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The only walls needed on the border are memorials.

Updated: Apr 17

Border wall in Calexico California.

When I was a junior agent in Campo, Californian, we did not a have a border wall. The 32 linear miles of southern border I patrolled from Tecate to Boulevard only had a little barbed wire fence that was no different than all the other barbed wire fences found in the area. You just had to know that one side was Mexico and the other was the US. As an agent, this meant you had to know the locals and their families on both sides who routinely crossed the border to visit one another. Even we thought it was ridiculous to force them to drive all the way to the Tecate port, pay money they didn't have and drive all the way back east 32 miles just to spend the night at their grandma's. From us, they most often got a wave and a warning to not be out after dark this close to the border which was most often met with a laugh and a wave back.

I never got rocked (had rocks thrown at my truck) until the first wall came through our patrol area in 1996-97. The kids I used to play soccer with on slow days in Tecate could no longer come across. They were no longer allowed to use the small pond on the US side just below our stationary position. On hot days when I was assigned the area, they would gather at the hole in the fence and wave at me to ask permission to cross and go for a swim to cool down. Their mother's with them to assure me they had permission. I would promise to keep an eye out for them hoping I didn't have to jump in while in uniform because I was never a strong swimmer. When lunch or dinner was ready, their mom's would waive a towel at me from her porch facing the US. I would call down to the swimming hole for them to go home, and off they went back into Mexico.

When the wall came to Campo, it seemed like a sensible solution to me at first. Every day we played a dangerous game of cat and mouse with drug smugglers. Both sides of the border have spiderwebs of dirt roads everywhere and you do not need a 4x4 vehicle for all of them. Operation Gatekeeper and its deterrence policies had been in effect for a few years with the promise that once the migrants experienced how difficult the hike was through our mountains, the fewer people would cross.

But that didn't happen.

We were always undermanned and overwhelmed. We only had 50 agents at the station back then. This meant I would have 15 miles of linear border alone with backup at least a few hours away. I could drive to the border road and see hundreds of footprints left in the dirt as soon as I started sign cutting (looking for footprints of people crossing). Some nights, I had to walk to the border from the station because we did not have enough trucks or even gas to fill our tanks.

I liked that aspect of the Border Patrol the most. The best part of the job was the freedom we still enjoyed in the mountains that my classmates down in the city of Imperial Beach did not have sitting at their stationary positions for 12 hours a shift. In Campo, we hiked alone. The only stationary positions we had at the time were near the Tecate port. The rest of us went where the groups went. If they climbed the boulders in Tecate, we climbed after them. If they crossed the cow pastures, we did too. If they had to wade through a creek, we tried to keep our gear dry.

Though I am barely 5'6" and was a skinny little thing back then, I would often apprehend 30, 50, even 100 people at a time all by myself. This is because Border Patrol is one of the safest jobs in law enforcement. It still is today although the agency has falsely inflated their agents killed on duty stats by adding their agents lost to Covid. The majority of people I arrested were not asylum seekers, they were migrants looking for work and not criminals. Although the demographics of those crossing illegally have changed, less than .3% are dangerous criminals today.

Most of my time as an agent was spent hiking behind migrants, tracking their footprints on the trails, up the mountains, across the old paved two-lane Highway 94, then up through the dense areas that led to a place we called the Cowboy Camp, down the other side and up some more climbs into the snow and ice of the Laguna Mountains. These are long and dangerous hikes where even the fittest agents would have to pause and take breaks. They always seemed to be resting by the time I caught up to them. Impressed with myself to have tracked them so far, I most often celebrated with a cigarette and quietly watched them sleep until they woke from the sounds of trucks and a helicopter trying to locate me.

My thoughts were always filled with happiness that they had not died, and I had not needed to mark a body or two as I hiked after them. It was my responsibility to ask if anyone had fallen behind. If so, the search would start after I got them secured with other agents, and I would continue looking to find the one who was lost, hoping beyond hope they were still alive. I found it strange and yet emotionally easier to cope if the body had been pulled apart by animals, if their stomachs had already exploded from the heat, or when there was nothing left but bones. These scenes to the human mind feel fake because they do not look real. The hardest was finding them whole, often times posed with their arms crossed on their chests clutching a rosary.

The time it takes for the medical examiners to get out there in the middle of nowhere, which was often just a helicopter flight, always left me stunned and quiet. I wondered why this person had crossed. I pictured a small child, a mother, an abuela waiting patiently to hear if he had made it. They would start to worry and consider calling but then realize there is no one to call but the Migra. Eventually, if he was identified through an ID in his wallet or by running his fingerprints if any were left, the family might get a call from a consulate if we could identify the country he came from. Many are never identified.

