United States Border Patrol agent, Chris Harris, stands on a hilltop overlooking the U.S.-Mexico border fence, right, on November 14, 2017, in San Diego, California.
Harris is the Director of Legislative and Political Affairs for the National Border Patrol Council, Local 1613.
Photo – David Maung
Photo – David Maung

The scene represented the debate over immigration and border security, boiled down to its most primitive essence.

Held near the construction site for the border wall prototypes, the rally in early December was promoted as a show of support for border security and tougher immigration policies. But 15 minutes after the rally started, a fight broke out.

“I saw somebody get punched, kicked to the floor, then somebody was choking him with a flag pole,” said Rafael Bautista, a local real estate broker who attended the rally. Bautista, like many others who oppose the president’s immigration policies, sees no separation between Trump and the people and agencies who enforce immigration law.

“Right now, the head of the state is a white supremacist and his policies support that. Duncan Hunter, the police, Border Patrol – they’re all part of the same forces aligned with Trump and the fascist right,” Bautista said.

But one member of the Border Patrol Union, Chris Harris, attended the rally that day to counter this narrative.

“Nobody has a right co-opt our story and use it for their own personal or political ends,” said Harris, director of legislative and political affairs for National Border Patrol Council, Local 1613, the union that represents local Border Patrol agents.

Not that Harris minds the increased attention on border security. Raising awareness for the issues that rank-and-file agents confront on the job is a big part of Harris’ work with the union.

At the top of Harris’ agenda this year has been stopping the millions of gallons of sewage and toxic waste that flows from Mexico to the United States.

Harris has been a go-to source for media outlets across the political spectrum, from Tucker Carlson and Breitbart News to CNN and BBC. He represents those who work for a federal agency that’s often recalcitrant and standoffish with reporters, but he believes a pitbull press is the only way to preserve democracy.

Harris encapsulates a host of contradictions. When his union endorsed Trump, Harris had misgivings about how it would politicize border security. He’s married to a woman whose parents came to the country illegally, meaning they broke the same laws he’s now responsible for enforcing.

He believes the law is meant to be followed and has spent a career enforcing it. That’s why he thinks former President Barack Obama was wrong to focus enforcement efforts on only certain undocumented immigrants. But he also calls black-and-white thinking a “lazy man’s way of viewing the world.”

“Real life is made up of shades of grey, unfortunately, and greys make you work and think critically,” he said.

Candid and accessible, Harris offers a rare voice for how Border Patrol agents see their duties and their role in an increasingly polarized landscape.

The Green Wall

A Border Patrol agent inspects the Tijuana River levee at the U.S.-Mexico border. / Photo by David Maung

Where the Tijuana River cuts north toward San Diego then flows west into the Pacific, the only barrier between Mexico and United States is a Border Patrol agent in a green uniform. There’s no fence. No actual wall. Just a painted yellow line running diagonally across the Tijuana River bed and a south-facing agent stationed here 365 days a year.

“He is the Green Wall,” Harris said, pointing toward the agent.

The nearby river channel is a mud-streaked junkyard. Scattered litter, used tires, and an abandoned loveseat dot the riverbed. Water rages through the channel during heavy rains, carrying sewage from Mexico and anything else swept up in the runoff. But today is dry – only a small stream runs through the channel.

Harris said he’s seen car parts, refrigerators, baby dolls and even dead bodies tumble through the ravine.

Creating awareness for the sewage problem has been Harris’ top priority over the past year. He courts lawmakers, speaks to media outlets and seeks partners across the political spectrum.

“It’s a big tent and everybody’s welcome if they want to help. If someone walked up to me and said, ‘I hate [Border Patrol], but I want to help fix the problem,’ I’d say, ‘God bless you, friend. Welcome to the tent,” Harris said.

More than 80 agents since June have reported rashes, chemical burns and other health problems. One agent reported methane burns on his lungs after breathing vapor from the water. It’s so toxic it reportedly dissolved the material on a pair of boots, which Harris carries in the back of his SUV for proof.

A true water fix would require a binational solution. But neither the United States nor the Mexican government has been quick to address the problem, which officials attribute in large part to an inadequate sewage system in Tijuana that hasn’t kept pace with the city’s rapid development.

Last February alone, by one estimate, 143 million gallons of sewage spilled across the border. And the sewage still flows. Imperial Beach and other cities in the county intend to sue the federal government.

“We think things have gone downhill really quickly and the consensus is there’s been no action by either government,” said Serge Dedina, mayor of Imperial Beach. “The reality is that the water is indescribably awful to be immersed in and just to be around.”

Near the river bed, Harris got out of his SUV and chatted with the agent on duty. Suddenly, the agent raised his binoculars. Across the channel, two men crossed the line that separates United States from Mexico and walked down the embankment. They waded through the water, one of them losing a shoe in the process, and headed straight for Harris and the agent on duty.

“This isn’t good,” Harris said. Usually anyone who walks right up to an agent is either mentally ill or wants to fight, Harris said, often to create a diversion so other migrants can cross behind them.

