The Bored Patrol
The agent casts a bleary eye over the Rio Grande toward the sallow glow of downtown Matamoros. It's after 1 a.m. on this balmy May night. Sitting in his SUV on a bluff beside Gateway International Bridge in Brownsville, the fleshy Hispanic fellow wears the dull expression of a convenience store clerk on the graveyard shift -- not the hard stare of a soldier on the front lines against illegal immigration.
"Not a whole lot to do," he says. Rather than waste eight perfectly good hours, the young agent sometimes brings along homework. With his free time on duty with the U.S. Border Patrol, he has made solid headway toward a college degree.
Calm prevails up and down the line. It's the kind of pregnant calm that only a military-style occupation can deliver. Every quarter-mile or so along the dirt roads that snake between the river and the city sits a white-and-green Ford Expedition with an agent inside. Stadium-style lights line the straight levee road, blasting away the darkness and attracting nations of insects. Completing the full-court press against Latin America's poor are elevated observation posts fitted with night-vision scopes.
For agents, who signed up to fight off the smugglers, bandits and migrants who once flooded these parts, the foe is simple, insidious boredom. Conversation-starved, they venture off to visit their neighbors, shooting the bull through open windows. They guzzle coffee, chew tobacco and suck sunflower seeds to stay awake. One reserved fellow has his Bible. Another says he tunes in to Rush Limbaugh. Rumors abound about brazen agents who sneak small TV sets onto the line during football season.
Agent Lucky Fish hasn't encountered an undocumented immigrant in days, but that doesn't stop the 38-year-old from the Texas Hill Country from periodically checking the ground for footprints. West of downtown, Chris Ramnes, a chiseled 34-year-old Kentucky native, has just emerged mud-streaked from the carrizo-strewn bank where he checked a tripped motion sensor. Probably just a nutria foraging or something, he guesses, sounding disappointed.
Some say this is the peace of a border reclaimed. Operation Rio Grande commenced four years ago, bringing scores of new agents with high-tech gear. They marched in like a conquering army and have since turned back the tide of migrants that once washed over Brownsville en route to Houston and elsewhere. Having secured the city and surrounding areas, the patrol is steadily moving upriver and eventually will link with similar crackdowns across the Southwest to take back the entire 2,000-mile U.S.-Mexican frontier. That's the dream, anyway.
There are men and women in Border Patrol green who believe they have become high-dollar mannequins in a bankrupt window-dressing campaign. Thousands of immigrants still are coming in through South Texas, they argue. The Border Patrol is just catching fewer.
"Apprehensions are down because they're going around us and we're not moving around to make more apprehensions," says Danny Ramirez, a Border Patrol union official and veteran agent in Port Isabel. "You're up there in Houston. Can you actually tell me there's a decrease [in the number of illegal immigrants]?"
The agent got the call in early 1998 to work Operation Doorstop, an ongoing campaign in Raymondville to choke off a notorious smuggling route along U.S. Highway 77. He was excited. Doorstop meant lots of tracking in the brush and patrolling highways and back roads. In the past, the detail had netted as many as 3,500 migrants a month. Once again, agents were reaping a bounty. They were dumbfounded when it got shut down after only two weeks.
"All I know is that they started the operation, we were making arrests and they stopped it," he recalls, speaking on condition of anonymity. He cites the case as a deliberate attempt by supervisors to keep officers from catching undocumented immigrants.
Why the Border Patrol would even conceivably aim for something so contradictory to its mission goes to the heart of Operation Rio Grande, one of a wave of new crackdowns that have radically changed agency strategy. In the past, the Border Patrol focused on capturing migrants after they illegally entered the United States. But El Paso's Operation Hold-the-Line in 1993 ushered in an era of deterrence with a colossal buildup of fences, lights and new agents.
The idea was to keep undocumented workers from crossing into the city where they could easily blend in with crowds. The following year, a similar operation came to San Diego, long the scene of storming hordes and overwhelmed agents. In August 1997 the Border Patrol launched Operation Rio Grande in Brownsville.
The strategy transformed the role of an agent. Gone were the free-ranging days spent "cutting sign," the art of tracking prey in the brush. Now most agents would be confined to specific areas on the front line.
The profound shift also required a new way of measuring success. The Border Patrol used to equate a high number of apprehensions with effectiveness -- a kind of "body-count mentality," in the words of Mark Krikorian, the executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies in Washington, D.C. That changed with the deterrence-based initiatives. To rate as successful, an operation like Rio Grande would have to produce fewer arrests, since fewer people presumably would be crossing illegally into the United States.
