by Glen MacPherson
Turns out the dark blue operational dress uniform (ODU) is excellent camouflage in Sonoran scrub. At least when it’s pitch black out. There I was, a card-carrying member of the ACLU hunting
illegal migrants a stone’s throw from “the wall”, exhilarated. Three weeks ago I was putting Nancy Johnson in touch with the Air Station’s leadership to coordinate food distribution from the Pantry to fellow Coasties about to miss their second paycheck. Then I was plucked, in the middle of a funding crisis centered on immigration, and deployed by the Coast Guard to the landlocked Southwest Border. We live in interesting times.
Following the December deaths of 7 year-old Jakelin Caal Maquin and 8 year-old Felipe Gomez Alonzo in Customs and Border Patrol custody, the agency came under pressure to intensify its screening of migrant children. The Coast Guard and the US Public Health Service stepped forward with a rare asset: deployable federal physicians unrestricted by the Posse Comitatis Act. Two CG corpsmen and I spent fourteen ten-hour days in the CBP’s Tucson Coordinating Center, a migrant detention and processing facility just outside Davis-Monthan Air Force Base. Migrants are processed and detained for only 1-3 days at the facility before moving on, either to deportation, conditional release, or detention in an ICE facility.
Our primary mission was to ensure no child died in CBP custody. Our secondary mission was to promote the children’s good health and address the health concerns of the adult population. We integrated into the facility’s CBP team and were daily impressed by their dedication, professionalism, kindness, and esprit de corps. In Traverse City, if I run an errand on the way back from work in uniform, I’m often greeted and thanked for my service. By contrast, some CBP agents have been poisoned with pesticides in public restaurants. Church pantries do not reach out to feed the families of unpaid CBP agents. Municipal monuments are not erected, cities don’t compete for the title “CBP City, USA”, and parades are not led by CBP agents waving to adoring crowds. Yet, which of these sister agencies within the Department of Homeland Security demands harder work, more dangerous exposure, and greater personal sacrifice?
On our busiest day, the Air Force flew my team in a Blackhawk to a CBP facility in Ajo, AZ where 243 migrants were dropped off by buses, walked across the border, and “gave up.” We screened 130 children that day. Back in Tucson we cared for blisters, cactus injuries, dehydration and sore muscles. We wrestled with interesting cases: adults with full beards claiming to be 17, an American smuggler who demanded her Percocets for chronic pain, a woman 8 months pregnant complaining of abdominal pain, evaluated by the ER multiple times, and children who seemed fearful, detached, and sometimes abused by adults whose claim of parenthood was doubtful.
At sunset, on a ride-along patrol to Sasabe, AZ,radio chatter indicated a group of migrants coming down a wash we’d just passed. “Want to go for a walk?” asked the agent driving. And so I found myself a stone’s throw from the border searching in the dark for camouflaged migrants, guided by a distant helicopter directing us to a suspicious “hot spot” on FLIR. We converged with other agents apprehending two men that night, “likely Honduran”, said my guide, judging by their stature.
For more than a decade I’ve taken pride in actuating H.W.’s derisive label of Michael Dukakis by actually carrying my ACLU membership card in my wallet. But now I also take pride in wearing my CBP hat. What we believe is so much a function of what we are exposed to, who we talk to, what we listen to, where we live, what we do. My deployment to the border was a rare gift of immersion in the other side, opening my eyes to the nuance on the ground and the perspective of those who live in that world. Judy Wu Dominick writes, in “The Christian Mandate to Subvert Tribalism”:
In a society saturated with hateful and increasingly violent tribalism, nuance is a love-infused, subversive force. A surgical tool that cuts away the scarred portions of our identities, it liberates us from the false narratives that the world and the Devil insist on feeding us. As a countercultural value, it is the careful discernment that honors our collective human interdependence and prevents us from making death-dealing incisions between ourselves and others. Only with nuance can we enter the grand story about God’s radical and redemptive love for every single human being made in his image.
I hope to take that gift of nuance and let it shape my relationships and viewpoint for years to come.