The on-duty agent barked commands, ordering them stop walking and return to Mexico. “Regresen!” “Ahorita!” Go back right now, he shouted.

The men – one in his 50s, the other 19 – said they came from El Salvador. They can’t go back, they said, and pleaded to be arrested.

In recent weeks, so many asylum seekers have appeared at the U.S. ports of entry that federal officials can’t process all of them. Many wait in a long line until Customs and Border Protection officials can interview them to see if they have a legal case for asylum.

Agents decided these two men, too, were seeking asylum and turned them away. They just wanted to jump the line and thought they’d be processed faster if they were arrested, Harris and the agent said.

As the men stomped back across the river channel, the older man dropped to his knees and splashed through the water to find his lost shoe. They didn’t seem to be aware of the risks the water poses. Neither, apparently, was the group of men who sat inside a nearby storm drain, showering in a stream of running water that fell from above.

A man stands inside a storm water runoff channel that goes under the U.S.-Mexico border fence between Tijuana and San Diego on November 14, 2017, in San Diego, California.Photograph was taken on the U.S. side of the border and several miles west of the San Ysidro border crossing. / Photo by David Maung

But the risks aren’t lost on agents who chase people into the river channels.

Later that morning, a team of Border Patrol agents emerged from the muddy weeds near the channel, leading nine men they caught attempting to cross illegally.

In 2017, arrests at the border hit a 45-year low, which officials and experts attributed to enforcement policies and Trump’s hardline rhetoric. But Border Patrol agents say they’ve recently seen an uptick in the immigrants coming from Central America.

Environmental hazards aren’t the only risks agents face. Driving along the border fence, Harris pointed to a spot where in 2006 he took a rock to the face.

Rockings, as agents call it, are common along the border. Last year, San Diego’s Border Patrol sector recorded 84 assaults on officers – a large share of them from rocks, a San Diego Border Patrol spokesperson said.

Harris suffered a brain injury when the rock struck him. He lost some vision and hearing. He forgot the names of people and things. He once set off in the car and forgot where he was driving. He endured panic attacks and headaches so painful they made him vomit.

“I felt like I had a railroad spike sticking through my head,” Harris said. But the worst part of the injury, he said, was the depression.

“It was just pure blackness. It surrounded me and wouldn’t go away,” he said.

The injuries and trauma take a toll on agents, leading to alcoholism, post-traumatic stress and high rates of suicide. After his first wife died suddenly, Harris drank a liter of vodka a night and felt like an absent father, even when he was home with his family.

Harris stopped drinking in 2010 and today counsels other agents on substance abuse and mental health issues.

“My wife thinks I’m a good person. But she has no idea how hard I have to work to be a good person.” Harris said.

Agents Unshackled

From the moment Donald Trump announced his candidacy for president, he built his platform on rhetoric hostile toward Mexicans and the promise of building a big, beautiful wall.

Border Patrol agents publicly praised the message and for the first time endorsed a presidential candidate. For too long, agents said, they’d felt shackled by limitations in enforcing immigration law. Border Patrol wasn’t alone. In June, ICE’s acting director warned anyone living in the country illegally to look over their shoulder.

Until last year, immigration agents prioritized undocumented immigrants who had been convicted of crimes. But an executive order Trump issued in February lifted those priorities, making every undocumented immigrant a deportation priority.

While some members of the Border Patrol unions viewed Trump’s election as vindication of their endorsement, Harris said it made him uneasy. The decision casts the border security in partisan terms and invites political blowback. But he also understands why the National Border Patrol Council did it.

“[Trump] looked us in the eye and said, ‘I’m going to consider you guys subject matter experts on what is needed to secure the border. Not some college professor, not some attorney. You guys,’” Harris said. “Nobody at that high a level had ever done that with us before. It was tremendous.”

Harris also believes Border Patrol agents had been too limited in their ability to enforce immigration law under Obama. At times, they’d been forced to release immigrants they knew were undocumented, he said.

“You can’t expect us to not enforce the laws that have been duly passed by Congress, signed into law by the president, and vetted by the Supreme Court. Asking us not to enforce those laws is a slippery slope to the rule of man,” Harris said.

Mitra Ebadolahi, an attorney for ACLU’s Border Litigation Project, believes Border Patrol needs more checks and balances on its powers – a growing concern since Trump issued executive orders calling for the government to hire an additional 5,000 Border Patrol agents.

“An agency that runs amok is itself a threat to liberty and accountability. You have a faction of people who want to increase the agency’s size and power, while deprioritizing oversight and accountability, all of which is deeply concerning,” said Ebadolahi.

In December 2014, the ACLU requested complaints about U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s abuse and mistreatment of minors. The agency initially ignored the Freedom of Information Act request – itself a violation of federal law, which Ebadolahi said is typical of the agency. The government only released responsive records after a federal judge in Arizona ordered it to.

