The Green Wall

The human line of protection at the border

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There's already a wall along the entire southern border with Mexico -- just not the one President Donald Trump pledged to build. Over a disjointed 1,300 miles where there's no fence or concrete structure, there's just men and women in green uniforms -- border patrol agents who call themselves the "green wall."

I spent three months with agents who patrol different sectors of the border. I followed them from the mouth of the Rio Grande to the deserts of Arizona and the metropolis of San Diego. The agents said morale at US Customs and Border Protection is up for the first time in many years. Their union, the National Border Patrol Council, took the unprecedented step of endorsing Trump last year.

I still heard plenty of complaints about what isn't working. But I was most struck by how these agents cope with their jobs when they hang up their green uniforms. Here are their stories.

Chris Cabrera walks a dirt road he's walked many times. The US Border Patrol agent moves to the edge where the tall grass meets the road and sees something familiar. He picks up a toddler's backpack, the cartoon design now weathered by the dirt -- and maybe the long journey.

I have an 8-year-old son," the 43-year-old Cabrera said. "It wasn't too long ago that he had stuff like that.

It's 95 degrees, humid, and Cabrera is alert. He has to be. Of the nine regions along the southern border, this area in the Rio Grande Valley in Texas is the sector with the highest number of apprehensions and where the most unaccompanied minors -- the number doubled to 12,289 last year -- were brought in.

There's desperation, but I don't think I would put one of my daughters through that.

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You should see the amount of young girls, and I don't mean 15, but 10-year-old girls that are on birth control or have plan B pills with them because they know getting violated is part of their journey," he said. "There's desperation, but I don't think I would put one of my daughters through that.

A large portion of those children are coming from gang ridden Central America and are seeking asylum. The journey to the US is often their only hope, and border patrol is their first sign of safety.

The way things are in their home countries are pretty bad, and it's that violence that's driving the parents to say 'I have to send my kid over there,' because things are that bad," said Astrid Dominguez of the ACLU of Texas, who advocates for undocumented children once they are in the US. "Whether (border patrol) agrees with why people are coming or not, let's remember they are asylum seekers and let's have some compassion and show some humanity.

It's easy to imagine how finding children alone after thousands of miles of travel would get to you. Yet Cabrera is soft spoken and never seems to let his emotions get the best of him. Instead, he directs his feelings into his passion outside of work -- boxing.

This is what I do on my spare time," he said, sitting on the edge of the boxing ring at his Bad Boys Boxing Gym. "It's not a money maker. We can barely afford to keep the lights on, but the reason we do it is, some of the kids, if they weren't in here, they may be out doing the wrong things.

"These cartels recruit these young kids knowing that they're not going to face any real jail time if they get caught," Cabrera continued.

Do they love their jobs?

US Border Patrol agents can face harsh elements, work more than 10 hour shifts alone, and say they need more resources. But do they love their jobs?

So Cabrera is catching them early by introducing them to boxing at an early age. At 6 pm on any given day, Bad Boys Boxing Gym is packed. There's no air conditioning, and it's almost hotter inside than it is out in the 95 degree night. There are kids of all ages - from 8-year-olds boxing their hearts out to national champions.

Boxing really helped me a lot just staying out of trouble," said two-time amateur national boxing champion Toby Tovar Jr. "There's a lot of gangs, a lot of bad activity down here. I got family members involved in that kind of stuff.

When Bad Boys Gym isn’t producing boxing champions like Tovar, Cabrera and the volunteer coaches are encouraging kids to get jobs and usher in the next generation of border patrol agents -- after all, the agency is losing more agents than it can keep.

That's my dream job," said boxer Jorge Oyergides, who grew up coming to Bad Boys Boxing. "Certain people like boxing because they know it's in them. Border Patrol? I prefer being out, just being able to wear a uniform. I think that's really cool.



This is a slap in the face. To the agents that are working, and it's a huge slap in the face I think to the American public.

