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Border patrol agents aren’t all cruel and heartless

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Our federal and state policies should focus more on training for our border patrol and customs enforcement agents, not on higher, impenetrable walls. (Courtesy photo)

‘Look, I told [my mother], I spent four years in college studying the border. I’m tired of reading about it. I want to be on the ground, out in the field. I want to see the realities of the border, day in and day out. I don’t see any better way to truly understand the place,” said Francisco Cantu, a border patrol agent, on the radio show “This American Life.”

The episode, “Line in the Sand,” which aired on March 31, 2017, had me riveted. I listened as Cantu took me through dirt berms, rows of lettuce, canals, mesquite trees, cholla cactus; on reservations, hillsides and roadsides through blazing heat and raging storms in pursuit of people who had barely made it across the border.

Intertwined through the narration is a reflective debate with his mother about why Cantu does what he does.

“There’s something here I can’t look away from. Maybe it’s the desert, maybe it’s the closeness of life and death, maybe it’s the tension between the two cultures we carry. Whatever it is, I’ll never understand it unless I’m close to it,” Cantu said.

His mother cautions him about what the job really is: “It’s a paramilitary police force.” But Cantu argued that, with his heritage, he can offer people some comfort by talking to them in their language about their homes. “… good people would always be crossing the border, and whether I was in the Border Patrol or not, agents would still be out there arresting them,” he said.

Not much is written about the job of a border patrol agent. From Cantu’s account, and contrary to popular understanding, it seems like a job for people with empathy and humanity. In a recent conversation in “The Point” magazine, Cantu dispelled the myth that all border agents were cruel and heartless. It’s the largest federal law enforcement agency in the country, he said, and while the majority of border agents lean conservatively, sweeping statements about their characters cannot apply.

“It shouldn’t be surprising, but it probably is to some people to hear me say that so many of the agents I worked with were among the most compassionate, humanitarian, intelligent, caring people that I’ve ever known,” Cantu said.

A good portion of the time, border agents are not apprehending hardened felons, but fathers looking for jobs, and women who want to sing, and panic-stricken boys left in the desert brush. Ordinary people trying to fashion ordinary lives.

It seems to me that our federal and state policies should not be focused on more walls or higher walls or impenetrable walls, but training for our border patrol agents and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents. We need more people like Cantu to work for these enforcement organizations, especially with the direction that the Trump administration is taking.

“Within the United States, the arrests of noncitizens rose more than 30 percent from Jan. 20 to March 13, compared with the same timeframe in 2016,” Melissa Chua, immigration director of the International Rescue Committee, told reporters on a national press call organized by San Francisco’s New America Media. Twenty-five percent of these arrests — 5,441 — were of noncitizens with no criminal records.

The Omnibus Appropriations Bill signed into law on May 5, did not allocate the $1.7 billion that President Donald Trump requested for the U.S.-Mexico border wall construction. Instead, $772 million was allocated to Customs and Border Protection, and $65 million was allocated to hire and retain previously authorized border patrol agents. There was funding for 100 new ICE officers in the bill, too.

“This is one of the most horrendous periods in American history for immigrant families,” said Angelica Salas, executive director of the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights, referring to the increased enforcement activity around the country. “What we’re seeing is just a harsher way by which DHS [the Department of Homeland Security] is dealing with all matters of immigration, especially when it comes to stays of removal or requests for relief.”

With the rise in enforcement activity there’s been a rise in resistance, too. “The immigrant rights movement is getting more organized, more powerful,” Salas said, pointing to the fact that cities like San Francisco are pushing back against insensitive federal policies.

On both sides of the issue, we want humanitarian consideration. Liberal protesters, immigrant advocacy organizations, lawyers, judges as well as enforcement agents must be better informed and sympathetic to the driving needs of people who are desperate enough to risk life and limb in search of a future.

Cantu told the story of how, late one evening, he and his colleagues apprehended 10 people five miles east of the border. The agents sorted through their belongings, checking for weapons and throwing out food, and made the people walk single-file back to the road. Cantu walked next to an older man from Michoacan. When Cantu told him that it was beautiful out there in Michoacan, the man remarked that if Cantu had been to Michoacan, he must have seen what it is like to live there. “‘Hay mucha desesperación,’ he told me, almost whispering. I tried to look at his face, but it was too dark,” Cantu related, his voice holding still.

Jaya Padmanabhan can be reached at jaya.padmanabhan@gmail.com. Twitter: @jayapadmanabhan. In Brown Type covers immigrant issues in San Francisco.

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