When Nuri Vitiello founded the Border Patrol Agent Family Network (BPAFN) in 2017, she didn’t expect the nonprofit organization to grow as quickly as it did.
Her goal was to connect families of U.S. Border Patrol agents, increase solidarity and help families of those who fell in the line of duty.
“We’re creating our own family support system that currently doesn’t exist,” Nuri said. “We’re bonding as one big, green family.”
Whether stationed in the north or south, Border Patrol agents and their families often live in remote areas far from relatives. Many agents also relocate throughout their careers, which can put additional strain on families.
Having a community network to rely upon makes all the difference, Nuri says, because children in Border Patrol families fondly remember meeting other kids at gatherings and growing up together.
Nuri’s daughter, Alexis, attested to that. Many friends from other Border Patrol families remain in her life today, with a support system in which everyone looks out for one another.
“It’s crazy to have known someone so long and see all these different things happening in their life,” Alexis Vitiello said, noting that one of her friends recently got married and is expecting a baby. “It’s like being long-distance friends – you don’t always hang out, but when you do, everything falls into place. They’re literally family.”
Nuri said her husband’s compassionate attitude helped motivate her to launch BPAFN. Chief Ronald D. Vitiello served for 33 years in the Border Patrol before being named acting director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) on June 30.
Acting Immigration and Customs Enforcement Director Vitiello told HSToday that Nuri is trying to assist others through her experience as a Border Patrol spouse and pay it forward. Throughout the Vitiellos’ journey around the country, other families helped them find housing, identify the best schools and score the best grocery deals.
This includes ensuring families of fallen agents receive continual support.
“They’re in a demographic they never wanted to be in,” Vitiello said. “They were part of the Border Patrol family – and still are – and we strive to make that happen and keep them as part of the family. Their public servant, their part of the Border Patrol, is just a portrait, just a memory.”
Chief Vitiello said in the worst-case scenario when the Border Patrol has to bury one of its agents, it offers an Honor Guard salute at funeral services and benefits such as employee assistance, chaplaincy and peer-support programs.
But the government can only do so much, he said.
“The agency does what it can to honor that memory and keep it alive, but that family atmosphere, in some ways, could get lost if we’re not careful,” he said. “In my experience, it’s a male-dominated workforce. And that motherly, wives’ or woman’s touch really goes a long ways, especially when we’re trying to help each other. It’s made a big difference here in this environment, and I think it’s cascading into the field in a way that I think is very good.”
Nuri works with nationwide BPAFN affiliates to promote a sense of family in a program based on support systems seen in the military or police departments.
“If we can get families engaged, there will be greater appreciation for the agents’ sacrifices to make a change,” Nuri said.
Nuri volunteered at a Police Week event in Washington, D.C., in May 2017; speakers included President Donald Trump. “It’s great to have a president who supports law enforcement,” she said, adding that “the time to make changes is urgent because we have someone who is listening. We have a commissioner who is engaged and understands the need of family support.” She also feels it’s important to prepare younger generations to be leaders.
It was during Police Week 2010 that Nuri first met a surviving spouse, which helped shape BPAFN.
‘A profound experience’
Meeting Erica Aguilar was a profound experience for Nuri. She was initially hesitant to meet her out of concern she might become too emotional.
Erica Aguilar’s husband, Luis Aguilar, was killed in the line of duty in 2008.
“My husband reached out to me to see if I could gather spouses and help Border Patrol honor the families that would be attending 2010 Police Week. I will never forget the moment the widows, kids and family survivors of our fallen walked in the room. Somebody tapped my shoulder, and I turned around, and it was her – it was Erica Aguilar,” Nuri said. “She had the biggest smile. She said she just wanted to introduce herself, that her family was returning, the kids loved it, and loved seeing Border Patrol agents. But for me to see the wives is amazing; you know, I used to be one and this brings back so many memories.”
Nuri embraced her as one wife to another.
“I just hugged her. I had a big old lump in my throat,” Nuri said. “I had trouble sleeping for months, knowing that she wasn’t going to bed with her spouse, and I was. I felt guilty still having my husband.”
Making that personal connection and later meeting other widows steered BPAFN.
“That was a life-changing moment for me,” Nuri said. “That was the first time in my husband’s career that I realized and understood the real sacrifice. The fact that my husband’s life was on the line, I kind of took it for granted until I met them. I felt we had to get the story out to all the younger families to let them know to appreciate the times with their spouse … we’re their biggest cheerleaders.”
