Editor’s Note: Julia Pinto, an FMS missioner on the U.S.-Mexico border, shares a story of meeting a retired Border Patrol agent and how he challenged her assumptions.
My fellow missioner and I were invited by one of our ministry partners to a dinner on March 22nd at Art Car World, a small, local museum in Douglas, Arizona. Perhaps I had not listened well if it was described to me beforehand, but I had absolutely no idea what to expect. We did not know anyone who would be attending and showed up to this little museum which was closed (per Google Maps). Thankfully Mari was brave enough to ask the men who were working on the building outside, and they assured us that the dinner was indeed happening there.
We entered the upstairs, which used to be a mini hotel, and sat down to eat tacos with a group of students who were visiting our border site on their college trip. A gentleman named Robert – apparently our speaker for the night – got up to give a presentation, and started to share stories with us of his time and experiences as a Border Patrol agent.
Now, I must admit that after hearing on the news about some of the deaths and racial profiling that have happened here on the border in past years, I have harbored some fear of the Border Patrol. Many people accidentally mistake me for a Latina, and even though I am a US-born citizen, I still find myself cringing as I pass through the ports from Mexico into Arizona and try to avoid any trouble with the agents I encounter. Thus, I can only imagine what it must be like for others who do not have the privilege of possessing a US passport and are trying to cross our southern border. In my compassion for migrants, I had made the Border Patrol the monster or enemy in my mind.
Robb shared that every Border Patrol applicant undergoes a thorough background check, in which their family and neighbors are also interviewed, in order to make sure that they are rational people of good standing. After a lengthy application and interview process, agents complete 940 hours of intense training. Robb said that he was purposely shot with a pepper ball (like a paintball) during his training so that he would know the pain if he later had to choose whether or not to do the same to someone else. These points made me realize that the Border Patrol as an institution might actually be trying to look for compassionate people and teach them to act in more humane ways.
Robb is now retired but still carries 22 years’ worth of memories and vicarious trauma with him.
He related a story of how he had found two migrants in the desert and arrested them under the law. One of them, a gentleman in his forties, started weeping. As Robb sat with him and asked what was wrong (in Spanish), the man confessed his desire to paint houses in Florida and pay for his son to attend school – the only way his son could get a good job and not end up in a gang. I could not believe my eyes when I saw Robb brought to tears before us, wrought with the pain he had witnessed over and over again. I had expected to see a Border Patrol agent filled with pride on a job well done, but all I could find was heart-wrenching compassion.
While trying so hard to challenge my assumptions about those crossing into the US, I had built up stereotypes and judgments about these agents tasked with protecting our country – all based on my limited experience and knowledge from the news. Are there agents whom I believe are racist or lack empathy for those who are suffering here? Yes. But they do not represent the whole.
I know that I myself could never handle a role like this, where I would have to legally make choices on a daily basis that cause such emotional distress to others in need.
Please join me in praying for Border Patrol agents and all those in law enforcement, for their mental health and well-being so that they may make the best decisions in moments of crisis.
Reflection Questions: Which group(s) of people have you written off in your mind? How can you open yourself to their stories and expand your perspectives?
P.S. The museum turned out to be a fascinating place with many different (still-functional) exhibits. I would definitely recommend checking out Art Car World online or in person if you find yourself in the area!