The Biden administration has transformed and imperiled the mission of the Border Patrol through migration policies that have led to a crisis at the southern border, current and former agents say.
Border Patrol agents broke protocol to claim in interviews with the Washington Examiner that their jobs have been remade since President Joe Biden took office a year ago. They say that they have been redirected from fulfilling a law enforcement and national security role to working as though they were in an Ellis Island-style welcome center.
Four of the agents agreed to speak anonymously about their concerns even though doing so risks termination. The rising frustration among agents has also manifested in leaked videos of the rank and file in angry confrontations with leadership in recent private meetings.
Still other agents have had enough and have quit the agency, anticipating that matters won’t change in the next three years.
The century-old mission
Congress created the Border Patrol in 1924 for the purpose of securing land and sea borders.
“While the Border Patrol has changed dramatically since its inception in 1924, its primary mission remains unchanged: to detect and prevent the illegal entry of individuals into the United States,” its parent agency, U.S. Customs and Border Protection, part of the Department of Homeland Security, states on its website.
The job has changed
Agents say their new responsibilities have little to do with the mission they signed up to perform. Instead, they’re now focused on documenting and processing people who illegally cross the border, transporting them from the border to stations, and then releasing them by the hundreds of thousands.
Roughly 30% of the 2 million times Border Patrol agents encountered someone attempting to enter the country illegally from Mexico in 2021, they let them go into the United States, despite a still-in-effect public health protocol that requires every person be returned south to avoid filling border facilities with people or releasing them amid a global pandemic.
“The U.S. Border Patrol has become part of the alien smuggling organizations by aiding, abetting, and facilitating the illegal aliens’ movements throughout the U.S. The very same thing we swore to protect against is what we’ve now become,” said one agent who works in a senior capacity in Texas.
One reason the Biden administration has released so many migrants into the interior of the country is that some Mexican states have refused to work with the U.S. to accept back people who had illegally crossed from Mexico. As a result, the administration opted not to detain hundreds of thousands of families in federal family residential centers but to release them into the country. In doing so, however, it signaled to massive criminal cartels in Mexico and Central America that they could sell their services and take advantage of the situation.
“Our job’s a joke,” said a second Border Patrol agent stationed in Texas, where the bulk of the migrants are crossing. “We’re not doing our jobs. We’re releasing people all day. We go from arresting people in the woods, pulling over fully loaded vehicles, to releasing people onto the streets of America. The smugglers look at us and laugh at us.”
Is Biden to blame?
Encounters of illegal immigrants at the border in Biden’s first year easily quadrupled many years over the past decade.
In one sense, that reflects success on the part of the Border Patrol. Ruth Wasem, professor at the University of Texas’s Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs, has tracked the Border Patrol’s growth since the 1980s and co-authored a report for the Migration Policy Institute last year that outlined how DHS could better handle immigration matters.
“I actually think that the number of border apprehensions shows that they’re doing a really good job there,” said Wasem. “They used to say for every person the Border Patrol apprehends, there’s two or three more they don’t get. That’s not the case today. They’re getting most of them.”
But Rudy Karisch, the former top agent in the busiest southern border region, the Rio Grande Valley, Texas, said agents can only apprehend so many people and the ones who want to get caught are surrendering, while those who want to get away still go that route.
“It’s not that they’ve gotten better at apprehensions. People are simply giving up because they know at the end of the day, that they are better off turning themselves in, getting processed, and immediately being released into the country,” said Karisch. “You’re not enforcing laws, you’re simply processing.”
If the government is intent on releasing people, it ought to provide workers, such as asylum officers, at the border to take the burden off of Border Patrol, he said.
The Trump administration tried to deter illegal migration through forcing asylum-seekers to live in Mexico through legal proceedings and requiring migrants to seek refuge in other countries they had passed through before arriving in the U.S. Both policies were undone under Biden.
Simultaneously, the pandemic has also caused economic hardship and prompted people to migrate to the U.S., especially from Central America. But migrants are also coming from beyond the Americas. In December 2021, nearly 45% of those apprehended illegally crossing the border were not from Mexico or the three Central American countries.
“What are we risking our lives for? And more importantly, why am I placing my family at risk when my leaders are allowing everyone into our communities?” a third anonymous agent said. “If I get COVID while performing my duties as an agent, I’m taking it home where my wife and kids are. As much as we try to protect our families, everything we do and deal with at work ends up coming home. That includes stress, frustration, and sadly, a loss of hope.”
Many are leaving
Brandon Judd is the president of the National Border Patrol Council, the union that represents 90% of the 19,500 agents nationwide.
“I speak with agents all the time, everywhere,” said Judd. “Almost every single person I speak with are looking for new jobs.”
Last year, the Border Patrol lost a couple hundred more agents even after hiring new agents. It lost 203 more agents than it was able to hire, Judd said.
One Texas agent put in his two weeks’ notice last month for a job with a different federal agency.
“I’m leaving because the patrol is not the same as my first couple of years. We’ve changed from actually taking care of our people/communities, to becoming humanitarian aides to people giving up to us,” said the fourth agent, who is leaving the Border Patrol. “In the entire year, I want to say I was out working the field maybe 10 to 15 days. The rest, we were all processing and transporting.”
