Border Patrol Suicides and the Senate Border Bill’s Agent Training Mandates

‘We see things people should never see’

By Andrew R. Arthur on May 24, 2024

A May 19 Free Press article is captioned “Why Some U.S. Border Agents Are Contemplating Suicide”. It’s a long and harrowing piece, but if you have empathy for the 18,000-plus Border Patrol agents standing between you and the drugs and criminals flowing over the Southwest border, you should give it a read. And then consider what new “training” the drafters of the “Senate border bill” have concluded those agents need.

“We See Things People Should Never See, Like Rotting Human Remains, Abuse of Every Kind”. The subheader on that Free Press article reads “We see things people should never see, like rotting human remains, abuse of every kind. Do you know what that does to you over time?”, and it’s not hyperbole.

It details how smugglers use toddlers to distract agents while running other migrants into the United States; the concerns agents have for the migrants they find in distress; the impact border horrors have on the agents’ mental health; and the lack of apparent concern about any of the foregoing facts on the part of the administration.

Consider, for example, the following excerpt:

Indeed, every agent The Free Press spoke to said they believed the administration is not interested in protecting the border. Several said the Biden administration had forced them to make impossible choices, calling its treatment of them a betrayal.

Mark, the former agent, put it this way: “How would you feel when you have a guy in front of you, demanding asylum, holding his young daughter’s hand, smiling at you, and lying to your face, using the same line he’s been coached what to say to get into the country, even though his rap sheet shows he was arrested for sexual abuse of minors, including the young girl? If you separate the child, she’ll scream and be traumatized. If you keep them together, then you run the very high risk that she’ll be sexually traumatized again. You tell me, which trauma is the lesser evil?”

Then consider this one:

In a lengthy statement to The Free Press, a spokesman for the agency said it was working to get more agents back on the line, “thanks to innovation and efficiencies.” He said that “maintaining morale supporting frontline personnel, and ensuring our resilient workforce has the resources available to maintain a healthy work-life balance is a top priority for CBP leadership.”

But agents patrolling the southern border told The Free Press that help has yet to arrive.

Read the whole article and you will see that the “innovation and efficiencies” relate to processing aliens more quickly, at the end of which most of those migrants will be released.

That does little for the morale of the agents tasked with keeping them out, particularly when among those exploiting the president’s border policies are “dangerous people” — including gang members and “potential terrorists” — who are “infiltrating the country”.

Section 3122 of the Senate Border Bill — “Training for U.S. Border Patrol”. Contrast the hells — professional and personal — agents are dealing with at the border with the mandates in section 3122 of the Senate border bill, captioned “Training for U.S. Border Patrol”.

It requires agents to “participate in annual continuing training to maintain and update their understanding of” a number of useful topics, including DHS “policies and guidelines”, “the fundamentals of law”, and “applicable migration trends”.

The bill language then meanders into some more specific mandatory “continuing training” subjects, which again includes topical training on “personal resilience”, “current migration trends”, and “the non-lethal use of force policies available to U.S. Border Patrol agents and de-escalation strategies and methods”.

Three of the subjects stick out, however. First:

identifying, screening, and responding to vulnerable populations, such as children, persons with diminished mental capacity, victims of human trafficking, pregnant mothers, victims of gender based violence, victims of torture or abuse, and the acutely ill.

Read the Free Press article and you’ll quickly see that these are subjects agents don’t need to sit in a classroom and watch a PowerPoint slide deck to learn — they live them.

With respect to “vulnerable populations”, that article quotes an agent identified only as “Juan”, who explained:

When I was out there in the dark, and I came upon a family of five — true story — and they started hugging me because they were abandoned by their smuggler ... . They were eaten up by mosquitoes, and they hadn’t eaten in three days, and they’d been drinking river water — you know, that’s the humanitarian aspect. I gave them my lunch, and then I personally brought them to the station so that mom, dad, and three kids with them could all get sandwiches and water.

“Victims of gender based violence”? Juan again:

I had to sit there and listen to a 13-year-old girl from El Salvador tell me how she’d been raped twice by her smuggler. She was traveling with her 9-year-old brother, and the smuggler said he would hurt the boy if she didn’t cooperate. So she let him do what he wanted.

Children and mothers? John Fitzpatrick, a former associate chief with nearly three decades of Border Patrol experience under his belt, made clear that “many agents are sympathetic with migrants for making the journey”.

The article then quotes an unnamed agent who stated: “’I know how to make formula because I raised two kids. ... I know how exhausted that mother is.’ He said he’ll often tell the mothers he meets, ‘Mama, lay down. I’ll feed your kids.’”

As a congressional immigration-oversight counsel, I had jurisdiction over the Border Patrol, and by-and-large those are the kinds of agents I knew — diligent if often overworked men and women, most patrolling in the middle of nowhere and trying to make the best of a bad situation for all involved while at the same time attempting to secure the border.

I have no idea who, exactly, the drafters of the Senate bill think is out there doing the job, but then I’m close to questioning who those drafters think they are, too.

Returning to the bill text brings me to yet another questionable topic for Border Patrol mandatory continuing education: “relevant cultural, societal, racial, and religious training, including cross-cultural communication skills”.

You can tack up “cross-cultural communication skills” as another topic on which agents receive plenty of “on the job training” without recourse to classroom pedagogy, but honestly, what would “societal, racial, and religious training” even look like in the border context?

Does distinguishing between Catholics and Methodists, Shia and Sunni, Buddhist and Hindu count as “religious training”? I guess such distinctions matter come mealtime, but otherwise migrants aren’t (or shouldn’t be) in agent custody long enough for there to be much personal — let alone religious — interaction.

As for “cultural, societal, and racial training”, I’d hazard to guess what it would consist of (some soi-disant “expert” will likely make bank deciding what it should consist of, however), but again it calls into question how the Senate drafters view the vast majority of agents.

More importantly, however, it reveals how migrant demographics have changed, largely thanks to President Biden’s border policies.

According to a 2021 survey, just over half of agents were Hispanic, many from the border, a figure that has likely increased in the interim. And, that year, more than 92 percent of all aliens apprehended at the Southwest border came from Latin America, most prominently Mexico and the “Northern Triangle” countries of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras (nearly 78 percent).

In FY 2023, however, nearly 13 percent of migrants apprehended at the Southwest border came from more far-flung locales outside of Latin America, such as India, Russia, and the People’s Republic of China. Instead of forcing agents to learn the history and traditions of the Middle Kingdom, maybe drafters should ask how so many military-aged men from the PRC managed to make it to the U.S.-Mexico line.

Finally, the bill would mandate training on “the impact of border security operations on natural resources and the environment, including strategies to limit the impact of border security operations on natural resources and the environment”.

Most agents serve extended tours of duty in the locations where they are assigned, and as I explained in congressional testimony before the House Natural Resources Committee, safeguarding the environment in impacted areas along the border is already among their various duties — a point they already understand.

Mitigation efforts in such areas, of course, are the responsibility of management-level officials in CBP and DHS, but on-the-ground agents are master conservators of our natural treasures, not part-time docents.

That said, and as I made clear in that testimony and elsewhere, the environmental degradation occurring at the border is almost exclusively the fault of the smugglers and the migrants themselves. Iron Eyes Cody would bawl out loud if he were to make a “Keep America Beautiful” ad on the banks of the Rio Grande today, given all the trash, waste, and filth “trespassers” are leaving there.

Rather than bunkering in the Capitol for months, the drafters of the Senate border bill should have gone to the border and done a little “cross-cultural communicating” with the agents. The result likely would have been heavier on security and resilience, and lighter on subjects agents already understand too well.