Most are never found.

Death, injuries, and trauma were always a part of the policy; that was exactly what the 1994 policy stated. The purpose was to push migrants from the city of San Diego to the dangerous mountains where we already were finding dead migrants. By 1997, the Latino rights groups had figured out that Operation Gatekeeper was responsible for sending increasing amounts of migrants to their deaths, and they were rightly pissed. The government's response under a Democratic president was that it was the migrants' fault for crossing in the first place. The law was the law. Publicly, the administration seemed to care less about the increase in deaths and more about the increase in crossings as they had sold Operation Gatekeeper to the public as a deterrent to crossing. The federal government has known since 1997 that deterrence was a failure, yet they continue to double down claiming it will work.

Migrants have been dying from crossing the harshest border terrain since the Border Patrol was created in 1924. Obviously, the federal government didn't think one death was too high. These articles from the 1970s demonstrate that the agency knew many migrants were already dying out in those harsh terrains that we now stated our policies would directly send them to cross. This was intentional.

It wasn't until the new trainees began quitting and more and more agents were eating their guns that management decided to create the Border Patrol search and rescue teams known as BORSTAR. Before Operation Gatekeeper and deterrence policies, we would find dead migrants from time to time every year. After, we found them more frequently, and sometimes entire groups would perish. And though we often hardened ourselves to the men we found, I cannot think of a single agent in those days laughing at the sight of a dead child, woman or man as I have seen agents do today.

For those agents who joined in the 1990s, much of our job was cleaning up the bodies from Clinton's Operation Gatekeeper. This left many of us with substance abuse problems and mental health issues that turned into high suicide attempts and successes. The Border Patrol, never one to admit they are destroying its own agents with their own policies, simply refused to discuss it. Management after all, were not the ones finding the bodies being eaten by maggots and coyotes. We agents certainly didn't want to admit our problems for fear of being accused of not being tough enough or being "unable to hack it." We would lose our guns and badges, our jobs. So, we sucked it up until we couldn't anymore.

For me personally, I found it difficult to handle all the death that deterrence policies brought. I found myself becoming more angry and isolated, unable to maintain friendships or relationships. The Border Patrol acted as if they had not anticipated this outcome. Management would say to us, How could we have known they'd keep crossing and die if we intentionally pushed them out to the most dangerous places to cross? And if we were asked about all the death, they told us to say that there were legal pathways to cross but that "these people" simply chose to break our law. We were all Border Patrol agents from Campo with experience in finding dead bodies. Some of us in our 50s, some in our 20s, but we all knew this was bullshit. When they verbally ordered us to never hike north of Highway 94, they admitted it was because that was where the majority of bodies were found and that they didn't want us to find them anymore. Even the old crusty agents balked at the immorality of the order.

BORSTAR was created to give the public the impression that our management cared about migrants dying and so that the public would think of Border Patrol agents as search and rescue agents instead of the agents who enforced policies that intentionally sent migrants to their painful and often tortuous deaths. The policies of the Clinton administration forced migrants to cross in the most dangerous of areas that we knew would increase their chance of being injured or killed, and it was also killing and decimating the ranks of the Border Patrol. BORSTAR was less about rescuing migrants and more about preventing the majority of agents from seeing the gruesome results of deterrence policies especially because the count was starting to include more women and children. Before the 2000s, we field agents were exposed to countless traumatic incidents, many of which we had no training in how to handle and certainly no support for the PTSD that followed. Almost every agent I knew who worked the field was highly traumatized by this, though we did not understand it at the time. We went home feeling weak because that is what they said about the other agents who succumbed to the brutality. Most of us kept our mouths shut and pretended that we were fine.

BORSTAR removed this work from the majority of agents and gave it to just a few volunteers. When I ask agents today how many bodies they've found, they think I'm talking about people who are alive. No, I am talking about dead bodies. Most have not found any because they no longer hike after the migrants like we did. They do not experience the 120 degree days and 30 degree nights as we did every single day walking for 10, 12, 16 hours trying to find them. They do not sit with their bodies and sympathize. They play on their phones and wait for cameras and sensors to tell them where to go. Their special groups will pick up the bodies or ignore them. Then they share the trophy pics and laugh because they do not know even a small part of the experience and cannot empathize.

It's been 30 years of deterrence policies and wall building. We have more drugs and people crossing illegally than ever before. If we build one more wall on the border, let it be a memorial wall for all those who have lost their lives in this atrocity; the migrants, migrant families, the locals caught up in our high speed pursuits and tracking through their properties, our families, and yes, even us field agents.

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