aca de la frontera
Latina BorderAgent defends her country and her convictions
by Claudia S. Meléndez
Gloria Chávez grew up to lullabies sung in the sweet sounds
of her mother tongue, under the reassuring gaze of la Virgen de Guadalupe
and the comforting embrace of the culture of the Rio Grande Valley, home
to one of the largest concentrations of Mexican Americans in the country.
Gloria, 28, a determined woman who takes comfort in challenge, decided
to follow a career in law enforcement because she admired mens grip
on authority. Why couldnt she have a gun and represent the law like
But Gloria, a self-described Mexican American, did not grow up dreaming
about becoming a Border Patrol agent. It was the security and excitement
of federal employment that led her to this controversial government agency,
the enforcement branch of the Immigration and Naturalization Services,
which has recently been mired in allegations of human rights abuses.
In her three-year career with the Border Patrol, Gloria has arrested over
3,000 people, most of them dark-skinned, all of them seeking an opportunity
for a better living. And even though Gloria sympathizes with the ones
she arrests, she has never hesitated to perform the job she was sworn
to do. Even when immigrants begged her to let them go.
How can you do this? Were the same people? she recalls
theyve asked her. Yes, Im a Mexican American,
Gloria says, but Im not going to let my ancestry influence
[me] or make me bend the rules in any sort of way. I take a lot of pride
in doing what I do, Im honored to do what I do. I took the oath
to do the best to my extent to provide assistance to migrants; I try to
understand and help them, but never bending the rules.
Rather than serving as an impediment, shared ancestry offers some on-the-job
advantages to Gloria. Her first language, Spanish, allows her to better
communicate with the adventurous Mexicans who werent lucky
enough as Gloria puts it, to have been born in America. Its
not only a matter of language, its a matter of culture she
knows what resonates with them. Often people she arrests end up telling
her their life stories, how they arrived at the border and how they underestimated
the dangers and vastness of the area.
It was three years ago when she first completed her training in Glynco,
Georgia, to become a Border Agent. President Bill Clinton had just launched
Operation Gatekeeper, and her first assignment was at the San Diego Sector
of the Border Patrol, the busiest border crossing in the nation. Now,
as the sectors spokesperson, Gloria is in charge of touting the
At Imperial beach ... they used to apprehend a thousand people in
a 24-hour period. Now theyre lucky if they get 30, Gloria
says with a smile of accomplishment on her face. A once preferred spot
for crossing to the United States, a tattered cyclone-fence that ended
where the sandy beach begins has been replaced by upright landing mats
of discarded airplane carriers. Under the beaming lights that stand less
than a mile apart, a formerly accessible route to the north has been effectively
Each year, the Border Patrol arrests one million undocumented migrants,
more arrests than any other law enforcement agency in the nation. Gloria
says she has arrested over 3,000 people in her three years of service,
2,000 of them in Imperial Beach, and the rest in Calexico and Brownsville,
where she was briefly stationed.
Apparently Gloria is not the only one who sees the advantage of being
Latino when working for the Border Patrol. Everyone hired by the agency
has to speak Spanish or be willing to learn it, since agents will most
likely be stationed along the border with Mexico, and their primary task
is to arrest Mexican undocumented immigrants. With language as an advantage,
Latinos now comprise almost 40 percent of the Border Patrol force, far
more than any other federal agency.
In the spacious press room of the San Diego headquarters of the U.S. Border
Patrol, spokeswoman Chávez describes the agencys accomplishments,
current projects, and its exponential growth to almost mammoth proportions.
Launched in 1994, Operation Gatekeeper was designed to cover the 66 mile
border stretch south of San Diego, California, considered one of the smallest
sectors in the country, but also one of the busiest. Four years later,
the ranks of agents have swelled from under 1,000 agents to 2,250 agents
an average of 34 agents per mile. The force now touts 59 infrared
scopes, compared to three in the B.O.G. (Before Operation Gatekeeper)
era; a mountain bike unit to patrol the rugged terrain east of the Pacific
Ocean, a canine unit to smell drugs and illegal aliens, helicopters recycled
from the Vietnam War, and a recently launched border-safety campaign:
a series of yellow Dont Cross signs in Spanish, aimed
at deterring immigrants from entering the desert.
Chávez proudly presents before and after
pictures. The before-pictures show throngs of would-be crossers on the
U.S. side of the fence, just waiting for darkness to fall so they can
make a run for the San Ysidro metropolitan area. The after-pictures are
images of empty roads retrofitted by the Army Corps of Engineers, fenced
with landing mats from the Vietnam War and brightly-lit with stadium lamps.
