, a military blimp loaded with surveillance gear. A few miles to the south, just out of view, the existing border fence, made of 18-foot-high rust-colored steel posts, runs along the northern bank of the river, its appearances and disappearances describing the dotted line of congressional appropriations. The existing 60 miles of fence was funded in 2007. Construction on an additional six miles is scheduled to begin early this year. There is some confusion about what makes a wall a wall. DHS has solicited bids for solid-concrete barriers 18 to 30 feet high. Trump has enthused about the merits of an edifice that’s “see through” or made of “slats,” which would still count as a wall to him but is “not a wall” and more like a “barrier” or “fencing,” according to Kelly. As long as the wall remains unbuilt, however, it can be whatever Trump needs it to be in the given political moment.

As we drove, Cabrera presented the basics of current immigration policy through the Border Patrol’s eyes. The border crossers fall into two groups. There are the so-called regulars, who make a covert circuit from Mexico into the U.S. and back, either for under-the-table work or to smuggle contraband; the regulars tend to try to evade detection. Then there are what they call the “OTMs,” short for “Other Than Mexicans,” who cross the border only once, with the goal of being taken into U.S. custody, where they can apply for asylum. The numbers of asylum seekers began to spike in 2014, when tens of thousands of women and children from Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador began turning up at the border in the Rio Grande Valley. The Border Patrol is prohibited from turning them back once they reach U.S. soil. And since no one from Central America is allowed to board U.S.-bound airplanes without a visa, they pay smugglers several times the cost of a ticket to guide them overland.

By 2016, the “Other Than Mexicans” accounted for more than half of all arrivals on the southern border. Many came seeking sanctuary from murder, rape, and the organized-crime networks that have made many parts of their countries unlivable. The Obama administration tried and failed to address these problems at the source with state-building measures and foreign aid. And while Obama never had a policy of separating families as Trump has claimed, his administration did hold families together in privately run detention centers and sent some border crossers to 13 prison camps run by for-profit companies. The lack of capacity was part of the problem the Central Processing Center in McAllen was supposed to solve. On Cabrera’s phone were pictures of unaccompanied children sleeping on the crowded floor of a Border Patrol station before the center opened in 2014.

The majority of asylum seekers — those who express a credible fear of returning to their own country and do not have outstanding deportation orders — are given a court date for their asylum claim and are then released, sometimes with an ankle monitor. The Border Patrol calls the practice of conditional release, which dates back to the 1950s, “catch and release.” Trump repeatedly tried and failed to make good on his campaign promise to end the policy, which, from Cabrera’s perspective, makes the border dangerously permeable, since any person with a credible asylum claim can stay. “They know there’s certain things they got to say in order to make it through our system,” Cabrera said. “The prospect of a guaranteed short-term legal stay in the U.S. while a claim is being processed encourages more people to come.” Judd has called this state of affairs “the main magnet” that draws undocumented immigrants to the border.

The policy also undermines the role of the Border Patrol, as defined by its official mission statement and numerous strategic documents that talk about the need to deter and prevent illegal entries. “We’re the only union that’s begging for more work” is how Cabrera put it. The agents want to be the gunslinging border cops, but the influx of asylum claims has made them more like crossing guards.

We passed a stretch of highway with one-story brick buildings on either side. An old man with a mustache sat on a porch — Cabrera’s uncle. Cabrera parked the truck and jumped out to say hello. “You know how they say it’s the jobs that Americans won’t do?” Cabrera said. “He did that all his life. His only source of income was working the fields. Doesn’t speak a lick of English. Down here, you don’t necessarily need to.”

