Justice  /  First Person

From Suspect to Perpetrato

How history shaped the modern U.S. Border Patrol agent.

"When the editors of Public Books first approached me about contributing an article on the Border Patrol, I immediately thought of Ervin Zubiate-Rocha, a graduate student I have worked with closely. Ervin was a Border Patrol agent for a year, and that experience instilled in him a desire to produce knowledge that would highlight past injustices and empower the public. As a path to do so, he decided to pursue a graduate degree in history.

What follows is a collaboration that attempts to show how we are all products of history. We decided that the best way to show that a history we are not aware of looms over us, and can sweep us away, was to have Ervin present his personal (hi)story, while I would contextualize that experience with historical data on the founding of the Border Patrol. Given that I have taught in El Paso for more than 20 years and Ervin was born and raised here, we wanted to center the city in this rendering."

—Ernesto Chávez

On February 26, 2021, while standing in the middle of my home office, I looked fixedly into the lens of my computer and raised my right hand, swearing an oath to defend and support the Constitution against all enemies, foreign and domestic. It was an awkward affair. But, due to the recent surge of COVID-19 cases, the Department of Homeland Security was finally forced to hold a virtual onboarding session for the incoming class of Border Patrol trainees.

While swearing my allegiance to the nation, a strange mix of emotions circulated through my mind. After years of living in precarious economic conditions, I was at least partially relieved to have finally exited the seemingly never-ending cycle of poverty that had plagued my family. Yet, as the son of Mexican immigrants, I was troubled by the fact that my fortune would come at the expense of those who shared the same aspirations my mother did, only a few years earlier.

In an effort to remain optimistic, I focused on the best-case scenario for the years ahead. Perhaps most of my time would be spent inside a patrol vehicle, reading a book or listening to music, like the stories I’d heard from people already in the patrol. When eventually forced to perform my duties, I would strive to be the friendly face that people were not expecting. Then, after a few years, I could make my way to another agency and have the opportunity to make a real difference. At least, this was the future that I was sold.