Agent Art Del Cueto is riled up. He is straddling the two foot barrier that separates Mexico from the United States in Arizona. There isn't much he can do, though. This land he's standing on is in the United States, but owned by the Tohono O'Odham Nation, a group of Native Americans who have lived on the land for thousands of years.

The government started building better fencing, but obviously this is all they were able to put on the reservation," Del Cueto said, pointing to the vehicle barrier. "But if you go further out, there's spots where what you have is five strands of barbed wire.

It's a delicate dance between Customs and Border Patrol and the reservation elders. It took six years just to get the vehicle barrier installed on the majority of the reservation's 62 mile border with Mexico.

We went back and forth, until finally there was an agreement made on the type of vehicle barrier," said Verlon Jose, vice chairman of the Tohono O'Odham Nation. "It was just that -- a vehicle barrier to halt the vehicles, never the animals nor the people. We would be happy if there was no barrier or border whatsoever. There is no word for wall in our language.

How do they feel about the wall?

On the Tohono O'Odham reservation, there is a 2 foot vehicle barrier that divides the US and Mexico. According to the nations elders, a wall is out of the question. How do these agents patrolling the southern border really feel about Trump's "great wall?"

The Nation understands what the agents are trying to accomplish, but their land has already been split in half by the fencing. Half of the reservation is in Mexico, although it's not recognized by the Mexican government.

"This area is notorious for drugs entering the United States," said Del Cueto.

Drug seizures in Tucson have declined over the past five years. Still, the US Border Patrol says 728,367 pounds of marijuana was seized in the Tucson sector last year alone -- the most by more than double of any other sector along the border.

The open, barrier-less land might have something to do with the Nation being a well known drug route. The terrain is unlike any other, making it difficult to patrol. Del Cueto says agents who start out in the Tucson sector get major street cred when they go to other parts of the border. There's the 120 degree heat in the summer, limited access to cell towers for communication, and virtually no light to help patrol at night. For Del Cueto, it's a draining job. And he feels like no one cares.

"Nobody cares to see the reality of what’s going on here."

The agents are the only ones who come out here to patrol this area. But nobody cares to see the reality of what's going on here.

I asked him why.

"The reality is it's not secure," he said.

When the vehicle barrier ends, a five strand barbed wire fence is what separates the US and Mexico. It's easy to get lost in the mountains of the reservation -- something that can happen to Del Cueto, even with 14 years of experience. With Del Cueto at the wheel, we've taken a wrong turn on our drive back to Tucson. There are murmurs from the front seat about whether we've mistakenly driven into Mexico.

After the six-hour round trip to the border, a close encounter with Mexico, and a long week of work, Del Cueto looks forward to Fridays.

"I always take the extra hours on Friday to be able to ride with my brothers," the 39-year-old agent said. His brothers are a group of guys who share his love of motorcycles.

After they ride, they meet for drinks (non alcoholic for Art) and his demeanor changes. He's no longer stressed and angry about the barrier he's just shown us. 'The brothers' are talking about how to raise more money for sick children in the network of Shriners hospitals.

"I think with everything going on in the world, it's fantastic that you can get a group of guys together from totally different areas of the world, who come together for one cause and that's to help the children," he said.

Last Christmas, 16 burly motorcycle guys drove 400 teddy bears to the Shriners hospital in Tucson. The money they raised helped deserving -- but unlikely -- children.

There has been some times kids from Mexico that have had issues, and they will bring them to the border," he said. "They will take care of their visa and either drive them to a hospital nearby or I've known them to fly them all the way to different hospitals depending on what they have.

The irony of a border patrol agent helping to bring children from Mexico into the US is not lost on Del Cueto.

What I do as a border patrol agent is defend the laws of the country," he said. "But with these kids, there's a legal way and a process that they go through in order to come here and get treatment. Just because I carry I badge and a gun and I am out in the field arresting people, doesn't mean that I don't have a heart for individuals that are in need.



