September 25th, 2007 16:11 EST
Agents often sympathetic to the illegal migrants they catch
El Paso, Texas -- “There are two sides to a U.S. Border Patrol agent,” explains Michele Le Boeuf, who has been doing the job for five years.
“We have the side that is the enforcer. The side that knows: ‘These are the laws. I took an oath of office to uphold these laws, and I will uphold these laws.’”
“But know that there is the other side -- that agents feel for these people [the illegal immigrants they catch]. … But we know that there are these laws [to enforce], and we’re doing this for the public good. The people here in the United States have voted on these laws and, as a democracy, have decided to enforce them. And that’s what we do.”
Le Boeuf was among several U.S. Border Patrol agents who escorted a group of foreign journalists along the border between El Paso, Texas, and Juarez, Mexico. The tour was arranged by the U.S. State Department’s Foreign Press Center in Los Angeles.
The El Paso Sector of the U.S. Border Patrol covers more than 325,000 square kilometers, including the entire state of New Mexico and the two westernmost counties in Texas. It is responsible for monitoring 290 kilometers of land border and 142 kilometers of river border with some 2,200 agents.
So far in fiscal year 2007, Border Patrol agents in the El Paso Sector alone have made 64,838 apprehensions; in 2006, the number was 122,246. Some illegal immigrants try to enter the United States for criminal purposes. In 2007, El Paso Sector agents made 924 seizures, nabbing 48,844 kilograms of marijuana and nearly 184 kilograms of cocaine.
But most of the people who try to sneak across the border illegally are Mexicans in search of a better life in the United States, border officials say.
Le Boeuf says she understands why. A native of Seattle, who had to learn Spanish before she could become a Border Patrol agent, she brought her parents to El Paso to see the type of work she does.
“We went to Juarez,” Le Boeuf recalled, “and when we came back, my mother just cried. It is very poor. My mother just couldn’t comprehend that we have this border and on one side there is nothing and on the other side there is everything.”
“I don’t know how much money I have spent buying people [the illegal immigrants she catches] lunches,” Le Boeuf confessed. “I’m not the most sentimental of all the agents. But imagine if I do that, how many of the other agents do that.” Agents are human, too, she said, “and we do care about humanitarian needs.”
Indeed, getting medical care for illegal immigrants who become sick or hurt while crossing the border is part of the job. Le Boeuf recalled fishing out a 5-year-old boy who had been abandoned in the middle of a canal serving the Rio Grande.
“That smuggler couldn’t have cared less about that little child,” she said. “When you ask why we prosecute smugglers so heavily, it’s because they don’t care about the human lives they bring across the border; they only care about the money they will get.”
Senior Border Patrol Officer Martin Hernandez said the majority of illegal immigrants he catches are respectful. “They’re some of the nicest people that I’ve met,” he said. “If they give you respect, you give them respect. It’s the ‘coyotes,’ the smugglers, the people who throw rocks at you that are the most trouble.”
Hernandez acknowledged that agents working right on the border tend to experience more violence. The illegal immigrants, he said, think they can “know their freedom with one punch -- if they can make it across the border, that they’re home free.”
U.S. Border Patrol agents will defend themselves to the fullest, Le Boeuf said. “We will defend the community in which we work. We will defend other agents. People know that.”
“We don’t want to hurt anyone,” Le Boeuf added. “We are here protecting our country and stopping these people from entering it illegally,” she said, “when there are legal avenues to come here.”
Cooperation with Mexican law enforcement helps U.S. agents do their jobs, Le Boeuf said. She recalled apprehending four adults trying to cross a canal. When they saw her they ran toward Mexico. “We called the Mexican authorities and they were able to arrest two of the four people for human trafficking,” she said.
“We work well with Mexican authorities -- both their federal, state and local. We have personal relationships,” she said, “where we are able to call and say ‘Hey, this happened. Can you help?’”
Still, there is often frustration when agents apprehend the same people trying to cross the border illegally over and over again.
“I don’t take it personally,” Hernandez said. “I give them a granola bar and some juice and say, ‘See you next week.’”
(USINFO is produced by the Bureau of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State. Web site: http://usinfo.state.gov)
By Jane Morse
USINFO Staff Writer
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