One of the complaints came from Jahveel Ocampo, who was a teenager when she was stopped and detained while she and her boyfriend drove east from Encinitas to the mountains. Ocampo said Border Patrol agents slapped her on the buttocks, interrogated her, threatened to rape her and pressured her to sign a voluntarily order of departure, or deportation order. She eventually got a visa extension to live legally in the United States.

Ocampo’s allegations mirrored other complaints made by minors. The ACLU obtained thousands of pages of documents from the case files of 408 complaints lodged from 2009 to mid-2015, which came from Texas, Arizona, New Mexico and California. The complaints include allegations of sexual assault, harassment and abuse.

A Customs and Border Protection spokesperson told ABC News the agency investigated Ocampo’s claims and found no evidence agents had threatened or abused her. An analysis of documents related to other complaints showed the agency rarely interviewed complainants or agents accused of abuse, and there was no evidence any agent had been fired or reprimanded as a result of the complaints.

But Ebadolahi said the consistency of complaints raised by children who have limited language skills and no contact with one another makes it impossible for a reasonable person to dismiss the allegations.

“To respond to complaints from children by substantively dismissing the allegations reflects the agency’s deep sense of entitlement and belief that they’re truly above the law,” she said.

Border Patrol, like any agency, has its bad actors, Harris said, but they’re an exception to the rule. The agency has multiple layers of oversight and is subject to intense scrutiny from internal affairs, he said. As for agents’ behavior, some are simply aggressive and unpleasant, which helps them establish order in chaotic situations they encounter. But that’s different from corruption or brutality, he argued.

He said agents take it as a “punch to the gut” when a colleague goes rogue, like when Noe Lopez, a 10-year Border Patrol veteran, was caught trying to smuggle meth and cocaine across the border.

“We would have rather seen him go out and rob a bank. That still would be wrong, and we still would have said he needs to go to jail, but we wouldn’t have hated him for it. What he did was a slap in everybody’s face. He betrayed our trust and abused his position,” Harris said.

An Unlikely Reconciliation

Border Patrol agent Chris Harris stands next to signs warning of sewage runoff that crossed the border from Tijuana to San Diego. / Photo by David Maung

When Harris first saw Norma, she was on a jog through Border Field State Park, near the spot where the border fence drops into the Pacific Ocean.

It was 2011, and the agency had just built the secondary border fence, which today runs 13 miles inland from the ocean. Harris was patrolling the park that day and said more than one person complained to him about the new additions.

“People were pissed. It wasn’t like I, personally, had put the fence up,” he said.

When Harris first saw Norma approach, he thought she was coming to tell him off, too. She wasn’t. As they talked, the conversation went from the border fence to food, to relationships they were both ending. Soon, they planned a date.

It’s an unlikely love story. Harris is a registered Republican who spent his career catching criminals and those illegally trying to cross the border. Norma, who identifies as Democrat, became a naturalized citizen in 2013, 45 years after her parents came from Guadalajara to the United States without papers.

Today, the two live on a quiet street beside a golf course in northwest San Diego.

Despite her political leanings, Norma cast her first vote as a citizen for Donald Trump. Friends and family members made her feel as though she had to cast her vote for Hillary Clinton.

“I’m not a sheep,” Norma said in her living room. “I read. I pay attention.”

Norma’s political choices have made for awkward conversations with friends and family members. But their families support the marriage.

Norma sees no distinction between the man she knows privately and the one who detains those who jump the border fence. She tells the story of how, early in the relationship, Harris once tried to end a phone call because he had to make an arrest. By mistake, he hadn’t hung up the phone, and Norma could hear him talking to the people he was arresting.

“He was just so professional, very compassionate. He talked to them just like he was talking to anybody else. It’s the things you do when you think nobody is watching that really matter,” she said.

The couple is happily married and given to old-fashioned displays of affection. But their family wouldn’t have been possible if someone in his job years ago had kept her family out of the country.

Harris sees an important distinction, however: Back when Norma’s parents crossed, the border was more fluid. But 9/11 changed everything. Virtually overnight, the conversation shifted from immigration reform to border security.

“The paradigm shifted after 9/11,” Harris said. “Anyone who illegally crosses into the country under the new paradigm is aware of the gamble they’re taking. And there are consequences to everything.”

Not that Harris lacks compassion for families crossing into the United States to find work or safety. He believes the country needs comprehensive immigration reform and a system that lets in law-abiding immigrants more efficiently.

Harris doesn’t know how that can happen, but believes it begins with conversations that break through the kind of polarization that results in social media wars, screaming matches or opposing sides choking each other with American flags.

Border Patrol must make itself available to answer questions and counter misinformation, he said, but immigrant advocates and others on the left must also recognize the need to secure the country’s borders and the agency’s mandate to enforce laws passed by Congress.

“If you’re going to be part of a group that doesn’t want to talk to the other side, then shame on you. Because we can alleviate a lot of misunderstandings if we only break free from our echo chambers and become willing to talk to those who don’t see the world in the same way we do,” he said.

Mario Koran

Mario was formerly an investigative reporter for Voice of San Diego. He wrote about schools, children and people on the margins of San Diego.

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