Indeed, apprehensions of migrants in the McAllen sector have plummeted since Operation Rio Grande began, prompting sector officials to trumpet its success. The steady drop has obeyed the principles of the operation so neatly that some agents believe management is rigging the results.
"They clearly don't want apprehensions," says one disheartened fellow.
The Houston Press interviewed 20 agents from the McAllen sector, a 17,000-square-mile swath of South Texas that includes Brownsville. Most spoke on condition of anonymity. Several allege that management has deliberately misrepresented the effectiveness of Operation Rio Grande.
Joe Garza, the chief of the McAllen sector, vehemently denies the allegations. A Freedom of Information Act request by the Press for documents has been held up by the Immigration and Naturalization Service, which has latitude to determine how much time it will take to handle requests. Therefore, it comes down to the agents' word versus their bosses'. One thing is certain: Bitterness and a deep sense of futility pervade elements of the Border Patrol today on the front lines of a campaign that the agency holds up as a stunning success.
Undocumented workers looking to escape the crippling poverty of their homelands have every incentive to sneak into the United States. A range of powerful industries need this reliable source of cheap labor, and are allowed to dangle jobs before hungry immigrants even as the Border Patrol is ordered to stop them. Under pressure from Congress, the INS has all but ceased workplace enforcement in the interior.
The result is a dangerously mixed message, says Krikorian, whose group advocates reduced immigration and a stronger Border Patrol.
"We have this surreal policy of holding out the opportunity of employment for illegal aliens but making it increasingly difficult for them to get to the jobs," he says. "You end up with people dying in the desert, drowning in the All-American Canal or the Rio Grande."
Those charged with stopping the immense flow of migrants would be excused for feeling like they're emptying the ocean with buckets. Where other men see futility, however, Joe Garza finds hope. Having served as a navy radar man in Vietnam, Garza knows about unpopular, uphill fights. He has spent more than half of his 59 years in the Border Patrol, and for the first time, he says, "I see the light at the end of the tunnel."
Garza is seated in an air-conditioned conference room at sector headquarters, wearing khakis and a green polo shirt. His erect carriage and buzzed pate give him the bearing of a seasoned military man. He and an assistant, Harry Beall, guide a journalist through a slide presentation that recounts the epic story of the McAllen sector.
In the beginning, they say, chaos reigned. Brownsville in particular was inundated with illegal immigrants. Most of the traffic swept up U.S. Highway 77 toward Houston, to the dismay of farmers and ranchers along the way. When Garza arrived from Laredo in 1995, McAllen had fewer than 500 agents working an area that stretched 284 miles upriver from the Gulf and past Victoria to the north.
"Not even General Schwarzkopf" could restore order with such piddling resources, Garza says.
Agents would actually hide in the bushes to ambush passing immigrants, adds blue-eyed veteran Beall with a knowing chuckle.
The slide presentation takes a dramatic turn. A black-and-white aerial shot shows a throng of migrants pushing through the brush near Harlingen. They're everywhere, fanned out like the foam of a breaking wave. Accompanying the image is the joltingly loud audio of a helicopter pilot communicating with personnel on the ground. It crackles with the frenetic energy of a war movie.
"There's probably about 100 ," a voice says over the static.
The words "Prior to Operation Rio Grande" appear on the screen above the image.
"This was happening every night along the U.S.-Mexican border in our area," Beall says.
Then came Operation Rio Grande. Apprehensions had been increasing by 20 to 25 percent annually prior to the crackdown. The figure topped out at more than 240,000 in fiscal year 1997, and would have reached close to 520,000 by 2000 if the trend continued. Thanks to the operation, Garza says, apprehensions have plummeted to half what they were.
"They asked for results, and I think they got results," he says in his gruff monotone.
With the results came more resources. The budget for the McAllen sector went from $55 million in 1997 to almost $120 million in 2000. The number of agents has soared past 1,400. The effort concentrated on Brownsville and gradually has worked westward.
Gone are the days when a group of 100 migrants would dream of padding through the lower Valley, Garza and Beall suggest. But those days are not as distant as they would have people believe. That slide showing the dramatic alien invasion near Harlingen said that it took place prior to Operation Rio Grande. Not so, says Fred Rangel, the sector's lead intelligence agent.
"That was during Operation Rio Grande," Rangel says, fixing the date at January 1999 -- a year and a half after the operation began.
