Borderlands, Part Three

With the U.S. Border Patrol in McAllen, Texas 

The wall is behind us, Mexico lies a bare two miles ahead. Although we are technically still in the United States, we are standing in no-man’s land: a flat, desolate landscape of stony soil, scrub brush, and needle-sharp grass.

There aren’t a lot of places to hide.

Officer Rodriguez, from the U.S. Border Patrol, helpfully points out the surveillance tower in the distance.  Later, we’ll notice a solitary drone in the distance and a tethered surveillance blimp known as an aerostat. It can watch for movement from 10,000 feet up.

“We’ve also got night-vision goggles and cameras with nighttime capabilities,” Officer Rodriguez says. “We’re using military equipment brought back from Iraq.”

It’s Day One of our trip to the border, and it’s somehow fitting that our first stop should be here, on this slender, lonely strip of wasteland that separates McAllen, Texas and Reynosa, Mexico.

This isn’t where the migrant journey begins, but it is so often where it ends.

NJFON Board Members and staff at the border in McAllen, Texas with Officer Rodriguez of the U.S. Border Patrol.
NJFON Board Members and staff with Officer Rodriguez of the U.S. Border Patrol.

We’ve spent the morning with Officer Robert Rodriguez and his colleague Officer Joe Costa from the McAllen Border Patrol Station. We’ve been learning about their experiences as agents in the biggest and busiest station in the 200+ mile Rio Grande Valley sector.

We are mindful that they have an important, stressful, and often dangerous job to do. We’ve been focusing on the migrant families and kids fleeing violence in Central America, but these officers also deal with drug dealers and criminals. Many have been injured in the line of duty and more have been killed—121 since 1904—than in any other federal law enforcement agency.

We are also mindful that scores of migrants have met their deaths attempting to enter the United States, some of them after encounters with the Border Patrol. Perhaps the most infamous of these encounters occurred on October 10, 2012, when a U.S. border patrol agent, standing behind a border fence in Nogales, Arizona, shot and killed a 16-year-old Mexican boy who was walking along the sidewalk on the other side. The agent claimed he acted in self-defense against rock-throwers.

This is something of a fact-finding mission, but facts, like truth, can be selective. They can alter and adjust depending on who is presenting them.

Take the hieleras, for example—the “ice boxes”—where unaccompanied migrant children are kept in extremely cold conditions. It’s one aspect of their time at the processing stations that these kids never fail to mention. “It was so cold that our lips and hands turned blue,” they say. Or, “It was so cold we could see our breath.” The freezing conditions have been the subject of numerous congressional inquiries, investigations and news stories.

MIgrant children huddle under mylar blankets in the hielera. Photo: Ross D. Franklin/AP
Migrant children huddle under mylar blankets in the “hielera.” Photo: Ross D. Franklin/AP

Many immigration advocates believe the buildings are kept ice cold to punish the kids or to deter their friends and family from trying to make the trip.

Both officers express shock and disbelief at this accusation. It appears they’ve never heard it before now.

“We keep the rooms cold to help stop the spread of disease,” says Officer Costa, shaking his head. “These kids have been on the road for a long time, and a lot of them will have scabies or lice. The cold kills the bugs.”

The parents in the group who have gone through lice infestations with their kids look skeptical.

Patrol boat on the Rio Grande.
Patrol boat on the Rio Grande.

It’s called the Rio Grande, but this section, at least, belies the name. It isn’t much of a river and it isn’t very grande at all.

“Don’t be fooled,” Officer Costa tells us. “The currents here can be very fast and dangerous.”

We have come to the river for the last part of our tour with the border patrol. It’s very peaceful here. A lone patrol boat zig-zags through the marshes, the only evidence that this is a militarized border.

We gather together while one of our pastors leads us in prayer. She kneels to scoop up a handful of the cold, clear water. She prays for the migrants, for us, for the border patrol, and for the leaders whose actions and inactions affect the lives of so many people in need.

We pray for compassion, for understanding, and for love.

Months later, our border experience long behind us, I still think about that moment as we stood and bowed our heads by the river. I wondered then—I wonder now—if the officers joined us in our prayer.

I hope they did.

Like Sister Norma, ministering to the newly-arrived migrants in McAllen, Texas, and Pastor Hector Silva Luna, ministering to weary migrants in Reynosa, Mexico, and like the thousands of immigrant mothers and fathers trying to protect their kids—Officers Rodriguez and Costa are doing their jobs.

They also need, they also deserve, compassion, understanding, and love.

That’s part of our job, too.

NJFON board members, staff and local immigration advocates.
NJFON board members, staff and local immigration advocates.

Author’s Note:

Jen Smyers, Vice-President of NJFON’s Board of Directors and the Director of Policy and Advocacy with the Church World Service Immigration and Refugee Program, shared an eloquent and passionate perspective of our border trip with us recently:   A Reflection from the U.S. / Mexico Border: Governments looking to the Church.

Michael Seifert, of the Rio Grande Valley Equal Voice Network, writes regularly of border and immigrant issues in his thought-provoking blog Alongside a Border.  This month, he writes about his experience at the McAllen Border Patrol processing center. Check it out!