BISBEE — U.S. Border Patrol agents, eager to dispel the negative perception that has shrouded the agency in the face of the migrant crisis, said earlier this week that they do a lot more than arrest undocumented people — they also help them.
In a presentation at the Brian A. Terry Border Patrol Station earlier this week, agents from the Tucson Sector spoke about various programs designed to do everything from create partnerships with consulates representing the countries where many of the migrants are fleeing from, to safety initiatives aimed at saving undocumented persons lost or in distress in the desert.
Jesus Vasavilbaso, one of the agents who participated in the presentation, said his colleagues are not inhumane, nor are they out to mistreat the undocumented individuals they come across daily.
“If we see someone who needs help, we help them,” said Vasavilbaso, a spokesman for the Border Patrol’s Tucson Sector. “(At that moment) we’re not looking at immigration (status). If they need to go to a hospital, we get them there as quickly as we can. We are the 911 of the desert.”
Vasavilbaso and other agents agreed that there are misconceptions about them in the public. They also concur that there are some Border Patrol agents who have put their corps in a bad light because of bad behavior.
Supporters of the U.S. Border Patrol say the men and women in green who patrol the desert have a tough and dangerous job. Local law enforcement officials who partner with the Border Patrol — especially the Cochise County Sheriff’s Office — say they have never seen any agent disrespect or abuse a migrant.
There are also detractors who say the agents are heavy-handed, arrogant and indifferent to the desperation and suffering of people who are fleeing their countries. Some human rights advocates say there are many within the Border Patrol who are ignorant and abusive toward migrants. They say the “culture” of the agency has always been one of anti-immigration.
Cochise County Sheriff Mark Dannels works closely with the U.S. Border Patrol. He is a huge proponent for more funding and resources from Washington for the agency because he says agents are hampered in the face of the humanitarian crisis that is currently ongoing at the border.
“You have to fund these programs, you have to fund the resources to help these people,” Dannels said. “When you don’t do that, it causes a crisis. In this case the impact of the crisis has fallen on the shoulders of the Border Patrol, and I don’t agree with that.
“There are agents who are changing diapers, agents who are taking care of people at a level that they’ve never had to do before,” Dannels added. “We both share the mission to secure our communities, to secure our country. I can’t speak to the negative. There’s always that percentage of things that don’t work.”
But what I’ve seen in my county — and this goes back to the leadership here in Cochise County by the patrol agent in charge — is the fact that Border Patrol has a daunting and tireless task. They work very well with us, they are very supportive of the sheriff’s office mission, we’re very supportive of their mission.”
The sheriff agrees that Border Patrol agents who do not “do the right thing” need to be held accountable.
Anna Ochoa O’Leary, professor and head of the Department of Mexican American Studies at the University of Arizona, believes many agents prescribe to a “culture of cruelty.”
“I am sure that for a good many, to do more than arrest, means helping those in need. However, for another good many, ‘to do more than arrest’ means unnecessarily harming border crossers, either because they themselves subscribe to what has been often referred to as a ‘culture of cruelty’ or are ordered by their superiors because of a disdain of foreigners has been institutionalized or codified through their manuals and trainings,” O’Leary said in an email.
“The bottom line is that there is a preponderance of evidence that shows that USBP officers intentionally go beyond their duties to arrest to intentionally cause more injury to border crossers, physically and emotionally. There have been numerous reports documenting their behavior towards border crossers...”
There have been several reports in the national news regarding migrants complaining of mistreatment by Border Patrol agents. Earlier this year, ProPublica published a report about a “secret” Facebook page where retired and current agents posted racist comments and memes about migrants.
Isabel Garcia, a board member of the Oakland-based National Network for Immigrant and Refugee Rights and the Tuscon-based Coalicion de Derechos Humanos (Coalition for Human Rights) says the Border Patrol is “out of control.”
Garcia, who is of Mexican descent, says she has seen nothing but “brutality” over the years on the part of Border Patrol agents toward migrants.
“I’ve had enough experience with Border Patrol agents and they are brutal,” Garcia said. “Their culture is based on ignorance, fear and arrogance.”
But the Border Patrol presentation aimed to show otherwise.
The agency’s programs and initiatives include:
Rapid Deployment: Agents are sent on horseback, ATV’s and bicycles, to rescue migrants or other agents — or anyone who needs aid — in the desert
Forward Operating Bases: These are strategically placed in remote desert crossing areas. Agents live in these bases temporarily and are there to apprehend and or help migrants in distress
Border Safety Initiatives: Every agent is a first responder. Border Patrol agents who are emergency medical technicians can administer IVs. There are 250 EMTS and 22 paramedic Border Patrol agents in the Tucson Sector
Missing Migrant Program: Involves a team of agents who respond to the desert to retrieve/help lost migrants.
Flyers: Agents distribute flyers to various consulates representing the countries where migrants are fleeing from. The flyers warn of the dangers of crossing the desert alone, or with a human smuggler
Rescue Beacons: These towers in the desert are designed to help migrants who are lost. The beacons have a help button and instructions in three languages. There are 34 in the Tucson Sector
Foreign Operations Branch: This includes cross-border cooperation for extradition of felons
Community Involvement: This includes agents going to schools and talking to students about the dangers of crossing the border and human and drug smuggling.
Vasavilbaso pointed out that many migrants are often abandoned in the desert by “coyotes,” human smugglers hired by migrants to spirit them across the border. Migrants pay an exorbitant fee for the so-called service. But Vasavilbaso said coyotes often abandon their clients in treacherous territory if the clients can’t keep up.
“We are the ones who go out there to find them,” Vasavilbaso said, referring to abandoned migrants.
Regardless of the many programs, Vasavilbaso echoed Dannels, saying the Border Patrol does not have enough resources to handle the daily influx of migrants streaming through the border daily. Statistics released by the agency last month show that overall there has been a 103 percent increase in enforcement actions along the entire southwest border of the U.S. — from Texas to San Diego — for the first half of this year as compared to the same time last year.
Cochise County rancher John Ladd has had plenty of experience and encounters with U.S. Border Patrol agents and undocumented migrants. Ladd has over 10 miles of fencing on his ranch along the border. He has had migrants run onto his land, as well as die on it.
Last week, he found a dead migrant woman on his property, the 15th fatality in 30 years. The woman had no identification on her, Ladd said. The rancher, whose family has been working that property for more than a century, says he has seen nothing but respect, kindness and compassion toward migrants from Border Patrol agents.
“The perception that Border Patrol agents are inhumane is baloney,” Ladd said. “They treat these illegals better than anybody. I’ve never experienced one of them (the agents) being inhumane.”
Ladd said he has seen some migrants spit on Border Patrol agents or try to attack them.
“People don’t understand how some of these migrants treat these agents,” Ladd said. “Nobody wants to talk about that.”