Before she took on the spokesperson position Gloria was assigned to cover
the border between Imperial Beach and Imperial Valley. Although she says
the immigrants frequently travel in small groups, her largest arrest came
when she found a group of 33 people in the Otay Mountain at 2,000 feet
above sea level, after verifying a motion sensor that had gone off. And
to demonstrate how she was able to handle such a large group of immigrants,
Gloria switches her tone to use a more authoritarian one, higher in volume
and sterner in intonation. And she switches to the International Language
of the Undocumented Alien:
Siéntense, siéntense, todos siéntense. Siéntense
de sentaderas, she recalls ordering the group. Its harder
to pick up if youre sitting on your butt. You start looking for
the people who are going to give you trouble, and you handcuff the skinny
guy with el mas gordito, por que sabes que no va a correr. Y si corre
no va a ir muy lejos, Gloria says with a chuckle. She had to stay
with the group for 25 minutes before help arrived. It was after 9 p.m.,
a dark evening in the cold mountains. The group, mostly men and a few
women, including one holding a baby, had climbed about three hours to
meet their fate on the border. They had to walk another 45 minutes to
the nearest assistance station. More than being afraid, Gloria was cautious
and alert during this episode.
Gloria need not proclaim her ethnicity her Spanglish
talk, her olive skin and her coal-black hair do a pretty good job. And
even though this immigration law enforcer demonstrates sympathy for the
people she must arrest, she says she is not distressed about detaining
people who share her olive skin, her coal-black hair. Its her job,
as she puts it, and she attempts to represent with dignity the agency
she promised to defend.
As she drives toward the border, pointing at places where migrants used
to congregate before the massive deployment of enforcement resources,
Gloria spews out a string of thoughts not necessarily expected from a
Border Agent. Driving by Playas de Tijuana, the upscale neighborhood on
the Mexican side of the fence, she remembers the angry neighbors who would
complain about the migrants gathering on their lawns.
Poor people were just there congregating and the owners would tell
them, Get out of my property, Gloria recalls. You
can only have compassion for these people. Whatever drives them is desperation.
The economy in Mexico, thats whats drives them. Any one of
us in this position would do the same. You cant blame them for what
theyre trying to do. I was lucky enough to be an American, to be
born in this country. Hopefully I will never have to go to those extremes,
to leave my country to be able to survive.
But if human rights organizations are correct, not every officer
in the agency shares Glorias compassion for immigrants. With an
increasing number of agents patrolling the border, the number of abuse
allegations has increased as well. Human rights group Amnesty International
released a report in May that details allegations of abuses ranging from
baton-beatings to sexual assault of men and women. In September, Border
Patrol agents shot and killed two supposed illegal immigrants in separate
instances, allegedly in response to the immigrants attacking the agents
with rocks. The agents were placed in paid administrative leave until
the matter is investigated, but their identities remain undisclosed.
However, in Glorias experience, officers are basically compassionate.
Like [in] every law enforcement agency, theres been a bad
apple, and I dont deny that. Bad apples exist and we have to get
rid of those bad apples. Its an embarrassment to me as an officer,
doing the best I can, and then we have people like that. Its not
tolerated in this agency, especially the violations of civil rights.
But even if agents are stationed close to one another, they mostly work
in single patrols. In the mountains they patrol in double-agent units,
but if they happen to take separate roads like when Gloria apprehended
the Otay Mesa group by herself it could take awhile for help to
arrive. Getting hurt without backup is possible, and hurting immigrants
without witnesses is possible as well.
However, in Glorias opinion, the coyotes are the ones to blame for
taking advantage of their pollos, often abandoning them to die in the
desert. Penalties are getting stiffer [for smugglers] because so
many aliens are dying, she says at the office in Chula Vista, while
an information video in the background touts the progress of the Border
Patrol and Operation Gatekeeper, the effectiveness of military landing
mats from the Vietnam war to fence the border and stadium lights to illuminate
Together, the video says, these improvements have helped
the Border Patrol to achieve Operation Gatekeepers primary goal:
steering would-be crossers away from populated areas to the isolated,
rugged terrain east of San Diego.
People have told me this is racist, another Berlin Wall, she
changes her tone of voice to add emphatically, This is our stand:
we are mandated by Congress. If people here in this country feel theres
a need to change this, talk to the right people. Go touch those people.
If tomorrow Congress tells us, Pull away, this is your mission now,
do it, thats what were going to do. Were not gonna
is an editor of El Andar.