The Border Patrol Needs a Few Good Writers

By David North on May 7, 2018

Like many law enforcement agencies, the Border Patrol's press releases are needlessly wooden. They routinely leave out colorful detail, often use excess verbiage, and are often badly written, as a recent press release from U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP, which includes the Border Patrol) makes clear.

The Border Patrol's agents, in addition to enforcing the immigration law, often risk their necks to save the lives of law-breaking illegal aliens; often they are angels of mercy dressed in khaki.

Their efforts warrant better prose than they get. Further, and more importantly, it is useful from a policy perspective that this federal agency be seen as playing the positive role it does play in the borderlands.

I look at this from the point of view of someone who has spent some time on the southern border doing immigration research, and away from the border as both a reporter and as a government publicist.

Getting back to the CBP press release, let's examine the second paragraph as my tough old city editor at the Newark (N.J.) Star-Ledger would have done. Its current text reads as follows:

On April 23, 2018, Border Patrol agents assigned to the Laredo Sector Marine Unit rescued two subjects in distress found struggling to stay afloat in the Rio Grande River near Zacate Creek. The two subjects were pulled on board the marine vessel and treated by an Emergency Medical Technician. The two subjects were determined to be from the country of Mexico.

My old boss, using a profanity of two, would have objected to the use of the phrase "two subjects" three times in four lines of type. He would have struck as extraneous "in distress". He would have been derisive about the stilted phrase "were determined to be from the country of Mexico." He would have suggested that "were pulled" and "[was] treated" be replaced by active, not passive, verbs. He would have demanded to know the approximate ages and the gender of those rescued. He would want some detail about how the duo got into this jam and what happened to them later. He would have eliminated the year 2018. And he would have snorted at the term "marine vessel" meaning "boat".

There would be a decisive puff of cigar smoke (I worked for him in the 1950s) and an order to get some more information and revise the paragraph. Let's assume that the resulting phone call to CBP secured the information shown below:

Two would-be illegal aliens, teenage brothers from Oaxaca who had never swum before, tried to cross the Rio Grande about a half-mile east of the Laredo port of entry on April 23. Border Patrol agents in a power boat saw them on the verge of drowning and pulled them to safety. Several hours later, after being checked by an emergency medical technician, they were processed and returned to Mexico. By then, they had been fed a couple of good meals, had a chance to shower (useful as the river is a dirty one), and were back in dry clothes.

There might also have been some copy, quoting a senior Border Patrol officer, to the effect that while you sometimes can wade the river at specific spots and at specific times of year, it is best to approach the river with a boat or with good swimming skills, preferably both; otherwise death is a likely outcome. Not "difficulties" or "dangers" — death.

Some more comments: "Teenage brothers from Oaxaca" is more likely to catch an editor's eye than "two subjects". And the reference to the Mexican state might make the local papers there more likely to run the story. Writing about Zacate Creek will be meaningless except to residents of Laredo; similarly, mentioning that the agents belong to the Laredo Sector Marine Unit is insignificant except to other Border Patrol staffers.

My suggestion that the Border Patrol recruit a couple of good writers, and perhaps a good editor, is not made in a vacuum. As I reported earlier, it has issued a contract worth a third of a billion dollars to a consulting firm to recruit more agents. A tiny portion of those funds could be used to find the needed writers among those currently on the Border Patrol staff, or outside the agency.

To close on a more upbeat note, I should add that CBP has started issuing some of its press releases in Spanish; this is long overdue, and totally appropriate as it is the language spoken by 90-plus percent of those seeking to cross the southern border illegally.

Given my inadequate Spanish I asked my colleague Kausha Luna to look over some of the releases in that language. She said that the Spanish was correct, but that they looked like they had simply been translated from the English-language originals.

Too bad, I had been hoping that they were more interesting than that.