While DACA has claimed the loudest role in a game of immigration-policy chess, less talked about is U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s effort to hire 5,000 new agents. With recruitment efforts spanning NASCAR and bullfighting events, the agency hopes to increase the number of agents by 25 percent.
But when 2 out of 3 Border Patrol applicants fail their polygraph tests, and with harsh workplace environments in desert or brush, hiring new agents can be difficult. Yet, with rigorous vetting, proper training and the genuine intent to serve and protect, the agency will augment border protection with the best men and women for the job. Right?
Perhaps. But only if the agency recognizes the room for improvement.
In 2012, after returning to the U.S. from a trip to Europe, I presented my Canadian passport to a U.S. Border Patrol officer. “Oh, you’re Canadian,” he mused. “Do you know what we do to Canadians?” A strange question, I thought, but respectfully answered, “No, I don’t.” His reply — “We lynch them.”
Of important note: I am a black woman. My husband, who is white and American, grabbed my hand beneath the counter and squeezed as I tried to breathe normally. When the agent stamped our passports, he looked at my husband and said, “Welcome home.”
In 2015, during a family holiday within the state where I live and work, I was locked in a cell at a road-side stop for not carrying the paperwork that identified me as a lawful resident of the U.S. Before I was placed in a cell, I heard my case agent call his supervisor: “Says she’s Canadian. LPR card. At her house. Austin.” When he hung up, I also heard the exchange between him and the agent who stood over me: “What do we do with her?” The other agent replied, “It’s up to us. Since we have her, we get to decide.”
Surely, there were rules to follow. Surely, a government position with an average salary of $75,000 and a 55-day basic training program would rely on some form of protocol. But I was mistaken.
I’ve learned my stories aren’t unique. Admittedly, fast-changing and complicated policies can make things challenging for Border Patrol and customs agents — as might have been the case when specialized nurses were denied entry to the U.S. because of an obscure amendment. But agents are also empowered to use their best judgment — as was the case when a group of women traveling to the U.S. from Montreal to attend the Women’s March was denied entry for virtually no reason.
It’s true that U.S. immigration officials can admit whomever they deem worthy, but Border Patrol agents’ subjective decisions threaten the safety of people on either side. If life-threatening decision making has been hefted onto these men and women who agree to serve and protect, perhaps they need more than 55 days of training.
If U.S. Customs and Border Protection touts the protection of all Americans as one of its core values, the agency, itself, might reflect that inclusivity — and recruitment efforts should better reach out to a broader demographic. And if the agency wants to help the American public to feel safe, it should refrain from telling lawful residents they can be lynched.
This spring, after a three-day vacation out of the country, I slid my passport and permanent resident card across the counter to a cheerful agent as we re-entered the U.S. We exchanged witty banter about our brief holiday, and our daughter said something that made us all laugh. As passports were stamped, I breathed a sigh of relief. The agent smiled and waved at us as we walked away. A good person doing a good job.
We want to trust that the government selects the best candidates for this dangerous job. We want to trust that 55 days of training is enough to protect these brave men and women who’ve signed up to secure the borders. And we want to trust that customs and Border Patrol agents are truly committed to protecting the law-abiding American public. But until we are assured our protection isn’t tied to an agent’s whim, and until we are assured that every agent will deem all families worthy of protection, many of us will hold our breath — each time we enter the U.S.
Lise Ragbir is director of the Warfield Center Galleries at The University of Texas at Austin.
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