Immigration through the experiences of Border Patrol agents

Three community liaison agents take on tough questions from Presbyterian delegation

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

A Presbyterian Mission Agency delegation worships with others along the southern portion of the wall dividing the United States and Mexico. (Photo by Mike Ferguson)

DOUGLAS, Ariz. — Three U.S. Border Patrol agents answered pointed questions about their work during a near two-hour session last week with a delegation from the Presbyterian Mission Agency.

The three members of the Douglas Border Patrol Station’s Community Liaison Unit — supervisor Matt Bowers and agents Gary Young and Jimmy Harper — met the delegation in the Douglas office of Frontera de Cristo, a Presbyterian border ministry.

“We are not on a mission to change your opinion — just to educate,” Bowers said. Many media reports “portray us in a bad light,” he said. What’s less well-known, he said, is how Douglas Station agents have, since Jan. 1, rescued 150 undocumented people who were without food and water, and how agents helped an undocumented woman found alongside a remote mountain trail to give birth.

During the meeting the agents generally used terms like “illegal immigrant” rather than “undocumented.”

About 450 agents stationed in Douglas patrol 1,140 square miles. Two-thirds of their patrol area is ranchland, Young said. Bowers called agents “the middle man between ranchers and the station.” Most ranchers have given agents blanket permission to patrol their property, he said, although a few require a courtesy call first.

Something else prevalent in today’s headlines — family separation — is exceedingly rare in the Douglas area, according to Young.

“When we do separate families, most of the time it’s because the child was determined not to be the child they purport to be,” he said. Such phony family arrangements can be purchased, he said, because the presence of a child allows the grownups “to go to the destination of their choice” to await their hearing.

In many media reports, “you don’t hear it was the parents’ choice,” Young said. “You hear it was the Border Patrol separating the family.”

An agent patrols the border in Douglas, Ariz. (Photo by Philip Woods)

Border Patrol agents are given zero latitude when it comes to making arrests, Harper said.

“We can’t let anybody go. If Gary tried to jump the fence on his day off and I didn’t arrest him, it would cost me my job,” he said.

“There are time when you have to turn your personal feelings off,” Young said. “If we went into everything like it’s a humanitarian crisis, we couldn’t do our jobs.”

At some point, he said, the U.S. Treasury will run out of money to pay for immigrants’ social services.

“The problem has to be solved in the country they’re coming from,” he said.

That prompted the Rev. Dr. Diane Moffett, president and executive director of the Presbyterian Mission Agency, to reply, “At some point, we are one human race … I believe in the theology of abundance, not scarcity.”

The demographics and nationalities of people seeking asylum is changing, Harper said.

“A few years ago, one day we started seeing Romanians. It turns out the State Department was granting them immediate asylum. We saw massive amounts, then nothing. Later there were a lot of people from India, then that loophole closed. We used to see a lot of single males, but over the last seven years, every single male has a child with him. The pattern I have seen is when there is an opening that can be exploited, it is.”

Bowers called morale at the station “up and down over the years. You work hard for nine or 10 hours and you find out people were let go. You try to enforce the laws on the books and you find out your hard work didn’t pay off.”

“The system is getting incredibly flooded,” he added. “People are getting released on their own recognizance and told to show up in front of the judge at this time on this date. Most of these people will not show up.”

If they don’t show, he said, “right away they are administratively deported.”

All three agents expressed gratitude for the delegation’s tough questions.

“Believe it or not, we learn something at all of these,” Young said. “You arrest so many people that it’s hard not to see just the numbers. You have to be reminded of the humanitarian aspect, and I think you’ve done that today.”

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