The Social Isolation of Some Border Patrolmen

By David North on September 1, 2011

As I drove over the hills south from Marfa, Texas, to Presidio, the last words of English left the radio, there was nothing but Spanish conversation and, of course, Mexican music. The hills were stark and dry and there were few signs of human habitation.

It was a Saturday in the 1970s and I was taking a busman's holiday. On Friday I had been working in Marfa, a substantial town, on an immigration research project, about 50 miles north of the border, and I would continue that work on Monday in El Paso, but in the meantime I had the weekend off and decided I would visit the poverty-stricken, flea-bitten hamlet and port-of-entry of Presidio, on the Rio Grande. Presidio is about 400 miles south and east of El Paso and about 50 miles upriver from the Big Bend Park.

One of the little town's few distinctions was that it had been fired on, in error, by Pancho Villa's artillery during one of the Mexican civil wars.

Although my visit to Presidio was totally unofficial, I wanted to talk to the inspectors on the bridge and to some Border Patrol agents; a friend in the INS Central Office had called ahead for me to let the guys know that I was coming and that I was harmless. The message was that they had no obligation to talk with me, but I would welcome a little conversation. (The research project was probably funded by either INS or the U.S. Department of Labor; I cannot remember.)

Presidio is across the river from the larger and even more poverty-stricken Mexican town of Ojinaga; basically, both are in the middle of nowhere. The Rio Grande is anything but Grande here, there was only a little water in the stream.

My strongest memory of my four or five hours in Presidio was my visit to the Border Patrol outpost, a station; BP stations are subsets of BP Sectors, the major management unit. The local station was housed in a modest structure a couple of miles from the bridge.

What impressed me was, on that Saturday morning, that the three or four senior BP agents, all in uniforms and ties, had gathered to greet me. Someone (maybe someone not very official) was coming from Washington to talk with them, and to listen to them, and it was a major event, I guess. I had been hoping to talk with the supervisor on duty and expected no more.

I sensed, though we did not talk about it, that they were lonely, and hence on a day off for at least a couple of them they came to the station to wait for the visitor, me.

Later I realized that there was a good reason, besides the geography, for them to feel isolated. Virtually all the other residents of the area were Hispanics and the BP's duty was to prevent other Hispanics from crossing the river. The people they worked with every day were people they captured. The handful of nearby Anglo ranchers regarded the agents – mostly Anglos as I recall, with short haircuts – as nuisances who prevented them from hiring as many of the EWIs (those Entering Without Inspection) as they wanted. Nobody in the area, except maybe the guys at the bridge, really appreciated what they were doing.

And a chance to talk shop with someone non-hostile to them – like me – was appreciated.

The rickety bridge was interesting in other ways. Since it was the only one in a space of a couple of hundred miles it was a monopoly, and it was owned by one American – the guy in the white house near the bridge, I was told – and by a more distant Mexican.

Both men had, or their grand-daddies had, the proper political connections and so all the tolls were split between the two of them. The guys at the bridge said that the construction costs had been repaid many times over.

Shouldn't the governments be profiting from such a monopoly?

I had the memory of the bridge in mind when, much more recently, I wrote a CIS Backgrounder "Charging More for Immigration," a detailed series of suggestions about how we could make some progress towards a balanced budget by, for instance, letting the government collect some of those tolls.