As we reached the outskirts of town, the brick houses got more run-down, with piles of debris in some of the yards. Cabrera turned left onto a dirt road and engaged the four-wheel drive. We were in a flyspeck town called Chapeno. The houses were mostly trailers here, some behind cattle gates, some stacked on top of one another — “Some Duck Dynasty stuff,” Cabrera remarked. The road turned to mud and led us to the water’s edge. The Rio Grande was low, no more than 200 feet across. It looked to be maybe neck-high in the middle. Cabrera said this remote spot was a “staging area,” a place where smugglers ferry passengers across international lines in the middle of the night. He picked up a large rock from the mud and said it was about the size of the rocks that get thrown at agents by border crossers trying to avoid apprehension. “That’s going to put you down, if not out,” he said. “We almost had a guy lose an eye over one.”

Allegations of rock throwing play a central role in the Border Patrol’s narrative of the threats its agents face, particularly in cases when they have responded with deadly force. An investigation by The Guardian found that Border Patrol agents have killed 97 people since 2003. Last May, an agent shot and killed a 19-year-old Guatemalan woman in Rio Bravo, Texas. An initial statement from the Border Patrol claimed that the agent “came under attack by multiple subjects using blunt objects” and that the woman was “one of the assailants.” Both of these claims disappeared from subsequent statements. The latest news is from October, when the FBI was said to still be investigating the case.

Finally, we reached Rincon Village, a weedy no-man’s-land in the shadow of the Anzalduas International Bridge. A few houses sit abandoned and overrun by the encroaching woods. Beside them, a road leads up from the Rio Grande to an embankment, accessible only by the Border Patrol, beyond which lies a newly fortified concrete levee wall. On a busy day, Cabrera told me, more than 1,000 people cross here, almost all of them asylum seekers. “We gotta wait for these fuckers,” Cabrera said, as we sat in the idling truck with the air-conditioning going full blast. We had parked in a muddy turnaround indented with footprints, dirty diapers, and a few old shoes. It was clear that people had moved through this area in a hurry. Cabrera said agents would sometimes drag a tire behind a truck to erase the footprints, only to return a few hours later to find dozens of fresh tracks.

After half an hour of waiting, we got bored and started to drive around. In the hazy distance, we could just make out a group of three or four figures as they crossed the road and disappeared into the brush. Cabrera called one of the agents on duty in the area. “Excellent,” he said. “We got some Bangladeshis up there.” Two years ago, there was just one Bangladeshi apprehended at the southern border; in 2017, nearly 600 arrived, having first flown to South America. Smugglers took them the rest of the way, with the going rate reported at roughly $20,000 each.

We drove up to the levee road and parked the truck. Two Border Patrol agents had lined up a group of 13 asylum seekers in the shade under the bridge. They carried small backpacks and bottles of water, and dried mud was caked thick on their sneakers. Among them were three young children and a teenage girl trying to breastfeed a crying baby. Janio Canales, a 34-year-old tailor from Nicaragua, told me he had been a foreman in a clothing factory. He came from a family of dissidents, he said. The government had killed his father, a longtime organizer. His plan now was to apply for asylum and join his mother, who was living in Connecticut. “I didn’t know about any bridge,” he said when I asked why he crossed here and not at an official port of entry.

In the middle of the group were four men of South Asian ancestry who looked to be in their mid-20s. It was unclear how the Border Patrol had determined they were Bangladeshi. One of the agents was trying, without success, to prod them into responding to him. “Which one of you guys speaks English?” he asked. “One of you guys has to. You couldn’t have gotten here otherwise.” Cabrera gave it a try: “Hey, if you speak English, I gotta let you go.”

The questions, based on the assumption that the men were intentionally withholding information from the agents, had the aggressive quality of a college hazing ritual, a way of both enforcing the pecking order and defusing the awkwardness of the task of loading the new arrivals onto a prison bus. One of the men gave his name. It was long. “Oh my God!” the agent said. “That’s worse than the Guatemalans. Hang on. I’m going to get back with you.” The other agent was going down the line and handing out plastic bags for the detainees’ watches, belts, shoelaces, coins, and other loose belongings. The only thing they would be allowed to take into the detention center, Cabrera explained, were identity documents, travel documents, paper money, and some religious jewelry.

