The wall at the border in Arizona. (Image credit: Afrah Bandagi)

I remember joking with Maddie Hilf, my research partner and good friend, about what we would do if we saw a United States Border Patrol officer while we were doing field work for our research in Arizona. I said something along the lines of, “I’d give them the meanest stare I could through my mask.” 

What I actually did when we encountered a Border Patrol officer at the border in Sasabe was zip my mouth and listen to Laurie Jurs and Barbara Lemmon of the Green Valley Samaritans talk to him as if he was an old friend. They were taking Maddie and me on a drive through the desert, to show us the borderlands and stop to help if we saw any migrants in the desert. I didn’t speak during their conversation. I didn’t know what to say. The officer talked about how he was out there to do exactly what Laurie and Barb wanted to do: save lives. They were trying to save lives by driving through the desert with a car full of food, water, and medical supplies ready to serve anyone they found who needed it. He was trying to save lives by picking up exhausted, and sometimes nearly dead, migrants who needed immediate help. They both wanted to prevent deaths, but in different ways. 

Of the many lessons I learned during a January trip to Arizona, none were as confusing and incomplete at changing my views on the Border Patrol as meeting the Border Patrol.

My journey with the Border Patrol really started a year earlier in October through a Fordham Global Outreach virtual immersion project, which was conducted in partnership with the KINO Border Initiative in Nogales, Arizona. Among other things, we watched videos of Border Patrol officers kicking over water jugs left by humanitarian groups for migrants in the desert. Clearly not the best first impression. Perhaps not the most representative either. 

The virtual immersion experience did motivate me, and afterward I led and facilitated a book club in order to sustain my solidarity with migrants at the border. We read Francisco Cantú’s memoir, The Line Becomes A River, which was about his experiences as a Border Patrol officer. I remember ripping into Cantú at every possible opportunity and refusing to feel sorry for him even when he expressed his ignorance and regret. How could he claim that he thought he was doing the right thing by joining the Border Patrol? He had even studied the border in college, so how could he be so naive to think that by joining the Border Patrol, he could do anything other than cause harm? The other members of the book club were more sympathetic, but I couldn’t find it in my heart to feel that even if I wanted to. I didn’t want to forgive him for what he had done. 

This was my attitude towards the Border Patrol as I left for Arizona this past New Year’s Day. And it continued to be my attitude until the drive back from the Sasabe port of entry to Green Valley, Arizona, where Laurie and Barb would drop Maddie and me off at our car.

On the drive back, in my loud-mouthed fashion, I was going on about how much I hated Border Patrol and I even mentioned Cantú. But at the sound of his name, both women gushed about what a wonderful person he had been when they met him a couple of years ago. Still, I would not relent. “He shouldn’t have joined the Border Patrol.” The officer we had just met wasn’t spared either. “How can he claim he’s trying to save lives? He’s destroying them!” 

And yet, after they dropped us off, I couldn’t stop replaying the scenes of our personal encounter with the officer. He looked like a normal man. He spoke with a kind Southern accent. He was young, around college age, like me. He didn’t cause us any trouble and we didn’t cause him any. He wasn’t the monster I thought he would be. 

Later on in our trip, we spoke with Jack and Linda Knox, a Mennonite couple who aren’t affiliated with any groups but who work tirelessly to aid and assist migrants who cross the border. We walked along the border in Douglas, the town where they live, and spoke about their experience with the Border Patrol. They told us stories of how Border Patrol officers reacted to groups of people praying for migrants at the wall. One female officer had cried watching them, and Jack told us that he didn’t know exactly why. It was during this conversation that I truly learned the damage that working at the border had on the very officers policing it. Oftentimes people join the Border Patrol because it’s a steady job with good government benefits and it doesn’t require many qualifications. And sometimes they join because they think they can protect their country. But those inspired by that ideal would quickly learn that it wasn’t that simple. They expected to be catching drug dealers and instead were dealing with starving and exhausted pregnant women. The psychological toll it took on them could go two ways, as Jack pointed out: either it turned their heart cold and they became cruel, or they left the job forever traumatized yet with few resources to help them cope. 

I knew all along that the individual Border Patrol agent was not the enemy. It was the larger system that criminalized, dehumanized, and alienated people escaping death and destruction to come to a land where they heard opportunities were afforded to everyone who worked hard. But that didn’t mean I liked or even tolerated those who were a huge part of carrying out the outrages at the border. 

I think back to my conversations in Arizona and I realize that my situation is different to those I spoke with. I am a child of immigrants. I am visibly not white. I have spent my entire life being scared of and resenting law enforcement because of how they have treated me and those like me. But as I write this and think about it, I allow myself to feel disdain for Border Patrol officers. However I also know that for most of them, there are many elements of their job of which they aren’t proud .

How do I hate the system without hating the people who are a significant part of perpetuating it? Admittedly, I have no answers, only more questions. 

Afrah Bandagi is double-majoring in Philosophy and Political Science at Fordham University and she is a 2021-2022 Duffy Fellow.