Scott Avery, the president of the Border Patrol union in the Valley, says that that same slide presentation gets shown to visiting members of Congress, INS officials and others who determine the sector's fortunes, including the attorney general of the United States.
John Ashcroft went tearing down the Rio Grande on a patrol boat, accompanied by dignitaries and agents toting automatic rifles. The attorney general was in Brownsville on the morning of May 4 to inspect the workings of Operation Rio Grande.
Other shallow-water vessels zipped through the waters with the Ashcroft entourage. Helicopters growled overhead.
On the banks, agents cringed. They understood that a certain amount of grandiosity was inevitable during a visit from the Department of Justice's top man. But things went too far when a supervisor ordered them to drag out towering banks of broken floodlights to the river to maximize the show.
"Agents just kind of laughed. It was a total dog and pony show," said one man, who helped roll out some busted lights from a storage lot.
The Border Patrol scored a big hit with its action-packed display.
"We are really impressed by the infrastructure here ," Senator Sam Brownback, a Kansas Republican and then chairman of the Senate Subcommittee on Immigration, told The Brownsville Herald.
Embellishments by management do little to inspire confidence in agents who suspect they are part of a whitewashing campaign. Several believe they have been called off details because they were notching too many apprehensions. Their accounts are anecdotal and difficult to prove.
One patrolman was part of a Special Response Team, a mobile unit that ranged the mesquite- and cactus-studded expanses between the border and towns to the north. Equipped with night-vision goggles and scopes, the unit was catching as many as 800 people a shift, he says. In late 1998 the agent suddenly got pulled to the river along with other members of his team. Parked on a recent afternoon beside a vast green cotton field near Harlingen, this agent theorizes that management no longer wanted such copious yields.
"Our apprehensions were way too high," he says.
Another agent laments the death of ranch and farm patrols in which he and others would chase down dozens of undocumented laborers who bolted at the first sight of the law.
Even the most suspicious agents offer praise for Chief Garza, who is widely described as an honest, conscientious leader. They aim their charges at mid-level management. Garza bristles at any talk that his supervisors would deliberately try to keep apprehensions down. They have the responsibility to move forces where they will do the most good, he says.
"Those are calls that management has to make in administering a sector. As you gain control you have to make the adjustment," he says.
The chief interprets his agents' allegations as the gripes of people who don't like the new strategy of forward deployment.
"We've clipped their wings. They can't run all over the place like the way they used to," he says with evident pique.
The agents' charges bear a striking resemblance to those made by Border Patrol union officials in San Diego, who accused supervisors of deceiving the public about Operation Gatekeeper after its 1994 launch. The charges prompted an investigation by the Department of Justice's Office of the Inspector General, which found the allegations baseless.
U.S. Congressman Sylvester Reyes is the man who pioneered the concept of forward deployment when he was the Border Patrol chief in El Paso in 1993. The strategy is unpopular with agents, the El Paso Democrat admits, but he insists it works.
"The change in strategy was not intended to facilitate the role of the agent. It was intended to maximize the effectiveness and the investment that the United States government has in border enforcement," Reyes says. "I'll tell you what, the results are very significant "
By 8:15 a.m. only a few men remain of the orderly mass that just two hours earlier filled St. Joseph the Worker labor hall on Shepherd Drive. More than 100 undocumented workers got hired for a day's work this morning. Among those still sprawled out in an austere waiting room in back is a one-armed Nicaraguan, watching the TV news in Spanish.
Bayardo, who declines to give his last name, arrived in Houston in May. An ex-lieutenant who got his arm blown off by the Sandinistas, he says he was not afraid of the U.S. Border Patrol when he slipped into the United States to make money for his wife and two kids. Like many Central Americans, Bayardo opted to enter from Matamoros since that was the cheapest bus ticket from home.
On the day of his crossing, the 46-year-old made his way under Gateway International Bridge at five in the afternoon. As traffic rattled overhead, Bayardo peered out from behind a massive support beam to study the American side. Rising from the inky waters was a grassy slope, split halfway up by a narrow dirt road. Beyond the slope were the low-slung brick buildings and tall, skinny palms of downtown Brownsville. Where the grass gave way to pavement, a Border Patrol vehicle stood still as a crouching cat.
Evening turned to night. Bayardo continued to wait. He wasn't sure if he could make out the form of the agent through the windshield. Around 10:30 p.m., the vehicle unexpectedly coughed to life and sped off. Bayardo stripped down to his underwear and stepped into the cool river.
