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Exercising Resistance Muscles

Updated: Mar 31

At times when it feels futile, when I hear that President Biden who promised to bring humanity to the US asylum system chooses instead to just say "fuck it" and aligns himself and his policies with that of the most inhumane anti-immigrant hate mongers alive today, I like to remind myself why it is that I do this work. There is no quitting for me in this after all. I do not have the moral option of bowing out.

Most often this reminder comes from volunteering with humanitarians who work every single day to provide food, water and shelter to asylum seeking families left out in the elements at the San Ysidro, California Open Air Detention Site created by Border Patrol Chief Patricia McGurk-Daniel. This is just one of her several little outdoor camps dotted throughout San Diego County that most media refuse to question or even report on. And whether anyone admits it or not, these are concentration camps; camps where Border Patrol concentrates asylum seekers and holds them for right-wing border media to get those great pics of "Black and Brown invaders." This PR stunt has cost a handful of asylum seekers their lives.

Last week, while I was in Tucson, Arizona to speak with clergy on how the US government has hidden tens of thousands of migrant deaths directly caused by our immigration deterrence policies, I had the opportunity to volunteer with the Green Valley Samaritans. GVS is a senior citizen samaritan group and has been assisting anyone in distress in the Sonoran Desert for nearly 20 years. For many of these members, this is not just a humanitarian issue, not just a moral and ethical issue but a requirement of their faith.

In past visits with GVS, I have dropped food and water for asylum seekers making the long and dangerous trek through the Sonoran Desert. Although this act is not illegal in any way, it is considered by the agency and its agents to be assisting migrants who entered illegally without inspection in furthering their "invasion" into the country. And although I began exercising my resistance muscles decades ago while I was still an agent by refusing to destroy their food and water jugs left on the trails because I had as an agent tended to a child who had survived on those items for days, it still gives me pause. I still think about the repercussions of my actions no matter how insane they seem to me now.

This is where I found myself physically and mentally last week near Sasabe, Arizona in the Sonoran Desert at the eastern end of the wall.

End of Trump wall near Sasabe, AZ. Border Patrol's open air camp is miles away over the last hill. Photo by Jenn Budd. February 2024.

That first steep incline you see in the photo above is where we found a small group of asylum seekers sitting on the US side against the wall. As I exited our car to speak with them, my eyes locked onto a young woman shivering as she pulled her legs in trying to make herself smaller. Her glassy eyes on the verge of crying stared back, and I could sense her familiar fear. I was instantly transported back to my green uniform. "Sientate! Callate!" (Sit down! Shut up!) I used to seethe at them. I shook the flashback from my head and asked if she was pregnant. She was.

"Yo no soy la pinche Migra!" (I am not the fucking Border Patrol.) This always gets a laugh and eases tension.

"We need to leave samaritans here, and those of you who can speak some Spanish need to take them to the camp and come back and get us," Barb Lemmon stated. This is the routine that GVS has been performing for months with another humanitarian group called No More Deaths (No Mas Muertes). When winter arrived this year, it brought rain and snow to this desolate area of the border. Just a month ago, humanitarians discovered hundreds of asylum seekers trapped on the border road because the road was built so poorly by Border Patrol contractors. With 20% grade hills for miles, many can not physically make the journey to the outdoor camp. For their part, Border Patrol refuses to go out to the border road and pick up the families stating that their vans are not 4x4s and that they are too busy processing. This is the lamest of excuses and is literal malfeasance and dereliction of duty. Had it not been for GVS and No More Deaths actions, many would have died. It is also why I constantly say the Border Patrol's motto of Honor First is a lie.

Thus began the dilemma of how to transport people without agents arresting humanitarians for 8 USC 1324, "Bringing in and Harboring Certain Aliens." This law is much more expansive than when I was an agent. At least the GVS seniors are covered by a cutout that states if you have religious convictions and are part of a "bona fide" non-profit group assisting undocumented migrants and not furthering their entry into the US, then you may be exempt from the law. The seniors also met numerous times with Border Patrol command and sent a letter to the Tucson US Attorneys Office stating why they were transporting migrants to the Sasabe station. In response, the US Attorney stated in writing that they would in no way make any promises not to charge the samaritans with smuggling. To date, no charges have been filed, the seniors and No More Deaths have saved hundreds of lives and delivered them all to the Border Patrol agents who refuse to do their jobs.

Sasabe, AZ area in February 2024. Photos by GVS & No More Deaths.

"Would I transport them to the Border Patrol camp?"

This after all, is sacrilege in Border Patrol culture. I had just climbed one of the 20% grades and was physically aware of how difficult it would be for the pregnant woman and the family who had a 2 year old son with them. I have not been a Border Patrol agent for over 2 decades, and though it seems far removed from my life, it obviously has impacted every aspect of it. I do not have the legal authority to question their citizenship, and so I did not.

"Do you need asylum," I asked in Spanish. Yes they all said. Do you want me to take you to the Border Patrol for inspection?" Yes.


At camp, I exited and opened the back door for the family with their son who was now sound asleep from being gently rocked by my slow driving up and over the hills. I could feel myself in my old work boots and placed my right hand on what used to be the butt of my gun that was no longer there. I winced and bit my lower lip trying to forget the muscle memory I had worked so hard to develop as an agent. I had no gun, no knife, no bullet proof vest as I walked among the camp taking in the scene of about 40 asylum seekers from Ecuador, Mexico, the Dominican Republic, Guatemala and Honduras.

I was told that I had just missed Art del Cueto, Vice President of the Border Patrol's Union. He had brought Fox News down to the camp to show how humanitarians are "aiding and abetting" migrants in their "illegal entries." This is the point of Border Patrol Open Air Detention Sites and even Texas' Operation Lone Star: optics for right-wing news media. Without these sites and without the Border Patrol Union's literal hand holding and driving them to these camps, media would not be able to present the false impression that migrants are "pouring" over our borders illegally. What looked like one large group of 40-50 in the camp for Fox News and their viewers, was actually many small groups that had crossed at different times and different places.

Sasabe, AZ border area. February 26, 2024. Photos by Jenn Budd.

I noticed one man sitting alone on a log with his shoes and socks off when another volunteer stated he needed medical attention. Kneeling in the sand, I held his right foot in my hand. He had the telltale signs of having walked many miles in wet socks and shoes; one bright pink layer of skin left across the entire bottom of his feet that was starting to ooze blood. I and the other volunteer cleaned his feet gently, applied antiseptic and bandages to pad his feet.

"Where are you from?" I asked in Spanish.

"Honduras," he said quietly trying to deal with the pain.

"Are you alone?"

"Yes," he said crying.

"I'm sorry the Border Patrol agent did not help you. There are good people here, and bad people too." He nodded as I found myself sitting next to him. I placed my arm around him to provide him with some comfort. Something I never did as an agent.

I have saved many lives as a Border Patrol agent, but I have also sent thousands to their deaths by supporting the agency's deterrence policies. This is why so many of us agents have tried to end our lives. Most of us got into the Border Patrol thinking we were saving lives, not pushing them to their inevitable injuries and sometimes deaths. Contrary to the propaganda videos and pictures released by the agency, the behavior of Art del Cueto that day, of just walking away after you get your "invasion" shot is typical Border Patrol culture.

This is what agents are trained to do, but agents have free will unlike the asylum seekers fleeing violence. It may be illegal to transport an undocumented migrant to safety, but this does not mean it is a moral, ethical or just law. And so, I will continue to assist and yes even transport those in need of safety and asylum to the Border Patrol. I will continue to bandage their wounds and splint their broken bones in an effort to exercise my resistance muscles, because this is what Honor First means to me.

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