Working along the Southern California border area, I have come to have a great respect for those who wear the green uniform of the Border Patrol, now part of the Department of Homeland Security, Customs and Border Protection (CBP) service. Many times, police officers did not understand these officers or their responsibilities. Some cops I worked with did not even see them as law enforcement. In my opinion, that was an error and alienated an important partner.

I remember many times how thankful I was to see that white-and-green truck or Bronco pull up—yet again saving my behind. Sometimes they just came by in their boat and covered me when I worked a marine unit. It didn’t matter who was state and who was federal; out there on the water we were all just cops.

One of the best advantages of keeping a good working relationship with Customs and Border Protection was that I knew they were better able to deal with the situations I would come across when it came to illegal aliens, or those we now refer to as “undocumented immigrants.” Regardless of the terms we used to refer to our clientele at the time, they were at risk to flee not just from my jurisdiction, where I could still reach out with an arrest warrant, but out of the country and beyond my reach.

 Members of the Team
Members of Customs and Border Protection are a valuable part of our police community. They can help with issues where we as state peace officers are completely unable to do anything. Sometimes they can help with someone we think will flee the country, or other times they can help identify someone who is here illegally. Sometimes, they can translate and figure out if your person is an undocumented alien or someone who simply has no identification.

For instance, once I hooked up a gentleman for domestic violence. His significant other let me know he was here illegally, and said that once he was out on bail, he’d skip across the border—at least until he decided it was time to come by to give her his definition of what she deserved. She was truly scared, and understood that we, as State cops, couldn’t stop him from pursuing this strategy. I, however, had a contact with the U.S. Border Patrol (as it was called at the time) who met me at our station. He evaluated my prisoner, found out he was indeed here in the U.S. illegally, and put a custody hold on him so fast he had no chance for bail. He didn’t see the light of day until he had served his time, and he was then deported.

How many street cops have that kind of authority? I’ll answer it for you: none. Only agents of the CBP have this kind of power, and they are people we need to have as part of our team. Street cops can work with CBP agents to fill in the gaps in the system that people here illegally can exploit.

Another time, I arrested a man on a petty theft charge, but couldn’t identify him beyond recognizing that he had a bad forgery for a resident-alien card. When I tried to talk to him, he played the name game, which was made all the worse by the fact that he could only speak Spanish, and my version of that language was confined to “Spanglish.” I asked for a member of the CBP to come by and help me in identifying him, which he did. After the agent had talked to him for about 20 minutes, he had my guy’s name, home address in Mexico, and had identified him in a federal database of past deportees. To end it all off, the CBP agent took the prisoner to a federal facility for holding until court.

Clear Between State and Federal
As important as it is for police officers to work with their federal counterparts, we must do so carefully. We get into trouble as police officers when we blur the lines between state law enforcement and immigration enforcement. In most jurisdictions, we are not empowered to enforce issues involving subjects who are not here legally. If you have someone in custody for a crime, then you can get the CBP to come and handle the issues of their status in the U.S. and prevent them from fleeing out of the country if they’re here illegally.

However, with some city administrations pushing for police officers to stay out of this issue, and others creating “sanctuary cities” where illegal immigration is shielded, it makes our jobs complicated—sometimes infuriatingly so. It also highlights how much we need agents like those of the CBP.

Police officers must remember to watch themselves with the civil rights of their suspects balanced against their duty to enforce the law.

The Politically Incorrect Truth

Being an officer in southern California I have come to recognize that issues with undocumented migrants from our neighbor to the south are a part of doing business. For the beat cop, it is pretty much career suicide to get involved in issues of immigration; officers know it’s a taboo subject, and tread on it lightly. But it is a very real problem—in 2004, the Center for Immigration Studies estimated that 17 percent of the federal prison population is made up of illegal aliens.

The truth is that this is not a politically correct issue. It is an incredibly politically charged issue. In spite of this, the members of the Customs Border Protection go into this job willingly and with dedication to doing a job that is hard and often demonized.

These agents go out during the searing heat of summer in the high desert, or the frigid cold of winter in the mountains, and go the extra mile to protect those who enter the U.S. illegally. The CBP formed specialized units that come equipped to give aid and assistance when they come across those who are near death from the elements.

Homeland Security
After September 11, 2001, the U.S. Border Patrol became part of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. The agency’s role, of protecting America’s borders, has become even more important since that day, because it’s not just about illegal immigration; now it’s about our own survival. If someone can get across the border to work, they can also get across to commit acts of terrorism.

People who come across the southern border are not always from Latin America. There are those who come from other places, including the Middle East, with whom agents have to deal.

As officers on the front lines, CBP agents are valuable allies in dealing with those criminals who use the border to their advantage. In fact, they are the members of the team that plug the holes in our system that these people exploit. We need to remember our brothers and sisters in the CBP, and be thankful for the jobs they do, and how they help us.

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