"Zoom, I crossed," he says, as if it really were that simple. He spent the night in a park in Brownsville. Two days later he was on a bus to Houston.
For Daniel, a wiry Honduran in his twenties, last October's passage into the Rio Grande Valley was far more brutal. Three times he tried to sneak into Brownsville, and three times the Border Patrol snared him. After each capture, he lied and said that he was Mexican. That way he got deported to Mexico and could bounce right back.
Only after paying $1,200 to a coyote did the young man make it to Houston.
"Many people come from very far away. They make sacrifices physically and economically looking for the famous American dream," says Luis Serrato, explaining why most migrants won't turn back. The 35-year-old from San Luis Potosí is sitting in the shade of a church in the plaza of Reynosa, en route to Texas. In the past he crossed from Matamoros, but now he uses this border city across from McAllen.
"Matamoros is more controlled," explains the father of six.
There is little dispute that Operation Rio Grande has shifted human traffic to the west. Brownsville once accounted for nearly three quarters of McAllen sector apprehensions, officials say. Today, with triple the number of agents, Brownsville catches only 41 percent of the total. Officials in Brownsville and Harlingen note a substantial decline in the number of illegal immigrants in their communities. Meanwhile, in the wide-open spaces of the western half of the sector, Border Patrol personnel describe an onslaught of migrants.
"I can tell you, we're getting killed," says Thomas Rudd, a supervisor in Falfurrias, a funnel for northbound migrants along U.S. Highway 281.
Garza says he has half of his sector "under control" and believes that with 500 more agents he could secure the whole expanse. He says he is under no illusions that he will ever stop illegal immigration entirely.
"Our critics say this is like the Pillsbury doughboy. You put pressure on the stomach and the chest comes out," Garza says. "If you're desperate and you're hungry and you're in Mexico and you've got five kids to support and you can't cross in Brownsville you'll go to Del Rio."
The chief proudly notes that overall apprehensions for his sector have plummeted.
But in other parts of Texas, particularly Del Rio, arrests have soared. And the 1,643,679 apprehensions last year across the Southwest border were the highest ever recorded by the Border Patrol. New studies suggest that the number of illegal immigrants in the United States may be double the five million figure long cited by the INS.
Figures like these are not lost on agents, who feel that in its zeal to secure Brownsville and surrounding areas the patrol is leaving itself vulnerable elsewhere.
Border Patrol officials argue that shifting migrants away from population centers is a critical first step in controlling the border. Critics call the strategy a formula for death.
The demise of 14 Mexicans in the Arizona desert last month highlighted the perils of diverting people to brutal, out-of-the-way routes. According to INS statistics, 578 people have died crossing the Southwest border since 1998, including dozens in the South Texas brush. A recent study by the University of Houston's Center for Immigration Research found a sharp rise in deaths from heat exposure, hypothermia and drowning since the Border Patrol initiated its new operations.
Beall, the assistant chief, points out that agents get trained in rescue techniques, a requirement that has saved hundreds of lives.The policy serves as another reminder of the agency's tricky balancing act as it enforces controversial immigration laws.
Border Patrol brass goes out of its way to put a positive spin on agency programs. To make the case for Operation Rio Grande's success, officials frequently cite indicators that have nothing to do with immigration. They tout the thousands of pounds of cocaine and marijuana that agents seize. Mostly they boast about their role in "immeasurably" enhancing the quality of life in Valley communities.
In Brownsville, where there seems to be a white-and-green SUV on every block, Police Chief Ben Reyna and Mayor Blanca Vela both agree that the Border Patrol has been a positive force that has helped reduce crime.
"We had lots of shoplifting, lots of teenage kids roaming the streets," Reyna says. "It was tough for us. We were overwhelmed."
But what produces peace of mind for some can seem like a siege to others.
"We have people who are third-generation United States citizens who are getting pulled over by the Border Patrol merely because of the complexion of their skin or the kind of vehicle they're driving ," says Cameron County Judge Gilberto Hinojosa. "I think it's a high exaggeration that there's been a significant improvement in the quality of life for people in South Texas as a result of Operation Rio Grande."
One person who felt the sting of the omnipresent force was Filemon Vela, a federal district judge in Brownsville and Mayor Vela's husband. Based on profiling the agency uses to ferret out suspects, Judge Vela was pulled over twice, once when he was on his way to court proceedings. Those incidents left "a bitter taste in his mouth," Blanca Vela concedes.
