AUSTIN, Texas — Twelve Border Patrol agents are the only federal law enforcement officers present along a 245-mile stretch of the U.S.-Mexico border surrounding Del Rio, Texas. It’s the lowest-ever number of agents on duty in the area, even as more migrants illegally cross here now than ever before.
The surge of illegal immigration is taking a significant toll because it has kept agents from carrying out their national security mission. Agents say they are physically drained and struggling to see beyond the crisis.
“Morale is in the toilet,” said Jon Anfinsen, a spokesman for the Border Patrol's union. "Morale is low because agents aren't allowed to do their job — if our job is to be out patrolling the border in between the ports of entry and actively searching for people who have crossed illegally, but we're not allowed to go do that job, it basically creates this defeated feeling in everyone."
“Morale is tanking fast. This can be seen in the simple statements made by agents, but even more importantly, it can be seen in increasing processing times. Agents are just flat tired, and we are seeing and hearing it,” a former senior official at U.S. Customs and Border Protection, the federal agency that oversees the Border Patrol, wrote in an email.
This isn’t the first crisis these agents have faced, but this one has taken a significant toll on personnel, according to Anfinsen, because agents are already “burned out and there’s really no end in sight.”
The Border Patrol’s 19,000 agents are not allowed to speak with the media, but five current agents and three former senior officials who worked in the Biden administration spoke to the Washington Examiner for this story.
The situation that Border Patrol agents have faced over the past six months is the highest level of illegal immigration that the United States has seen since 2000, when former President Bill Clinton was in office. It has continued to worsen every month.
Sixty percent of known illegal crossings are taking place in Texas and New Mexico. Up to half of the agents in Texas have been pulled from the border and are indoors, processing people in custody. Tens of thousands of families and children have been released into the U.S. under President Joe Biden, where they will face immigration court proceedings years down the road. But plenty of others are not being caught and evading arrest. Agents know this thanks to new technologies.
“Agents are primarily indoors, processing, and we're dealing with the people who are flagging us down — the ones who are walking up to us and turning themselves in," said Anfinsen, the president of the National Border Patrol Council's Del Rio chapter. "Meanwhile, the immigrants who don't want anything to do with us, they're running away, although sometimes they're walking because they have no need to run because we're not there.”
One federal agent, who works for CBP’s Air and Marine Operations arm in Texas, said it is easy to spot groups crossing the Rio Grande River, but “there are no agents available” to take them into custody and no agents are in the field counting the number of people who get away. On one day recently, the McAllen Border Patrol Station in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas sent just one emergency medical technician and K-9 into the field, keeping all other agents indoors processing, transporting migrants, or carrying out other nonenforcement tasks.
A fourth agent, assigned to the horse patrol unit in Texas, said it was hard to remember the last time the unit was allowed to patrol on horseback because the team has been pulled aside to transport and process migrants.
“Everyone shows up to work sort of downtrodden, almost dead inside, for lack of a better term,” Anfinsen added. “They're not allowed to [do] the job, and they know that people are getting away every single day, every hour.”
A fourth person, a top CBP official, said he was “blown away” by how much the agents were handling.
A fifth person, who is retired and in daily contact with agents in the field, said the Biden administration has turned Border Patrol agents into corrections officers, placing them inside detention facilities and managing dozens of people packed into small holding rooms — all amid rising coronavirus cases in the U.S. Over the past 18 months, 37 CBP employees have died as a result of contracting the coronavirus, and more than 10,000 have tested positive.
“This is not being treated like a medical emergency,” the same former agent said in a phone call. “These guys feel abandoned by CBP and DHS and the administration. Nobody’s coming to rescue them.”
In Arizona, agents are not as overwhelmed as their counterparts in Texas, but one agent who was willing to speak on the condition of anonymity said parts of the state’s border, including Ajo and Sells, have been packed with agents, leaving other parts “brutally spread thin with manpower."
“The size of groups and frequency is comparable to what it was over 10 yrs ago but with far fewer agents [working] them,” the agent, the sixth person, wrote in a text message.
A seventh agent, based in Arizona, said they are “hit 24/7.”
“The mission is no longer Deter, Detect, Detain. It is wait until they have all crossed, Uber them to the station and process,” the agent wrote in a message. “Morale is below the Mason/Dixon line. We need more agents on the line (not at hospital or processing). We need more agents working INTEL to nail the son’s behind these groups," the agent added, referring to the cartels that smuggle migrants.
CBP did not address the issue of morale in a statement sent to the Washington Examiner, stating that the Border Patrol “is fortunate to have dedicated law enforcement professionals who remain resilient as we seek to improve enforcement efforts along the border.”
“Day in and day out, our Border Patrol agents continue to meet the need to protect our nation’s border as well as process migrants safely and expeditiously,” an agency spokesman wrote in an email.
Agents were initially frustrated in early 2020, during the Trump administration, by how the Border Patrol's management in Washington was handling agent safety and operations. Agents in the field who spoke with the Washington Examiner at the time said they were told to stay six feet away from migrants, even though they have to apprehend people physically at the time of arrest. Some agents were frustrated with headquarters in Washington for not clarifying whether they could use sick leave if they did get sick and having to prove they got sick while working in order to earn workman’s compensation. The AMO agent said the agents held inside processing migrants are sick and that many have used all of their paid sick leave.
Retaining agents and keeping them happy at work have long been a struggle for the Border Patrol, according to a 2019 report by the Government Accountability Office in Washington. Fewer than one-quarter of agents who left from 2013 to 2017 retired. The rest left for different jobs or other reasons.
“Agents may not want to live with their families in an area without a hospital, with low-performing schools, or with relatively long commutes from their homes to their duty station," the report read. "According to Border Patrol officials, other agencies are often able to offer more desirable duty locations — such as major cities — and, in some cases, higher compensation."
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Original Author: Anna Giaritelli