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Más aca de la frontera
A Latina BorderAgent defends her country and her convictions

by Claudia S. Meléndez

Gloria Chávez grew up to lullabies sung in the sweet sounds of her mother tongue, under the reassuring gaze of la Virgen de Guadalupe and the comforting embrace of the culture of the Rio Grande Valley, home to one of the largest concentrations of Mexican Americans in the country.

Gloria, 28, a determined woman who takes comfort in challenge, decided to follow a career in law enforcement because she admired men’s grip on authority. Why couldn’t she have a gun and represent the law like men did?

But Gloria, a self-described Mexican American, did not grow up dreaming about becoming a Border Patrol agent. It was the security and excitement of federal employment that led her to this controversial government agency, the enforcement branch of the Immigration and Naturalization Services, which has recently been mired in allegations of human rights abuses.
In her three-year career with the Border Patrol, Gloria has arrested over 3,000 people, most of them dark-skinned, all of them seeking an opportunity for a better living. And even though Gloria sympathizes with the ones she arrests, she has never hesitated to perform the job she was sworn to do. Even when immigrants begged her to let them go.

“How can you do this? We’re the same people?” she recalls they’ve asked her. “Yes, I’m a Mexican American,” Gloria says, “but I’m not going to let my ancestry influence [me] or make me bend the rules in any sort of way. I take a lot of pride in doing what I do, I’m honored to do what I do. I took the oath to do the best to my extent to provide assistance to migrants; I try to understand and help them, but never bending the rules.”

Rather than serving as an impediment, shared ancestry offers some on-the-job advantages to Gloria. Her first language, Spanish, allows her to better communicate with the adventurous Mexicans who weren’t “lucky enough” as Gloria puts it, to have been born in America. It’s not only a matter of language, it’s a matter of culture — she knows what resonates with them. Often people she arrests end up telling her their life stories, how they arrived at the border and how they underestimated the dangers and vastness of the area.

It was three years ago when she first completed her training in Glynco, Georgia, to become a Border Agent. President Bill Clinton had just launched Operation Gatekeeper, and her first assignment was at the San Diego Sector of the Border Patrol, the busiest border crossing in the nation. Now, as the sector’s spokesperson, Gloria is in charge of touting the program successes.

“At Imperial beach ... they used to apprehend a thousand people in a 24-hour period. Now they’re lucky if they get 30,” Gloria says with a smile of accomplishment on her face. A once preferred spot for crossing to the United States, a tattered cyclone-fence that ended where the sandy beach begins has been replaced by upright landing mats of discarded airplane carriers. Under the beaming lights that stand less than a mile apart, a formerly accessible route to the north has been effectively shut down.

Each year, the Border Patrol arrests one million undocumented migrants, more arrests than any other law enforcement agency in the nation. Gloria says she has arrested over 3,000 people in her three years of service, 2,000 of them in Imperial Beach, and the rest in Calexico and Brownsville, where she was briefly stationed.

Apparently Gloria is not the only one who sees the advantage of being Latino when working for the Border Patrol. Everyone hired by the agency has to speak Spanish or be willing to learn it, since agents will most likely be stationed along the border with Mexico, and their primary task is to arrest Mexican undocumented immigrants. With language as an advantage, Latinos now comprise almost 40 percent of the Border Patrol force, far more than any other federal agency.

In the spacious press room of the San Diego headquarters of the U.S. Border Patrol, spokeswoman Chávez describes the agency’s accomplishments, current projects, and its exponential growth to almost mammoth proportions.

Launched in 1994, Operation Gatekeeper was designed to cover the 66 mile border stretch south of San Diego, California, considered one of the smallest sectors in the country, but also one of the busiest. Four years later, the ranks of agents have swelled from under 1,000 agents to 2,250 agents — an average of 34 agents per mile. The force now touts 59 infrared scopes, compared to three in the B.O.G. (Before Operation Gatekeeper) era; a mountain bike unit to patrol the rugged terrain east of the Pacific Ocean, a canine unit to smell drugs and illegal aliens, helicopters recycled from the Vietnam War, and a recently launched border-safety campaign: a series of yellow “Don’t Cross” signs in Spanish, aimed at deterring immigrants from entering the desert.

Chávez proudly presents “before” and “after” pictures. The before-pictures show throngs of would-be crossers on the U.S. side of the fence, just waiting for darkness to fall so they can make a run for the San Ysidro metropolitan area. The after-pictures are images of empty roads retrofitted by the Army Corps of Engineers, fenced with landing mats from the Vietnam War and brightly-lit with stadium lamps.

