View from the Border Patrol

By Noah Graff

Nov. 2006 Volume 2, Issue 11

Photo of T.J. Bonner, President of the National Border Patrol Council and border patrol agent.

Noah Graff recently talked with T.J. Bonner, president of the National Border Patrol Council, a union that is part of the American Federation of Government Employees, about his dual role in thwarting illegal immigration while advocating as a labor leader.

NG: Hi, T.J. CAN YOU BEGIN BY TALKING ABOUT WHAT YOUR JOB ENTAILS AS A BORDER PATROLLER AND AS THE PRESIDENT OF THE NATIONAL BORDER PATROL COUNCIL?
TB: As a Border Patrol agent I’m responsible for securing the border, stopping everything that comes across the border. Obviously we’re not successful in that. We have millions of people in the country illegally, although it’s estimated that at least a third of the people or perhaps 40 percent of the illegal alien population in the United States are overstays. They come to this country legally but overstay their welcome. My other job, as president of the National Border Patrol Council, consists of the traditional things that labor leaders do – collective bargaining, representing the interest of the employee, as well  as speaking on behalf of the employees in the media and lobbying on their behalf in the halls of Congress.

NG: ARE YOU ACTUALLY STATIONED AT THE BORDER?
TB: The Border Patrol of late has been consigned to the border. We have a few stations that are in what’s called the interior, but most of our stations are right along the border.

NG: WHAT MADE YOU WANT TO BECOME A BORDER PATROL AGENT?
TB: Seemed like an interesting job. I had an interest in pursuing a law enforcement career and had an application in with the Los Angeles Police Department. I was living in Los Angeles at the time, and had seen the Immigration and Naturalization Service special agents working in the same factory I was working in. They didn’t have any openings for criminal investigators but they did for border patrol agents. I entered with the thought of using that as a stepping stone, but fell in love with the job and have been here for 28 years.

NG: WHAT IS THE DAILY ROUTINE FOR BORDER PATROLLERS?
TB: It depends on where you’re stationed. In some areas the daily routine is about as boring as boring can be, because they sit you in one spot and tell you to watch that piece of the border. In other areas you have the freedom to patrol around and engage in what’s called sign cutting, which is looking for footprints or other signs of disturbances that indicate people have crossed the border. It’s not always something as simple as a footprint. In many cases people will get very clever when they cross the border. They’ll put boots on their feet so that it’s just a scuff mark, or they’ll lay a board across and have people walk across like on a balance beam.

NG: DO AGENTS THEN GO HUNT THEM DOWN?
TB: Then you follow the footprints. In some areas where you’re close to cities, you’re watching them and directing other agents in because it’s impossible to follow footprints on asphalt; so if they’re in a highly urbanized area you’re relying much more on visual than you are on looking for physical evidence. We use a range of technology to detect people as they come across the border. We have a few cameras now but mostly sensors, which are seismic devices that pick up vibrations. Unfortunately, it also picks up vibrations of animals, so if you have a herd of cattle they will set it off, and depending on how sensitive the setting on the sensor is, you can have it tripped off by smaller animals like coyotes.

NG: WHAT ARE THE UPS AND DOWNS OF A JOB LIKE YOURS?
TB: I love the challenge of tracking down someone who knows they’re being followed and they’re trying to throw you off the trail. It’s a very satisfying aspect when you outwit and capture them. The most difficult part is working in some of the extreme temperatures. I work out in the mountains of San Diego, and in the wintertime we will get snow out there. In the summertime we will get triple-digit heat. Working in the extreme temperatures exposes the agents to as much danger as it does the people who are out walking.

NG: WHERE IS THE MOST DIFFICULT PLACE TO STOP ILLEGAL ALIENS?
TB: Currently the number one hotspot is Tucson, Arizona. It’s the favorite crossing point for smugglers. Before that, it was San Diego, and before that, El Paso. It shifts around. When the Border Patrol places its resources in one area, smugglers adapt and move to a different area. After all, they’re in business to make a profit.