The agents used Cabrera’s phone to confer with a linguist who could translate for the four men. Meanwhile, Cabrera struck up a conversation with the bus driver, a private security guard and fellow veteran.

“I miss it,” the driver said. “I’ll see a Black Hawk fly by and think of those days.”

“You’ll never get it back,” Cabrera replied. “No matter what you do, you’ll never get it back.”

On the return drive, my conversation with Cabrera circled back to the demonization of agents on the ground. Without addressing the zero-tolerance policy directly, Cabrera seemed to suggest that those who had been called upon to enforce it should not be held accountable. “I find that ridiculous,” he said. “These guys are out there breaking up families? No, we’re not. We’re out there enforcing the law.” This was true, he said, both for those who came to the U.S. illegally and those who came legally but then committed a crime. “I’m not the one breaking up the family,” he continued. “The person who committed the crime, they broke up the family. I just had to enforce it.”

Back at the union office, a couple of Cabrera’s colleagues asked who “got some Bangladesh today.” It wasn’t a slur, although it did make them sound like elk or caribou, along the lines of #CatchOfTheDay, a hashtag that Customs and Border Protection tweeted in 2017 beneath the mug shots of four undocumented convicts. Another Border Patrol byword for the asylum seekers like those at Rincon Village is quitters, a word suggesting that their decision not to run is owed to a lack of energy, as opposed to a desire to pursue a potentially valid legal claim.

A few weeks later, Cabrera made a rhetorical slip of his own on NBC Nightly News. “I do not believe it is the final solution,” he said, referring to Trump’s deployment of troops to the border. “But we need to get that final solution. And that needs to be done through Congress.” Defending himself on Twitter the following morning, he denied there was any hidden meaning to his words. “You liken me to the Third Reich,” he wrote. “I meant what I said in the simplest sense. The loophole” — those laws that allow asylum seekers to cross into the U.S. anywhere and then stay — “needs to be closed.”

Border Patrol agents discover a Mexican immigrant hiding in the brush along the Rio Grande. Photo: Kirsten Luce

The complexity of the Border Patrol’s overlapping areas of responsibility (human rights, state building, drugs, criminal gangs, counterterrorism) reminded me of a gripe that a U.S. military commander in Afghanistan had once heard from one of his lieutenants. “General, the troops you’ve got here on the ground are like a first-rate college football team,” he’d said. “And now you’re asking us to dance the ballet.”

In some ways, the dance the Border Patrol is engaged in under Trump is even more complicated than the military’s. Strict rules separate soldiers from the civilian world of politics and policy decisions; the Border Patrol, meanwhile, has been engaged in a public lobbying campaign around some of the very policies it is theoretically a neutral agent in carrying out. Listen to the running commentary on immigration issues from Border Patrol sector chiefs on Fox News, and it is easy to mistake the agency for a uniformed, gun-toting arm of the Republican Party.

The entanglement deepened during the last presidential campaign. The union representing Border Patrol agents backed Trump early, in March 2016, months before he secured the nomination. It was the first time that the union had endorsed a candidate for president. “The endorsement was a huge thing for the Breitbart audience,” said Bannon. “Ten times more important than any politician. The only ones that mattered were the Border Patrol, ICE, and Jeff Sessions.” The endorsement statement, signed by Judd, praised Trump for his focus on immigration and his aversion to “political correctness.” The rewards for this early demonstration of loyalty were substantial. Trump began occasionally phoning in to the Green Line podcast. One month before the election, Judd, Del Cueto, and three other union members met with him at Trump Tower. Judd returned, along with his counterpart from the ICE union, to meet with Trump again during the transition.

The union left these meetings with the sense that it would have some input into the leadership of the Border Patrol and perhaps even the whole of the DHS. It was also told that Trump would quickly end “catch and release.” But as with the wall itself, Trump’s promises had a way of forever postponing themselves into a plausible near future. By the time I met Judd and Del Cueto, in Washington last June, Judd was getting impatient for the president to deliver. He was also wound up about Trump opponents’ characterizing his immigration policies as racist. “He was born in Mexico!” Judd said, pointing to Del Cueto. “This has nothing to do with race.”