Before she took on the spokesperson position Gloria was assigned to cover the border between Imperial Beach and Imperial Valley. Although she says the immigrants frequently travel in small groups, her largest arrest came when she found a group of 33 people in the Otay Mountain at 2,000 feet above sea level, after verifying a motion sensor that had gone off. And to demonstrate how she was able to handle such a large group of immigrants, Gloria switches her tone to use a more authoritarian one, higher in volume and sterner in intonation. And she switches to the International Language of the Undocumented Alien:

“Siéntense, siéntense, todos siéntense. Siéntense de sentaderas,” she recalls ordering the group. “It’s harder to pick up if you’re sitting on your butt. You start looking for the people who are going to give you trouble, and you handcuff the skinny guy with el mas gordito, por que sabes que no va a correr. Y si corre no va a ir muy lejos,” Gloria says with a chuckle. She had to stay with the group for 25 minutes before help arrived. It was after 9 p.m., a dark evening in the cold mountains. The group, mostly men and a few women, including one holding a baby, had climbed about three hours to meet their fate on the border. They had to walk another 45 minutes to the nearest assistance station. More than being afraid, Gloria was cautious and alert during this episode.

Gloria need not proclaim her ethnicity — her “Spanglish” talk, her olive skin and her coal-black hair do a pretty good job. And even though this immigration law enforcer demonstrates sympathy for the people she must arrest, she says she is not distressed about detaining people who share her olive skin, her coal-black hair. It’s her job, as she puts it, and she attempts to represent with dignity the agency she promised to defend.

As she drives toward the border, pointing at places where migrants used to congregate before the massive deployment of enforcement resources, Gloria spews out a string of thoughts not necessarily expected from a Border Agent. Driving by Playas de Tijuana, the upscale neighborhood on the Mexican side of the fence, she remembers the angry neighbors who would complain about the migrants gathering on their lawns.

“Poor people were just there congregating and the owners would tell them, ‘Get out of my property’,” Gloria recalls. “You can only have compassion for these people. Whatever drives them is desperation. The economy in Mexico, that’s what’s drives them. Any one of us in this position would do the same. You can’t blame them for what they’re trying to do. I was lucky enough to be an American, to be born in this country. Hopefully I will never have to go to those extremes, to leave my country to be able to survive.”

But if human rights organizations are correct, not every officer in the agency shares Gloria’s compassion for immigrants. With an increasing number of agents patrolling the border, the number of abuse allegations has increased as well. Human rights group Amnesty International released a report in May that details allegations of abuses ranging from baton-beatings to sexual assault of men and women. In September, Border Patrol agents shot and killed two supposed illegal immigrants in separate instances, allegedly in response to the immigrants attacking the agents with rocks. The agents were placed in paid administrative leave until the matter is investigated, but their identities remain undisclosed.

However, in Gloria’s experience, officers are basically compassionate. “Like [in] every law enforcement agency, there’s been a bad apple, and I don’t deny that. Bad apples exist and we have to get rid of those bad apples. It’s an embarrassment to me as an officer, doing the best I can, and then we have people like that. It’s not tolerated in this agency, especially the violations of civil rights.”

But even if agents are stationed close to one another, they mostly work in single patrols. In the mountains they patrol in double-agent units, but if they happen to take separate roads — like when Gloria apprehended the Otay Mesa group by herself — it could take awhile for help to arrive. Getting hurt without backup is possible, and hurting immigrants without witnesses is possible as well.

However, in Gloria’s opinion, the coyotes are the ones to blame for taking advantage of their pollos, often abandoning them to die in the desert. “Penalties are getting stiffer [for smugglers] because so many aliens are dying,” she says at the office in Chula Vista, while an information video in the background touts the progress of the Border Patrol and Operation Gatekeeper, the effectiveness of military landing mats from the Vietnam war to fence the border and stadium lights to illuminate it.

“Together,” the video says, “these improvements have helped the Border Patrol to achieve Operation Gatekeeper’s primary goal: steering would-be crossers away from populated areas to the isolated, rugged terrain east of San Diego.”

“People have told me this is racist, another Berlin Wall,” she changes her tone of voice to add emphatically, “This is our stand: we are mandated by Congress. If people here in this country feel there’s a need to change this, talk to the right people. Go touch those people. If tomorrow Congress tells us, ‘Pull away, this is your mission now, do it,’ that’s what we’re going to do. We’re not gonna stay here.”

Claudia Meléndez is an editor of El Andar.


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