The frequent, large groups of hundreds of people that cartels push across the border at one time will take a full day for agents to transport and process. All the while, the few agents who are in the field have been pulled from surrounding areas to help with the large group, allowing the cartels to move criminals or drugs across the border because agents are overwhelmed elsewhere.
Anthony Porvaznik, the chief for the Yuma Border Patrol Sector, which included the entire western Arizona region, reached mandatory retirement age and retired in late 2020 after hitting 32 years in the patrol, but he said he would have “highly considered” leaving early if he was still in the Border Patrol today, because of the Biden administration’s policies that he said have caused the unprecedented surge of people from all over the world to the southern border.
“On one hand, they’re saying, ‘Don’t cross the border,’ but on the other hand, when you do cross the border, we let you go,” said Porvaznik.
It’s one of the reasons agents leave work without the feeling of satisfaction that they used to leave with.
At present, when Border Patrol agents begin their shift, 50% of agents in many regions are not being sent out to the field to patrol for anyone crossing the border between the ports of entry where vehicles and pedestrians are to be inspected, Judd said. The remaining 50% who do get sent out into the field dwindle down as groups of people come across and must be detained, transported to a station then processed, and either removed from the country or released into the U.S.
“We feel useless. We feel like our contributions and our work means absolutely nothing. And we’re not able to protect the border in a manner that we know we can. We’re not able to protect the American public,” Judd said. “Because of that, the frustration is literally at an all-time high. I mean, it is absolutely unprecedented that agents in uniform while on government time were willing to speak out against a secretary, a Cabinet official.”
Showdowns with leadership
In late January, Border Patrol agents sounded off during visits with Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas and Border Patrol Chief Raul Ortiz in Arizona and Texas. The tense exchanges were secretly filmed and recorded and went viral. But Porvaznik said Ortiz’s defense did not add up.
“In the meeting, when Chief Ortiz said he raised his hand, he took the oath of office to support and defend the Constitution, it wasn’t to become immigration agents in order to immigrate people into the United States. It was to enforce the law to keep people from entering the United States or arresting them and prosecuting them after,” said Porvaznik. “And so, what you see now is essentially no consequence, no reason not to try to cross. We’ve always known that consequences equal more security at the border. No consequences now has essentially led to a free-for-all at the border. Agents are very frustrated about that, and rightfully so. They put their lives on the line, not to be the next Ellis Island, which is essentially what they’re being forced into. They put their lives on the line to keep America safe and contribute to national security.”
“I get where Chief Ortiz — he is trying to toe the line, be supportive of the administration. But equally so, he should be honest with the agents of telling them the ground truth, and the same goes for the secretary,” Karisch said.
“The frustration right now with Ali Mayorkas is that he goes down to the border, and he tells agents one thing, and then when he does his talk circuits on Sunday to the media, it’s entirely different,” said Karisch. “Agents respect truthfulness — leadership giving them a true assessment of what’s going on. And that’s the problem that you have with this administration now is that there’s doublespeak.”
Judd said he believes that Mayorkas, Ortiz, and other senior officials in Washington “absolutely” understand why agents are frustrated, but that they are indifferent or unwilling to do anything.
“Chief Ortiz made the comment — something to the effect of, ‘This is just complaining. It’s not solutions,’” Judd said. “Solutions have been provided. We have provided the solutions that the agents have brought to us until we’re blue in the face, and they ignore — completely ignore the solutions. And when I say ‘ignore the solutions,’ it’s not that they will offer up a solution. They’ll say, ‘Hey, it can’t work because of this or this or this.’”
Instead, leadership has repeatedly let agents suffer rather than step in, according to the agents. In one example, Karisch pointed to the September 2021 phenomenon in which 20,000 primarily Haitian migrants came across the border near Del Rio, Texas, in a matter of days and created an impromptu camp just outside the town of 30,000 residents.
A viral photograph taken as Haitian migrants tried to blow past horse-mounted agents on the riverbank made matters worse. Biden himself saw the image and claimed at least one agent had whipped the migrants and vowed that “those people will pay.” The photographer later defended the agents, saying the photo was taken out of context, but the administration has yet to apologize to the Border Patrol or release the findings of an investigation into the incident.
“There’s a lot of things that leadership could have done, but unfortunately, they let it fall on the backs of the Border Patrol agents,” Karisch said. “Those agents were put in a worst-case scenario.”
The path forward
Rather than leaving the Border Patrol to do menial jobs, the government should bring to the border and cross-train DHS, State, and Justice employees to process, transport, and adjudicate asylum claims at the border, and keep that model in place for the future, Wasem said.
But Judd was not convinced that the Biden administration wants to improve things.
“I believe that they’re just trying to socialize the public to, ‘This is the norm,’” Judd said.
For instance, border officials stopped 170,000 attempts to enter the U.S. illegally from Mexico in December, a very high number but still low relative to the previous months.
“The public is like, ‘Well, this is just commonplace — this is the new norm,’” Judd said.
“At the end of the day, this administration touts that they’re doing the humane immigrant processing versus the previous administration,” Karisch said. “Tell me where that makes sense when you’ve had so many more people dying in the desert — so much trauma that’s caused by people still being put into the hands of smugglers coming in from Central America into Mexico. There are a lot of people just closing their ears and eyes because they think that they’re doing the right thing. This is not the right thing to do.”