Judd was even more emphatic when it came to the zero-tolerance policy. When we spoke after it was revoked, he told me the flaw with the policy was that it hadn’t been implemented earlier in Trump’s term, before immigrants had learned what to expect from the new administration. The perception that migrants constantly monitor changes in U.S. policy and alter their plans accordingly was shared by Manuel Padilla Jr., the then chief of the Border Patrol’s Rio Grande sector, who gave me a briefing at his headquarters.
He had detailed charts that appeared to demonstrate how the movements in monthly apprehension numbers are driven by the line taken by Washington. “Every action and every word means something,” he said. “You can actually move these patterns.” Indeed, by some measures, whatever threat immigration might have posed to the homeland has already been mitigated. Among them is the low level of criminality among undocumented immigrants in the U.S. and the accelerating departure of Mexican immigrants who are now leaving the U.S. in greater numbers than the Mexicans coming in. The majority of the people who were still coming were fleeing violence and poverty. It would likely take measures at least as extreme as the breaking of families to persuade them to turn around.

Padilla was not without sympathy for undocumented immigrants. Like Cabrera, he played up the efforts of the Border Patrol to save the lives of border crossers who wind up stranded without water in the desert. But he also echoed a grievance expressed by Trump and his core constituency that the way America treats people who cross the border without paperwork is insufficiently punitive. “A lot of people don’t see illegal immigration as illegal,” he said. “Entering the country illegally is a crime.” From his perspective, the family separations were a defensible measure designed to teach people without documents to stay away.

Cabrera was reluctant to go into much detail about what those days on the job were like. He said that family separations were “much ado about nothing” and that most parents were reunited with their children in a matter of hours. (As of early November, more than 100 children who had been separated from their families at the border were still in custody, four months after a judge had ordered them to be reunited.) He explained that in some cases, an outsider might perceive that a family separation had occurred when really it was a child who had been matched with a stranger by an unscrupulous smuggler. There was another case he knew of in which Border Patrol agents had misunderstood a man who claimed to be a child’s father but wasn’t able to make the case convincingly. The family was separated, and several days passed before the Border Patrol realized he had been telling the truth. As I listened to this last anecdote, it wasn’t hard to hear that the consequences of the zero-tolerance policy still weighed on him. “That’s what bothers our guys the most,” he told me. “Being called Nazis. We’re trying to help.”

The stories Cabrera told of arguments with various family members struck me as a way of demonstrating that he knew the difference between the imaginary border, the one being used as a political football, and the actual terrain he worked every day. “I’m a freethinker,” he said at one point. His mind, like anyone’s, would change sometimes, depending on the shifting inner weather of mood, experience, and news. It would be hard for anyone, after all, to keep things straight when the most basic rules of one’s job were subject to ongoing revision by the president and the courts. But I take him at his word that his usage of the final solution in reference to U.S. immigration was not intended as a historical reference. Rather, Cabrera’s frustration with the ambiguity and flux of immigration policy had led him to adopt the rhetoric of the administration, in which thousands of human beings are lumped together into an acute problem, a “question,” that has to be settled once and for all.

A Border Patrol agent apprehends two immigrants from Honduras near Mission, Texas, in November 2018. Photo: Kirsten Luce

I returned to McAllen in early November. The midterm elections were days away. Perez, the union-chapter president, had been spending a significant amount of time on the road campaigning with Republican senator Ted Cruz. On the national stage, Trump was blasting out fearful messages about “the caravan” of “criminals” approaching the border.