The Border Patrol has come under attack so often from a variety of human rights and environmental groups that agency officials seem to take most controversies in stride. "We have detractors," Garza says. "A lot of the stuff is smoke."
But when the fire comes from agents' smoldering frustration, Garza finds it harder to take. Learning of criticisms by his personnel, the normally genial chief growls, "I'm very disappointed that anyone who works for me would be making statements like that."
At 2 a.m. Chris Ramnes pours himself a second cup of coffee, but it's hard to imagine him needing to be more alert. On the day his daughter was born, Ramnes witnessed a car flip over and land in a canal. He jumped in, saved three of the four passengers and still made it to the hospital in time to witness the birth.
Even on this quiet night on the line in Brownsville, Ramnes, who has the square jaw of a leading man, has managed to get his uniform muddy. He seems eager for the dynamic life he imagined when he left the Frankfort, Kentucky, police to join the Border Patrol.
Like other agents, he finds good things to say about the agency, especially the $56,000 he earned last year. He knows plenty of people who would love to earn that kind of money without working too hard. Ramnes thinks often of the illegal farmworkers he toiled beside in the tobacco fields of his youth, men who won his respect by always being the first to show up in the morning.
"This is the American dream here, but it isn't for me," he says. "I want more for myself I want the job the recruiting film showed me." He hopes to start a job with the Department of Energy in August.
The Border Patrol cannot afford to lose people like Ramnes. The agency has fallen well short of meeting Congress's goal of 1,000 new agents a year. Garza says that nationally the Border Patrol will hire a mere 430 new agents this year. He alone wants more than that to bring his domain under control.
Union representatives say that Brownsville, which has less than a quarter of the sector's agents, accounts for 70 percent of its attrition. Since Operation Rio Grande began, 147 agents have left the station, according to Avery. Brownsville has been able to reverse those losses with an influx of new personnel. A result, however, is greater inexperience.
Border Patrol officials maintain that neither Brownsville nor the McAllen sector has an attrition problem, although they were unable to furnish specific data. Supervisor Herb Monette admits that agents sometimes get bored but insists that morale in Brownsville is fine.
"I don't think we have a major morale problem here," he says. "If we do, I'd like to have a chance to respond to it before we get blindsided by a newspaper article."
What supervisors call manning an area of responsibility, agents call "sitting on an X." Both refer to what has become the signature duty of Operation Rio Grande: sticking to a specific area to deter or detain migrants. For management, agents are the vital nuclei of these cells; agents feel more like prisoners.
The grueling 20-week academy they all struggled to complete barely made mention of this sort of passive duty. "False advertising," in the words of Charlene Posey, a 24-year-old agent from Alabama.
"I'm getting paid good money to sit here and not do my job," grouses a seasoned patrolman. "I think it's important for [taxpayers] to know how their money is being spent."
Krikorian of the Center for Immigration Studies says that strains between management and labor are only exacerbated by the country's "schizophrenic" immigration policies, which couple tougher border vigilance with minimal interior enforcement.
"The people sniping at each other are missing the point They've been handed this absurd situation that they are supposed to somehow deal with," he says. "The problem comes back to Congress which makes immigration policy."
Sylvester Reyes has tackled immigration issues from both sides -- as a former Border Patrol chief in El Paso and McAllen, and today as a U.S. congressman. He says that lawmakers are considering a sweeping new guestworker program at the urging of the agriculture, construction and service industries. Reyes believes that the renewed effort to legalize more foreign laborers shows that Operation Rio Grande and similar campaigns are successfully blocking the supply of illegal labor.
That would certainly be true if the whole Southwestern border shared the same deep quiet as Brownsville on this humid night. But cat-and-mouse skirmishes between officers and migrants are playing out across the vast frontier, even as agent Jeff Wagner sits parked on the levee road here, reading Popular Science magazine.
The South Carolina native pauses to reflect that the United States could militarize from Port Isabel to San Diego and desperate people would still find a way in. For now, most just skirt the blockade in Brownsville in their quest for opportunities. Wagner may follow in their footsteps. He had intended to make a career with the Border Patrol, but after just three years he's looking to get out.
"The challenge I was looking for just isn't there," he says.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Houston Press' biggest stories.
- Game Control: Just How Overwhelmed Have The 2015 Houston Texans Been?
- Report: Antiabortion Law Leads to Longer Wait Times at Clinics
- Harden 2.0: How James Harden Became Houston’s Biggest Crossover Sports Celebrity