The Border Patrol Is the Dry-Land Coast Guard

So, why do agents get such a bad rap?

By Andrew R. Arthur on August 13, 2020

In a recent post, I detailed a number of instances within a one-week span where the Border Patrol rescued illegal aliens who were facing almost certain death — often at risk to themselves. Thinking about that prompted an analogy — the Border Patrol is a (mostly) dry-land Coast Guard (Border Patrol has a riverine fleet and some aircraft, but most agents are landlocked). So why do Border Patrol agents get such a bad rap?

Wait, you may say: Who is giving Border Patrol agents a bad rap? Presumptive Democratic nominee for president, Joe Biden, for one.

On his campaign website, he promises to: "Ensure that Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and Customs and Border Protection (CBP) personnel abide by professional standards and are held accountable for inhumane treatment." That, of course, begs the question of whether "CBP personnel" are currently engaging in "inhumane treatment". Which his promise suggests they are.

He elsewhere vows to "secure our border, while ensuring the dignity of migrants". Again, this suggests that the former vice president believes the Border Patrol (which he fails to capitalize on his website, despite the fact that they are a discrete law-enforcement component) is violating the dignity of those migrants today. As my recent post shows, though, by and large, that is light-years from the truth.

Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) has described CBP as a "rogue agenc[y] that ha[s] no accountability [and] no transparency in how they conduct their business", and suggested eliminating the agency. I seriously doubt that she is referring to CBP's Office of Trade in making these statements.

The ACLU asserts that "CBP's militarization of the border region has produced rampant abuses ranging from racial profiling to excessive force" and complains the agency "uses interior checkpoints and roving patrols located far from the border to apprehend individuals who are not recent border crossers." Who could they be referring to?

Well, Border Patrol has jurisdiction over the border and runs those checkpoints. Plus those comments appear under the header "ICE AND BORDER PATROL ABUSES", so I think that it is plain.

I am not naïve when it comes to Border Patrol. There are some bad apples in green — I investigated them when I performed oversight for Congress. CBP employed 19,648 agents in FY 2019, however, so there are bound to be a few who are not true to their oath (there are only 435 representatives in the U.S. House, and it has its share, as well — but I'm not naming names).

The vast majority of agents are dedicated and concerned public servants, however, doing a job that most of us would not do for love or money. As for money, the salary for incoming agents is $49,016 — not bad, until you consider the fact that you may have to live in Ajo, Ariz. Ajo has a population of 3,279, and the average high temperature in July is 104 degrees. And if you are a new agent, you only get 13 days of vacation a year to get away to a cooler spot (spend it wisely — the closest Walmart is almost 90 miles from Ajo).

But if you think about it, the Border Patrol is really just the terrestrial version of the Coast Guard. Both interdict drugs and illicit migrants, both secure our borders, both perform searches and rescues.

According to Gallup, though, in 2017, 54 percent of respondents polled had a "very favorable" opinion of the USCG, and an additional 22 percent had a "somewhat favorable" opinion of the branch. Only 6 percent had a somewhat unfavorable or very unfavorable opinion of the Coast Guard.

By contrast, according to one recent poll, just 33.1 percent of respondents in the four Southwest border states (Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and California) trust either "a great deal" or "a lot" that Border Patrol agents "will protect the rights and civil liberties of all people equally", and just 40.7 percent either trust "a great deal" or "a lot" that Border Patrol agents will "keep you and your family safe". Despite these facts, in 2019 Gallup reported that three-quarters of respondents supported hiring more agents.

Still, all of this raises the question of why there is such a disconnect between public perceptions of the Coast Guard and of the Border Patrol — again two components that do roughly the same job? Can you imagine if Joe Biden implied that the Coast Guard was engaging in inhumane treatment, or if Rep. Omar suggested that USCG should be abolished? To quote Vizzini in The Princess Bride: "Inconceivable!"

I can offer a few ideas. First, people likely see pictures of overcrowded Border Patrol stations and blame the agents for the conditions. Of course, this is almost exactly like seeing picture of an overcrowded ER and blaming the doctors, but logic rarely enters into discussions of the border, at least in much of the media.

Second, as I have said before, most people's impressions of immigration (and in particular immigration enforcement) largely depends on their impression of Donald Trump. If you hate Trump, then Border Patrol agents are just jackbooted minions of the Angry Orange Ogre.

Third, most people likely have little idea of what the Border Patrol faces on a daily basis. That they keep meth and fentanyl off of America's streets. That they save drowning migrants. That they rescue aliens abandoned by smugglers from almost certain death in the desert. That they prevent child molesters and gang members from moving freely through our communities. All they see — all most of the media allows them to see — are the crying little girls looking up at uniformed agents, and the tiny little shoes in a pile in front of a gate.

Contrast that with pictures of the Coast Guard's gleaming white, orange-and-blue striped boats zipping through the water (even when the CNN headline states: "ACLU sues Coast Guard over alleged kidnapping and abusive treatment of Jamaican fishermen"). Or of proud rescue swimmers posing in front of a bright helicopter — or better yet, of one of them jumping into the churning waters.

No paparazzi are there when Border Patrol agents carry an injured alien down the side of a mountain — the press doesn't even bother with stock footage. Doesn't fit the narrative. That's a shame, because it is a good one.