The so-called caravan was actually at least three separate groups of Central American migrants who were still days away from reaching the U.S. border. The military estimated their total numbers at 7,000, a figure that did not especially impress Cabrera, whom I visited at the union office. After all, Rincon Village had seen 2,000 border crossers apprehended by the Border Patrol over the course of three days in September. Nevertheless, Trump had used the caravan as the justification for sending 5,200 uniformed soldiers to the border. “The president has made it clear that border security is national security,” said the head of the Pentagon’s Northern Command at a press conference in the first days of Operation Faithful Patriot. “Many more troops are coming,” Trump tweeted. “We will NOT let these Caravans, which are also made up of some very bad thugs and gang members, into the U.S. Our Border is sacred … TURN AROUND!”

As the administration prepped for the caravan, Padilla left McAllen to take up a new post in San Antonio to head up a DHS border-security shop called Joint Task Force–West. Two nights before the election, a few dozen colleagues from the valley gathered over burgers and pork tenderloin to send him off. Days later, he would appear on a Fox News segment, promising that “we will not tolerate the crowds, the type of chaos that you saw in southern Mexico.” But the vibe at the party, held in a catering hall a few steps from the Rio Grande, was more complacent. Wearing a cowboy hat and a Lone Star shirt, Padilla received parting gifts — knives, firearms, tequila, more cowboy hats. He was toasted by emissaries from the FBI, the Texas Department of Public Safety, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, South Texas College, and the McAllen office of Senator Cruz, who implored the crowd to “please go vote!” There was no suggestion that the party was being held in a vulnerable garrison with enemy lines just a stone’s throw away.

Not that this diminished the sense of mission. “My gift is too big to fit in this room,” joked an Army lieutenant colonel from Corpus Christi. “I brought 1,100 soldiers down here.” He said he didn’t know much about the Border Patrol; his only contact was from 2007, when three agents had come to help train the new government of Iraq. “The brotherhood that exists in the Border Patrol is the same that we find in our uniform. There is a brotherhood that stands, whether it’s a physical wall or a real wall; no matter where it is, it says, ‘You’re not going to hurt people I care about.’ ”

A Border Patrol agent searches an immigrant from Honduras near Mission, Texas, in November 2018. Photo: Kirsten Luce

The Catholic Charities Respite Center in downtown McAllen is the place border crossers get their first genuine welcome to America after being released from the Central Processing Center and other detention facilities. Volunteers help them understand their legal paperwork, make phone calls to family members, and arrange for the next leg of their journey north, which usually begins four blocks away, at the McAllen bus station.

The center’s founder, Sister Norma Pimentel, is a soft-spoken nun who is more social worker than activist. Like charity workers in other border cities, she is in regular contact with local Border Patrol and ICE agents, who let her know when a busload of detainees will be released. Earlier in the year, even as Trump’s Cabinet called for punishment and deterrence, Cabrera and his boxing gym had barbecued 300 pounds of chicken and delivered it to the center. This under-the-table assistance could be interpreted as subverting the hard-edged policy of deterrence. Pimentel too is less adversarial than one might expect. She avoids speaking about politics. She was there at the retirement party of her friend Padilla and at a military roundtable to introduce Operation Faithful Patriot to local law enforcement. She imposes strict limits on media access to the center. “It’s not about politics. It’s about the people who are being helped,” says Brenda Riojas, who handles communications for the diocese.

The day before the election, the respite center was packed with families, the adults holding manila folders containing their paperwork; written on the outside was “Please help me. I do not speak English. What bus do I need to take?” People spilled out the back door into an adjoining parking lot. Men squatted wearily in the shade; women waited in line to shower in a trailer.

After showing me around, Pimentel took me to an upscale Mexican restaurant down the street from the center. As we spoke, sitting by the window, she took care to acknowledge each border crosser who passed by. She said she held the Border Patrol agents she knew in high regard.
“They are family men,” she said. “They go home to their wife and their kids.
It’s not an easy thing for them to enforce a law that separates children. They see firsthand the suffering that the children and the parents go through.”