The US-Mexico border is an unlikely place to find homes selling for half a million dollars. But the market in San Ysidro, California, is booming, in part because it's now considered one of the safest areas on the border.

All these houses weren't even possible back then," said Agent Terry Shigg. "People didn't want to live here because the flow of people would come across and people would hide in their backyards.

But in 2006, the federal government began building an 18-foot bollard fence to stop the flow of the more than 142,000 people who were apprehended crossing into the US illegally in and around San Diego every year. And it worked. There were only 31,891 apprehensions there last year.

"I think San Diego sector's one of the examples of where (a barrier) actually works, and it works well," said Shigg.

That hasn't stopped the Trump administration from choosing San Diego as one of the places where it wants to build a wall. Twenty eight miles of new and replacement fencing have been proposed.

Cristian Ramirez of the Southern Border Communities, a coalition to protect the interest of the nearly 50 million residents on the border, says there's no need for a wall.

Immigration flows from Mexico to the United States through this part of the border is at an all time low," Ramirez said. "What we need to do is improve our infrastructure. We have some bridges here that are collapsing.

Ramirez has had tough conversations with Shigg, but he's happy they're at least willing to talk through the issues.

"It's not always easy. We have dealt with very difficult questions, with folks who have been killed, with folks who have been seriously injured by border patrol agents," said Ramirez.

Shigg says extreme use of force is always his last resort.

Most of our guys show quite a bit of restraint.

If there's something that happens, and that person goes beyond our policies, then the courts will deal with that," said Shigg. "But to think with a blanket statement that all of our agents go out there with the intention of using force, that's absolutely not true. Most of our guys show quite a bit of restraint, while being attacked with bottles, glass, rocks, firearms, and knives.

Those attacks can take a toll on an agent. But Shigg has the appearance of a gentle giant. He's tall, and reserved.

The 49-year-old says the stress of the job takes a toll on agents and can even cause problems at home. He became a licensed marriage and family counselor, which he is putting to good use in his day job.

There was a string of suicides in 2009. Just in Texas, there were nine suicides," recalled Shigg. "There was an agent at my station who committed suicide and that was the thing that woke me up to say, 'Okay, this is something, not only do I have to do but I'm gonna make sure that this happens.'

According to CBP documents obtained by CNN, the suicide rate among border patrol agents is higher than any other position at the Department of Homeland Security -- 20.5 per 100,000. That's also nearly double the national average. Shigg looked for support and training within the agency but couldn't find a dedicated resource beyond training at academy level and a yearly refresher. So with the support of the Border Patrol Union, he created his own.

"I think (something) most people don't realize is that a law enforcement officer is more likely to die by suicide than he is to be murdered in the field," said Shigg.

Is it hopeless?

The immigration debate has gone on for decades, and still rages on. While the number of people coming across has dropped, there is still a steady flow of immigrants and drugs. Have they lost hope?

In his presentations, Shigg talks to other agents about factors that can contribute to depression and thoughts of suicide. He says agents can often fall into a depression and isolate themselves because they typically patrol alone and can face injury and trauma in the field. It's something Shigg knows firsthand. He told me he has suffered from anxiety, panic attacks and depression in the past.

In the presentation I discuss the fact that I went through a divorce, my father died, and I didn't really tell anybody about it. I just kind of dealt with it on my own," he said. "It took me going through counseling to go, 'Okay, this is how you deal with it in healthy way.'

But Shigg is cautiously optimistic about a new task force created by CBP. According to the agency, the National Resiliency Task Force is "a robust and unified agency program that addresses issues critical to the workforce to include suicide prevention."

Shigg has given his presentation about 60 times since he started in 2012. It sounds like a lot, but there are over 20,000 border patrol agents.

"It's nowhere near enough in my mind," he said.



Video by Amy Marino, Bridget Nolan, and Alice Yu.
Illustrations by Mat Pringle.