NG: HOW HAS THE JOB OF BORDER PATROL AGENTS CHANGED SINCE YOU STARTED?
TB: The big change was the adoption of the strategy of deterrence, which came about in the mid 1990s. The theory of the strategy of deterrence is to have agents in high visibility, high profile positions right along the border. The people who are making $5 a day will come up to the border and see all of these agents and turn around and go home. They figure out ways to get by the Border Patrol. One of the results of this new strategy has been an increased reliance on professional smugglers. It’s now estimated that perhaps as much as 90 percent of the traffic that crosses that border illegally is aided by professional smugglers. And the cost of being smuggled across has grown commensurately, about tenfold in the last 15 years. So what used to be $150-$300 crossing is now in the range of $1,500 to $3,000, and that’s for someone from Mexico. The farther you get from Mexico, like from Canada or China, the more it costs, because there are more palms to be greased.

NG: WHAT IS THE MOST IMPORTANT GROUP OF PEOPLE YOU ARE FOCUSING ON?
TB: Obviously the terrorists. In February 2005, James Loy, Deputy Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, testified in front of the Senate Intelligence Committee that al-Qaeda had a keen interest in exploiting the weakness of our southwest border for sneaking across. The reason is very obvious; when you come across through legal means, albeit fraudulent legal means, you leave a trail. There is then a danger that someone is going to connect those dots and track you down before you can carry out your terrorist attack. If you slip across the border unknowingly, no one knows you’re in the country.

NG: WHAT GROUP OF PEOPLE DO YOU TARGET NEXT?
TB: It would be the large grouping of people I call criminals, whether they’ll be drug dealers, drug smugglers or just coming in for the express purpose of preying upon people in our communities. About eight percent of the people the border patrol catches have some type of criminal record.

NG: WHAT IS THE BEST SOLUTION TO PREVENT FOREIGNERS FROM ENTERING THE COUNTRY ILLEGALLY?
TB: The best solution is to address the problem at its root, which is the workplace. We know why most people are coming across the border illegally; they’re seeking to better their lives economically. If they can’t find work in the United States they simply won’t come, which will leave you with a smaller group of criminals and a handful of terrorists. It would be much easier to spot and apprehend that smaller group if you weren’t consumed with dealing with the millions of people who are coming across every year looking for work. The Border Patrol catches an average of 1.2 million yearly, mostly people simply looking for work. Our agents on the ground estimate we were only about 25 to 33 percent successful, which means that several million people get by us every year. Now some of them go back home, so some of the people you’re catching are repeat offenders. In fact, the rate of people we catch multiple times in any given year continues to climb. Last year we apprehended about 1.2 million people, three-quarters of a million of whom were distinct individuals. The others were multiple apprehensions of people who got caught numerous times. I’ve caught the same group of people four times in one eight hour shift.

NG: IF YOU WERE A POOR MEXICAN, WOULD YOU TRY TO CROSS THE BORDER?
TB: I think that any person who is looking out for themselves and their family’s best interest would make that journey. You can’t blame them for coming across and breaking our immigration laws. You have to blame our system which encourages people to come across, because on one hand we say, “Don’t cross the border” and we have Border Patrol agents there, and fences in some areas, but once they get by the immediate border area, one is looking for them. So the word gets out that, “Hey, once you make it, once you run the gauntlet you’re home free. No one’s going to be looking for you.”

NG: IF YOU WERE THE SUPREME LEADER OF THE U.S. GOVERNMENT FOR ONE DAY AND YOU COULD MAKE ONE CHANGE OR NEW POLICY, WHAT WOULD IT BE?
TB: Employers need to be given a simple, foolproof mechanism to verify that an individual has a right to work in this country, and that requirement has to apply to everyone. The logical document to establish is a smart Social Security card that contains no more information than what the current card contains, like a name and a number, but it would also have a digital photograph encoded. It would also be biometrics encoded in a very sophisticated algorithm, so when the employer swipes the card through a reader they would get an answer back in a matter of minutes saying, “Yes, this is a genuine card, feel free to hire this person.” That information would also bounce into a master database so that enforcement agents could compare the records.