I asked her how she thought Operation Faithful Patriot would end. As the government stepped up its efforts to slow and perhaps stop the movement of undocumented immigrants across the border, she said, the risk of a humanitarian crisis on the Mexican side would rise. Thousands of people could wind up stuck in encampments as they tried to wait things out.
Such semi-permanent tent cities had already appeared in Europe, near Calais, France, and outside Spanish enclaves in Morocco. Now it looked as though they were on their way to the Mexican side of the Rio Grande. “How will they deal with the families that are stuck there?” Pimentel asked. “Any human being of goodwill can recognize that these are people and that they need help.”

The day after my conversation with Pimentel, I watched Operation Faithful Patriot in action, as a platoon of Army engineers unspooled rolls of concertina wire along a levee that runs beneath one of the footbridges. In the distance, across a quarter-mile of floodplain, was the road looking down on Rincon Village where I’d watched asylum seekers surrender to the Border Patrol a few weeks before. “We’re just putting up wire,” said the unit’s sergeant, “supporting the Border Patrol, doing whatever they want.”

The official explanations of the mission were just as vague and deferential the following day, when I went on the military’s first official tour of Camp Donna, a base that had sprung up almost overnight, 15 minutes outside McAllen, to house a contingent of roughly 600 soldiers. Our escorts repeatedly emphasized that the soldiers were unarmed. They could not agree on the question of whether the base constituted a deployment. I asked one officer whether the caravan was a national-security threat from the military’s perspective. He said that was a question for General James Mattis, who was then still the secretary of Defense. A group of engineers resting outside their tent explained that barbed wire can be spooled out in single, double, triple, or 11-roll strands. Eleven-roll can stop vehicles. “That’s for more of a combat-type scenario,” one told me. “We wouldn’t use that here. That’d be overkill.” Instead, they’d opted for single-roll. But he still thought it should jut out less from the fence, “for the kids and the people who come to see the birds, so they don’t get cut.” The president’s warning about an imminent invasion of terrorists and criminals did not seem foremost in his mind.

Hours after the polls closed, Mattis declared the border operation would no longer be referred to as Faithful Patriot. That title, he said, was too political. The military would now call its efforts “border support.” To avoid running afoul of the Posse Comitatus Act, which prohibits the president from using the Army as law enforcement, the military would be explicitly under the direction of DHS and Customs and Border Protection. When Mattis visited Camp Donna in mid-November, he said the military’s presence, which could cost $200 million by the end of the year, was routine, legal, and not a “stunt.”

But as the year drew to a close, it was far from clear whether Faithful Patriot would persist as a restrained Mattisian barbed-wire project or morph into something with more teeth. Bannon, for his part, told me he envisions the military’s presence at the border as the beginning of a more sweeping operation that could potentially get the wall built. “You either have a crisis or you don’t,” he said. “If it’s a crisis, act like it. Declare a national-security emergency on the southern border. Deploy troops not to assist the Border Patrol but to replace them, then you bring in the Army Corps of Engineers to build the wall. Get the backhoes out and start digging. The Democrats, the Establishment Republicans, the media, maybe the courts — they all go nuts. Everybody fights it. But you are Trump, and you are finally building a fucking wall.”

Trump’s “Cabinet order” authorizing the military to use lethal force at the border came on November 20. A week later came the first suggestion of armed clashes, when Customs and Border Protection officers, backed up by the military, fired tear gas at crowds of demonstrating migrants who were approaching the fence near Tijuana. “They deployed tear gas to protect themselves and protect the border,” said Rodney S. Scott, the head of the Border Patrol’s San Diego sector. Though there were no serious injuries, some of the asylum seekers, he said, had thrown rocks.

Trump’s imagined caravan of mobs storming bridges and pushing down fencing has yet to materialize in the U.S. Yet Pimentel’s worries about the humanitarian consequences of militarizing the border turned out to be more prescient. Late last year, the White House announced two major deals with the Mexican government. The U.S. would give Mexico $4.8 billion in development money — more than ten times what the country typically receives from the U.S. in foreign aid each year. In a separate agreement, the “Remain in Mexico” plan, Mexico agreed to offer temporary residency and work permits to asylum seekers while their cases were processed by U.S. authorities (unaccompanied minors would be allowed to remain in the U.S.). Should it survive court challenges, the plan would mean the long-promised end of “catch and release.” But it would also make asylum seekers’ northbound journey even more perilous, a fact underscored when two Honduran boys, ages 16 and 17, were kidnapped from a youth shelter in Tijuana and stabbed to death in what appeared to be an attempted robbery.

