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Always Watching: A Fragile Trust Lines The U.S.-Mexico Border

We drove 2,428 miles on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border, and it's safe to say that for much of the road trip, we were being watched.

Border Patrol agents, customs officers, cameras, sensors, radar and aircraft track movement in the Borderland. None of that has stopped the struggle to control the border, or the debate over how best to do it.

The Border Patrol — part of U.S. Customs and Border Protection — allowed us a look inside the communications center at its headquarters in Laredo, Texas. The room had no windows, just a giant wall of screens. The Border Patrol has mounted cameras high on steel poles overlooking the Rio Grande, which in this sector is the border.

Agents in cubicles watched the monitors. A whiteboard on the wall was covered with emergency numbers to call: the Drug Enforcement Administration, air evacuation, and also a phone number labeled "Unmanned Drone."

No, we're not going to publish the number.

The man in charge of this South Texas sector tries to marry new technology with old technology; Cmdr. Robert Harris keeps a saddle in his office.

Cmdr. Robert Harris of the U.S. Customs and Border Protection's South Texas Campaign.
Kainaz Amaria / NPR
Cmdr. Robert Harris of the U.S. Customs and Border Protection's South Texas Campaign.

"We still do have horses," Harris told us, "and I would argue that we have some of the best trackers in the country." The trackers are trained to follow footprints in the vast stretches of wilderness along the border.

Tracking is labor-intensive, of course, but the Border Patrol nearly doubled its manpower in recent years, to more than 21,000 agents.

"We don't have 100-percent visibility on the border," said Harris, "but I have a much higher degree of confidence that if somebody chooses to enter our area of responsibility, we have a higher-than-average chance of arresting that individual."

But the Border Patrol is under intense pressure.

'We're Not In A Situation To Lose Fights'

In a series of incidents, including one in Harris' sector, Border Patrol agents shot and killed unarmed Mexicans. In some cases, the Mexicans were said to be throwing rocks.

This month the Border Patrol reminded agents to avoid "unnecessary risk" to themselves or others; but it resisted calls for bigger change, saying agents have been pelted with rocks hundreds of times per year.

Asked about the rules under which the agents in his sector operate, Harris answered frankly: "We're not in a situation to lose fights. If our agents are assaulted, I want them to prevail."

Dob Cunningham and his wife, Kay, live on a ranch across from the Rio Grande. He says his property is periodically flooded with border crossers.
Kainaz Amaria / NPR
Dob Cunningham and his wife, Kay, live on a ranch across from the Rio Grande. He says his property is periodically flooded with border crossers.

The Border Patrol is also criticized for not doing enough, as we heard when we continued our road trip. Outside Eagle Pass, Texas, we arrived at the home of a rancher whose properly lines the border. Dob Cunningham took us for a Jeep ride on the property.

"About a year ago," Cunningham said, "they came over here to my shop, and took all the tools and a welder, just like that." By "they," he meant thieves crossing the border.

Cunningham is 79. Decades ago he was a Border Patrol agent, and later ran the U.S. port of entry at Eagle Pass. These days he's developed a love-hate relationship with the Border Patrol. To show us why, he drove us toward a bluff overlooking the Rio Grande.

Residents On Patrol

"If I holler, 'Bail out' — jump out," he told us as we neared the edge of a bluff overlooking the river. "Sometimes these brakes don't work."

We stopped in time, at the foot of a giant steel pole. It held two of those Border Patrol cameras aimed up and down the river. Cunningham said the wire to one camera was cut.

He says his property is periodically flooded with thieves, marijuana smugglers, or migrants. When he can, Cunningham rounds them up and turns them in.

"It's not in us to steal a penny or turn a blind eye," he said.

Cunningham's friend Larry Johnson recalled a day they found three people on the road they suspected of crossing illegally, and picked them up.

Cunningham's wife, Kay, remembers another incident right here on the ranch, which she calls "the night of the big shootout." Dob Cunningham spotted something just at dusk and took his gun to have a look. Moments later, Kay Cunningham heard several gunshots. It turned out to be a confused incident involving hunters and suspected border crossers. Nobody was hurt.

Uncertain Allegiances

Cunningham said he cooperates with the Border Patrol, and even admires many agents, but he has come to doubt the agency as it has grown in size. "They just hired too many riffraff, crooks, thugs," he said.

His opinion of the Border Patrol reflects a larger doubt. An American flag flies outside his home, and he's not sure it will fly here in the future. He said the American Southwest could end up being a place of divided loyalties. He mentioned the way that Russia was able to seize Crimea from Ukraine on the pretext that the Crimea was populated with ethnic Russians who spoke the Russian language.

In the same way, Cunningham suggested, "The culture and patriotism will be stronger being Mexican than being American. You have border patrolmen right now that don't know their allegiance to the United States."

The Border Patrol has said its agents are in fact highly trained, as well as "reliable, trustworthy and loyal to the United States."

For all Cunningham's provocative claims, it's hard to form a simple view of the Texas rancher.

Migrants from Mexico often attempt to cross through the Cunningham's ranch in Quemado, Texas.
Kainaz Amaria / NPR
Migrants from Mexico often attempt to cross through the Cunningham's ranch in Quemado, Texas.

Cunningham concedes 98 percent of the border crossers who come through his property are just poor people who want a job. He and his wife have sometimes fed them in their home.

Not only that, he can point across the Rio Grande to the homes of Mexican friends.

"Very close friends," he said. "I've waded the river right up from that house." He had dinner with a man on the far side.

"Is that strictly legal," I asked, "if you just wade across the river?"

"Oh no," he said. "If the Mexican army caught me, I'd still be over there." It would be an unauthorized border crossing.

Cunningham, a self-described border rat, has absorbed the complexity of the Borderland.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
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