I Used to Detain Migrants at the Border. Now I help Them

It’s been many years and once again, I’m standing in front of a single file line of immigrants. Most are from Guatemala and Honduras. Maybe a family or two are from El Salvador. All the children are so young, clinging to their parents in fear. Many are sneaking a look at me, then quickly looking away as if I am about to spit out orders at them like I used to when I wore a green border patrol uniform: “Get in lineHands behind your backGet inside! Silencio!”

For a moment, my breath escapes me as I feel a catch in my throat, and I try to recall a bit of Spanish. They are all asylum-seekers who have traveled thousands of miles. Some are sick, everyone is in need of clean clothes, food, a shower and a bed for the night. “Bienvenidos a San Diego. Tienen hambre?” These questions allow them to relax. I am a friend, here to help.

As our failed border policies continue to push asylum-seekers to dangerous areas away from the ports of entry and children continue to die in the custody of the US government, I am forever reminded of my own troubling memories from when I was a Border Patrol agent (1995 to 2001). But I’m not an agent anymore and haven’t been for many years. I resigned in protest over the corruption and lack of accountability I witnessed. I’d had a change of mind, of heart.

I believe in atonement, of making amends or at least attempting to do so. Leaving didn’t absolve me of my actions. Neither would time. I doubt volunteering in this shelter for asylum seekers will either, but it is the best that I can do in this moment. I cannot sit at home quietly while our government and my former employer treats these families as if they were less than livestock; while children die in our custody under the American flag. It is a disgrace and a shame that moves me to speak out and take action.

When I look back, I don’t understand how I stayed. It took effort. I had to have willfully forgotten my core values. I purposefully didn’t listen to their stories, because it was difficult to do my job when they told me that they were only seeking safety and security for their families. I honestly would have done the same had I been in their shoes, and I knew it. So I made them be silent. I didn’t want to know. I told myself that I needed this job and that was what was most important.

But the border, like life, is not so simple.

The change started in my fourth year after I had arrested a man for entering the country without inspection. We sat on a boulder talking while waiting on transport. His English was perfect and like me, he had a degree in law. He asked me why the Border Patrol did not treat Canadians the same as Mexicans. I could not answer him without admitting that the laws and policies I was enforcing were racist, intended only to keep certain people out. I could no longer pretend that I wasn’t racially profiling members of the community in enforcing the immigration laws that I knew were failing our country and had been for decades.

By Jenn Budd for SBCC

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