That same month, the two Guatemalan children, a boy and a girl, died while in the custody of the United States Border Patrol. Felipe Gomez Alonzo was 8 years old; Jakelin Caal Maquin was 7. Both had made the journey north with their fathers, and both had been absorbed into an opaque network of remote detention centers. Jakelin appears to have died of dehydration and septic shock. Felipe reportedly spent nearly two days in Border Patrol detention around El Paso, Texas, before he died in a hospital, vomiting and with a high fever, on Christmas Eve. An autopsy revealed he had the flu. The ASPCA “would not allow animals to be treated the way human beings are being treated at this facility,” said Representative Al Green of Texas, who toured some of the detention centers in New Mexico where Jakelin had been held.

On Twitter, Trump used Jakelin’s death as further evidence in favor of his immigration policies. “If we had a Wall,” he wrote, immigrants “wouldn’t even try” to enter the U.S. The dead girl, in Trump’s view, was yet another argument in favor of deterrence.

Border Patrol agents surround and apprehend a group of Central American immigrants on a ranch in Brooks County, Texas. Photo: Kirsten Luce

A few weeks after the tear-gas incident, Mattis resigned, citing policy differences with Trump on China, Russia, and the planned exit of U.S. forces from Syria. There were brief moments when I got the sense that Cabrera, too, may have been reaching a kind of breaking point in his ostensibly loyal service to the president. One came in early November. We were sitting in Cabrera’s office, and Trump had just floated the idea of ending birthright citizenship altogether. Despite the 14th Amendment’s explicit guarantee of citizenship to anyone born on American soil, Trump claimed he had gotten White House lawyers to sign off on doing away with birthright citizenship by executive order, without consulting Congress. The plan contained a faint echo of the Nuremberg Laws of 1935, which redefined German citizenship to exclude Jews, Roma, and other minorities as being mere “subjects” undeserving of “full political rights.” It would close the door that had brought the forebears of many Border Patrol agents into the fold and that made the Rio Grande Valley what it was.

I asked Cabrera what he thought about eliminating birthright citizenship. He didn’t have to give it much thought: “I’m against it,” he said.


He leaned back in his chair and shrugged.

“That’s not what America’s about,” he said.

At my prompting, he clarified that this was his personal view, not the official stance of either the agency or the union. Nevertheless, it got me wondering whether cracks were beginning to form in the coalition between the president and the majority-Latino law-enforcement agency that had been such stalwarts of his nativist agenda. Maybe Trump had gone too far. Or maybe I was projecting. A few weeks later, I sent Cabrera a text message about the deaths of Jakelin and Felipe. The next day, on the way back from a visit with his 92-year-old grandmother, he called me.

“The little girl,” he said, meaning Jakelin, “people know what happened. But they’re looking past the fact that this little girl — she wasn’t given any food or water for seven days before she died.”

This was the official DHS version of events, and Trump had tweeted as much a few days earlier. But Jakelin’s father had, through a spokesperson, refuted precisely this claim. I asked Cabrera where he’d read otherwise. Perhaps there was some internal report I didn’t have access to?

“I don’t know where I read it,” he said.

And then, like a potter working wet clay, he began spinning and softening his old opinions, the things he needed to believe in order to earn his daily bread, and reshaping them to accommodate the new facts. Yes, he would give the father the benefit of the doubt. But there were predators out there. There were the natural elements. There was the desert. “The more people make this trip, the more people are going to die,” he said. He seemed to be groping for some point he thought we could agree on. “How many dead children are acceptable?” he said. “The number is zero.”

*This article appears in the January 7, 2019, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!

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