NG: WHAT ABOUT THE SECURITY OF CANADA’S BORDER OR FLORIDA’S COAST? DO THEY CONCERN YOU AT ALL?
TB: Absolutely. For example, Canada’s border has about 4,000 miles of land bordered with the United States, and we have fewer than a thousand officers to patrol that 24 hours a day, seven days a week. That means that, at any given time, you have perhaps 25 percent of that workforce out there.

NG: HOW MANY OFFICERS DO YOU HAVE ON THE MEXICAN BORDER?
TB: We have about 10,600 to 10,700 patrolling 2,000 miles of border.

NG: TO WHAT EXTENT HAS ILLEGAL IMMIGRATION HURT AMERICAN WORKERS?
TB: In several very significant ways. It has depressed the wages, primarily of the lower class and lower middle class workers, but it has also significantly increased the health premiums that all Americans pay. These are people in the lowest paying jobs who typically do not have any health insurance. If they are treated in our hospitals, someone is going to pay for that, and that someone is the person who is paying the health insurance premiums. There is a reason that health insurance premiums have steadily climbed at an alarming rate over the past decade or so. Another effect is that property taxes in many states have risen dramatically in order to pay for the education of the children of the illegal immigrants. Now I’m not suggesting that we don’t treat people in hospitals and that we don’t educate their children. I’m suggesting that we stop inviting them in here to work illegally so you don’t have these fringe problems like health care and education, because if they’re not here working they’re not here. I have never encountered anyone at the border who said, “I’m not going to work here,” “I’m coming across because I think you guys have a better educational system,” or “I like your health care system.”

NG: ARE IMMIGRANTS DOING JOBS THAT AMERICAN CITIZENS DON’T WANT TO DO?
TB: To the extent that you have jobs that Americans do not want to do or that you don’t have enough of a labor pool, then by all means immigrants are important. Immigrants have been used historically in United States to fill jobs where there was a need. The problem comes when you have a surplus of people coming in and when you are not selecting people who have the skills that you need. We’re getting the poorest of the poor and the most unskilled workers coming in rather than soliciting people who have the job skills that we need.

NG: IS SOME IMMIGRATION NECESSARY TO SUSTAIN BUSINESSES IN THE UNITED STATES?
TB: I think so, but bear in mind that we have a very generous immigration policy — the most generous in the entire world. Every year close to a million people come into this country legally.

NG: DO YOU THINK THAT A CHEAPER, ILLEGAL LABOR FORCE IS IMPORTANT FOR STOPPING COMPANIES FROM OUTSOURCING EVERYTHING TO OTHER COUNTRIES?
TB: I don’t think so. I think that corporations have to have a conscience and have to do what’s not just best for their bottom line, but what’s best for their country.  Because after all, they’re Americans also.

NG: BUT YOU KNOW A LOT OF THEM WOULD CLAIM THAT IT’S THE ONLY WAY THEY CAN STAY COMPETITIVE.
TB: And I disagree with that. I think we’re engaged in a race to the bottom if that’s the prevailing theory. Let’s see how low we can drive the wages. We simply can’t compete with a nation like China where you can get unskilled labor at $0.50 an hour. We’re never going to win that game, so you have to look at the big picture rather than focus just on the profit margin.

NG: WHAT IS YOUR GREATEST FEAR ABOUT THE FUTURE OF ILLEGAL IMMIGRATION?

TB: My greatest fear is that the next terrorist attack happens on American soil and is carried out by foreign terrorists. And that is the way it’s going to happen, whether they exploit the weakness in our legal immigration system as they did for the September 11, 2001 attack, or whether they slip across the border. The prospect of another terrorist attack is still something that should frighten any sensible American.

NG: IS THERE ANYTHING MOVING IN THE RIGHT DIRECTION?
TB: The one thing that gives me some optimism is the fact that they’re finally hiring more agents, because regardless of what you do in the interior you’re going to need more than the current number of agents. We have about 12,000 agents right now, which mean that at any given time, 3,000 agents are out there patrolling 8,000 miles of land and coastal areas. When you do the math you realize we are spread very thin. The commitment to add agents and resources for these agents so that they can accomplish their jobs gives me some hope, but we still have a long way to go.

Thanks, T.J.

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