“It’s been slow lately,” Customs and Border Patrol agent Robert Rodriguez said before he bites into his breakfast taco.
“Eat while you can,” his partner, Border Patrol agent Marcelino Medina adds. “It’s kind of a hit or miss.”
An average shift for a Border Patrol agent is about 10 hours long, but many times pending duties can keep them there even longer. An agent can begin their shift at any hour of the day, and are subject to work any day of the year, “rain or snow,” as they say.
“This isn’t a regular nine-to-five,” Medina said. “Agents know that coming in.”
Agents can be trained to patrol using vehicles, riverine units, canines and even horses. Today, Rodriguez and Medina are on one of the iconic green and white Border Patrol suburbans.
On their way to the border from the Border Patrol Headquarters in Edinburg, Rodriguez calls his wife to make sure she got to work safe that morning, considering it was a particularly foggy day.
South of Military Road, where 23rd Street turns into International Boulevard and grazes the Rio Grande River, they head toward a part of the border wall with a gate. After pushing in the code, the gate unveils a quaint home on the banks of the river. Besides having a wall in front of their house, they also have a camera tower on their property.
The relationships with landowners at this particular area are great. The process for making installments on their land, include in-depth environmental studies. There is also a border community liaison program responsible for maintaining relationships with landowners. Rodriguez said it is important to adhere to their requests.
The relationships are vital to the mission of the Border Patrol. Not having the relationship may lead to the opposition reaching out and nurturing their own relationship with the landowners.
“Some of the smugglers even try to work with them,” Rodriguez said. “They’ll give them a phone and just tell them to look out. How easy is that? Somebody comes and tells you that they’ll give you $500 dollars a week, it’s kind of easy to fall into that.
After driving along the fence--and waving to a few landowners and farmers on the way--they reach a desolate area, on the banks of the river. Looking past, they can clearly see the other side, where there are usually scouts on top of trees, waiting for the perfect moment to send people over to the United States. Almost like a game of chess.
“They’re very smart, very well organized,” Rodriguez said. “They don’t get enough credit. There’s a lot at stake for them. Just like we’re working, they’re working.”
THE RIO GRANDE VALLEY SECTOR
The Border Patrol had its start in the Rio Grande Valley in 1921 with four officers assigned to Hidalgo, two to Brownsville and two to Rio Grande City, according to the Customs and Border Protection website. Today, there are roughly 3,000 agents employed in the Rio Grande Valley sector, according to their latest report for the 2017 fiscal year.
Customs and Border Protection separates the country into 20 sectors, nine of which are located along the U.S./Mexico border. The busiest by far is the RGV sector, which covers 34,000 square miles and consists of nine stations stretching from Rio Grande City in the west to Corpus Christi in the north.
In the 2017 fiscal year, the RGV Sector had a total of 137,562 apprehensions--the highest number in the nation. The Tucson Sector ranked second with 38,657 apprehensions.
The RGV Sector was also the sector with the highest amount of assaults, at 422 and saw the most amount of rescues, at 1,190.
Both Medina and Rodriguez have had altercations with detainees in the past. Assaults often happen when smugglers or delinquents on the other side throw rocks or shoot bullets toward agents, especially those on riverine units. But most of the time, the assaults occur when somebody is caught and is trying to escape. Agents often work alone, and can easily be outnumbered.
Rodriguez notes the majority of the time assaults occur out of disparity. There has been a decrease in overall apprehensions but the assaults have climbed.
“When you catch someone, you don’t know if they’re a murderer or a violent gang member,” Rodriguez said. “Even if you’re in a scuffle for a couple minutes while you call for backup, a few minutes can feel like forever when you’re in that situation.”
Often smugglers take money from an immigrant and abandon them mid-trip. They can spend days walking without water, or even worse: behind commercial trucks, where temperatures can get as high as 140 degrees fahrenheit.
Without a doubt, it’s the busiest sector in the country today. According to Medina, that’s attributable to the fact that most of the immigrants coming into the United States are from countries other than Mexico, or OTMs (other-than-Mexicans) as they call them. After they make the long, dangerous journey from Central America, the nation’s most southern part of the border is the closest way to enter.
Rodriguez was mid-sentence when a colleague scanned. There was a group of eight people scaling the fence near 23rd Street. They probably saw the vehicle go in the opposite direction when it was decided to make a run for it, he later said.
The agents run to their vehicle and speed through the brush, then through potholed roads, as they make their way toward the scene.
They’re met with about five of their colleagues, who caught five immigrants near a plaza. Most of them are from Guatemala and Honduras, but a couple of them are from Reynosa, Mexico.
One man, who was visibly nervous, had false documents he was planning to use to work in the United States. He immediately made clear that the identification was false, hoping to evade any legal repercussions.
“I had three jobs but it wasn’t enough,” a detainee from Reynosa named David said in Spanish. “I thought I would never see my family again when I came here.”
At a nearby Burger King, the remaining six from the group were lined up against a wall. A total of 18 people were apprehended. It didn’t turn out to be such a “slow day” after all.
Apprehending immigrants is not always easy; family units or unaccompanied minors are usually the hardest, Rodriguez said.
“You feel bad for them, you know, we have kids, so it kind of hits home sometimes,” he said. “But at the end of the day we have a job to do, and that's to secure the border.”
But Border Patrol are not necessarily the ones who deport people, or determine if they will even get deported at all, actually. Once a person is detained, they ask them questions like where they’re from, why they are leaving their country of origin and if they would like to seek asylum in the U.S. Then, the immigrants will be able to speak before a judge who will later make that determination. If they chose to deport them, Immigration Customs Enforcement (ICE) carries out the removal.
Ultimately, no matter what gets decided in Washington D.C., the agents continue doing their jobs as they’re instructed. However, agents can be subject to politically-fueled harassment, adding another layer of hardship to already dangerous career.
“A lot of agents drive to work in civilian clothing and carry their gear in their bags,” Rodriguez said. “You just never know. I haven’t heard of any here, but there’s been cases where agents food has been spit it, or they find things in their food that shouldn’t be there, etc.”
It can be a thankless job, but what keeps them there is the same thing that brought them in: a desire to serve and protect their county. Despite the hardships, they appear to enjoy the challenge.
As Rodriguez opens the door to the Border Patrol Headquarters lobby, sporting a cheek-to-cheek smile, a colleague asks him: “Why are we so happy today?”
“God is good,” Rodriguez responded.