Nuri later connected with other widows, and together they figured out some of the basic things they feel are most needed by families when an agent falls in the line of duty.
The impact of donations
Supporting families of fallen Border Patrol agents can take many forms.
SA Diamonds owner David Putnam, who used to work in law enforcement, crafts a necklace with a decorative badge and sends it to the family. It’s a tradition he’s kept up for 20 years, and he’s still working to donate badges to families of people killed in the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
Laredo Border Patrol Agent Joshua Guell, a U.S. Army Ranger veteran, started a letter-writing program to help other agents and their families cope with the effects of post-traumatic stress disorder.
Nuri and Ronald Vitiello have welcomed families of fallen agents overnight at their house in the spirit of community.
Other nonprofit organizations, such as the Code Four Foundation and the Border Patrol Foundation, also provide assistance to families of fallen agents in the form of scholarships or donations.
BPAFN aims to collect a broad range of donations for every surviving family; Nuri says staple food items, toiletries and gift cards often make the biggest difference.
“They were overwhelmed that these donations came from all over the United States,” Nuri said. “It’s just to say ‘this is from our family to you.’ … After the funeral, sometimes they don’t want to go anywhere, they just want to hide out in their home, and this made it easier to be able to do that.”
In 2017, surviving spouse Donna Barraza organized a community-run event in memory of her husband, Joey Barraza.
Joey Barraza, a Border Patrol agent assigned to the Sierra Blanca Station, was killed in the line of duty April 18, 2016, in a collision with a semi-truck while driving home early in the morning. Barraza’s canine companion, Vino, survived the accident.
Ron spoke at the funeral for Joey Barraza during Police Week 2017, where he also played with the fallen agent’s children to help raise their spirits.
Donna Barraza told HSToday that after her husband’s accident, BPAFN worked behind the scenes to gather household items to help her family.
“Seeing trucks full of items being delivered and knowing so many people I had never met took the time and cared to donate items was incredible and heartwarming,” Barraza said.
She said other families still show support for her family at various events, which she and her sons enjoy attending.
“They continue to honor him, which is so important for my boys to see,” Barraza said. “They want to continue being a part of the green family, and they have helped us and kept true to that.”
‘Just the girlfriend’
A young woman named Yazmin reached out to Nuri recently to say she was the common-law wife of Isaac Morales, a Border Patrol agent who was fatally stabbed on May 20, 2017.
The couple did not have a formal marriage certificate. Isaac Morales had been married once before and was hesitant to remarry. He was stepfather and only father figure to her two boys. After Isaac’s death the children were ridiculed at school, Nuri said. Other children told the two boys Morales was their stepfather or their mother’s boyfriend, and some questioned why his death was a big deal.
“That was their dad, so it was a big deal,” Nuri said.
Yazmin explained her journey, and Nuri opened her heart.
“Once she told me why they never got married I realized every family’s story is different and learned the younger generation see things differently,” Nuri said. “Because of her willingness to share her story we were better prepared to help the fianceé of a fallen agent.”
Nuri encourages families to take care of paperwork ahead of time to avoid similar cases.
Ronald Vitiello said U.S. Customs and Border Protection is looking to change programs to be more inclusive.
“If we’re truly talking about the fallen, we need to love and respect who they loved when they died,” Nuri said.
She added that women like Donna Barraza or Yazmin Morales could be the voice of the next generation of Border Patrol families.
Taking pride in service
Some agents refrain from mentioning they work for the Border Patrol out of fear.
Nuri says agents do great work that should be recognized. There were times when her husband came home feeling exhausted from public-safety work he felt critics didn’t understand.
“The sadness in his face broke my heart,” Nuri said. “We need to stand up and support them.”
The Border Patrol is trying to be more family-friendly to help increase participation and retention.
Alexis Vitiello never hid the fact from her friends that her father served in the Border Patrol. She said there’s a lot of misinformation about what the Border Patrol does, adding that people often don’t want to sit down and talk with an agent, but would rather yell at them.
“He would never treat anyone unfairly, and I think that goes for most of the agents out there,” Alexis Vitiello said.
She added that her mother can seemingly put herself into anyone else’s shoes.
“It makes her really good at what she does,” she said.