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Moving Modesty 

'Desert Duty' compiles compelling, heroic tales of Border Patrol agents

A couple of weeks ago, some of us were wandering around north of Interstate 8, only slightly lost, looking for the site of the 1851 Oatman Massacre. A big, white SUV with green markings and dark windows roared up. Three youngish Border Patrol agents peered out nervously. They claimed they'd seen our convoy of vehicles ... and then sheepishly admitted they'd lost us.

Speaking clear English and avoiding any sudden moves, we asked if this was the right road to the Oatman site. They didn't have a clue what we were talking about. (Turns out we were on the Oatman Road.) Being some 60 to 70 miles from the border, I inquired if they got a lot of illegal traffic north of the freeway. Not much, they said suspiciously.

Further discussion made it oddly apparent that they had no idea where in the hell they were. Then they roared off. It was another weird Border Patrol experience.

These young boys out of the Wellton Station didn't seem to be of quite the same caliber as the sturdy, eloquent men and women interviewed in the new book Desert Duty: On the Line With the U.S. Border Patrol, from Bill Broyles and Mark Haynes. The book is a fascinating oral history of veteran agents who have worked at one time or another out of the Border Patrol's Wellton Station, which until 1990 was located in Tacna.

We've been fortunate in this past year to have seen a couple of decent books about the Border Patrol. The first, Migra! A History of the U.S. Border Patrol, by Kelly Lytle Hernández (see "A Thankless Task," Oct. 14, 2010), is a critical overview of Border Patrol history prior to Sept. 11. The picture painted in Migra! is often troubling.

Desert Duty, by contrast, gives us the words and voices of Border Patrol agents themselves, specifically those working the "big empty" south of Interstate 8—the heart of the Sonoran Desert. These are people who love the land, the work and even (I suspect) the smugglers and immigrants who are their bread and butter.

I went into the book with some pretty specific thoughts—not all positive—about the Border Patrol. (I mean, what is the deal with Border Patrol agents up on the Navajo Indian Reservation, for crying out loud?) But after reading the memories and thoughts of these hard-working and passionate folks out of Wellton, I came away with a greater appreciation for who they are and what they are faced with, day in and day out.

Our immigration policies are Kafkaesque, Orwellian, Darwinian, broken and corrupt. In spite of this, the Border Patrol is expected to somehow enforce American immigration law, something one agent describes in the book as being only slightly less complex than the tax code. Think of how people view the Internal Revenue Service, and you'll understand how the Border Patrol is looked at by some.

The courage, modesty and humanity that emerge from the pages of this book are quite moving. These men and women are cops who have been assigned a tough, dangerous job, but until recently were never provided enough money, equipment or—most importantly—clear guidance to do what really needs to be done. In spite of this, they soldier on, doing their best to protect the border, and just as importantly, save lives.

In one of the most revealing moments, retired agent Hank Hayes observes: "My whole take on it is they don't want us to control the border. I've even had a U.S. congressman tell me that it's not going to happen. He says the administration is afraid that if we close Mexico out, that China will move in down there, and they'll be right on our doorstep. ... He said if you think they're going to close the border, it ain't gonna happen."

This is the first cogent argument I've heard explaining why things are the way they are on the border.

In the end, it's hard not to really like and respect the agents of Desert Duty. Consider the words of agent Joe Brigman: "Any time you can get paid to go out there and hunt human beings, catch dope, and at the same time be involved with Mother Nature, and watch the most beautiful sunrise in the world—and sometimes (during) the same shift, you watch the sun go down—you've got the whole thing. Working in the middle of the desert makes it unique and worthwhile."

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