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Friday, January 27, 2023

PERSPECTIVE: Wearing Badges, Not Capes, in the Age of Coronavirus

This piece represents the views of the author and not U.S. Customs and Border Protection or the Department of Homeland Security

I have a favor to ask of you today. First, though, remind yourself of the situation we’re currently in as a nation and how other countries are experiencing similar challenges with COVID-19 – the coronavirus. Think of the last number of COVID-19-related deaths you either read about or heard of in the past 12 hours. Consider your family; hopefully, they are currently safe and in a controlled environment free of this deadly contagion.

Now think of all the basic essentials we’ve all taken for granted in the past and can’t seem to find at any local store.

Think of the lack of cleaning supplies at home and even personal hygiene items that you are now concerned about because they are no longer readily available to purchase at any given moment. What about food? Did you have to spend a fairly long time in line just to purchase a few items today? Are you under a mandated city curfew or a shelter-in-place order? How has that impacted your life and the lives of your family? How are your kids dealing with having to attend school from home?

Sadly, all these things have become our current way of life. How many times did you wash your hands today? How often are you checking up on your kids to ensure they are practicing good hygiene as well? Is there a baby in the family? How protective are you with the baby when considering the coronavirus?

Are all these things in your mind now?

Okay, now for my favor. I ask that you place yourself in the following scenario. No need to worry, we’re just pretending here and, besides, this is a story of superheroes. Trust me.

It’s 9:15 at night and you’re leaving home to go work. You’re a Border Patrol agent and your shift begins at 10 p.m. when most curfews throughout the nation actually begin. You kiss your spouse and kids goodnight and tell them that you love them. You’re actually walking out with a change of clothes in hand, not because you’re going to the gym after work – all gyms are closed in an attempt to keep you and your co-workers safe from the spread of the virus. No, the change of clothes is for you to keep your family safe. You’ll end up getting out of your uniform at the end of shift before going back home.

At work, you and your co-workers don’t shake hands and hug each other anymore as you’ve done the past 10 or 20 years of your career. You must now practice social distancing, remember. What? Why?

These are the men and women who are ready to give their life to protect yours! Besides, you want to ensure they know and ‘feel’ that you are willing to do the same for them. So why can’t you just shake their hands and hug them? You’ve been doing it your entire career so far! Social distancing, that’s why.

Does this hurt your morale? Does it have an impact at all or do you just joke with each other as you keep saying, “Stay six feet away from me, bro.”

As you begin your patrol along the Rio Grande, your mind wanders briefly to the challenges that await you and your spouse tomorrow morning. One of you will have to go wait in line at the local grocery store first thing in the morning. Your shift doesn’t end until 8 a.m. and, by that time, most lines are already pretty long. What things are you lacking at home?

Your service radio inside the vehicle comes alive and brings you back to the ‘now’ of patrolling the border. A local police officer is following a vehicle a few miles from you and has requested assistance. You acknowledge the call and respond to the area.

A few moments later you catch up to the red and blue lights of the police vehicle as it begins to slow down and you notice a crashed vehicle up ahead. Whoever was driving ran straight into a fence and the vehicle is no longer moving. The police vehicle stops and you stop a few feet behind it.

The officer is by herself as she gets off the vehicle and waits momentarily for you to catch up. “What’s going on, Ma’am?”

“Not sure, possibly a drunk driver but there’s several people in the car. Appreciate the backup.”

Before approaching the vehicle, you both don latex gloves and an N95 respirator mask. Safety first. You never had to do this before… now, it’s a must.

There’s four individuals in the car. Neither you nor the police officer know where they’ve been prior to this encounter nor who they’ve been in contact with. What you do know is that they were violating the locally mandated curfew and the vehicle reeks of beer. The impact of the crash has them all coughing and spitting as well. Good thing you’re both wearing the personal protective equipment (PPE – mask and gloves).

Once this encounter is wrapped up, you respond to other traffic near you. A small group of individuals entered the country illegally and were last tracked going into an area of thick, high brush.

Once you reach the area of this new traffic, you make contact with your fellow agents who also responded. You all come up with a plan and execute as you’ve done a million times before. The search for the group is slow in the dead of night and the brush is so thick that your night vision equipment isn’t much use.

An hour or so later, you’ve assisted with the capture of 15 individuals from different countries. From the first moment you made contact with them, you forced yourself to put on your mask and a new set of gloves again. You’re sweating profusely, tired from the search and subsequent escort of the undocumented individuals out of the thick brush.

Once everyone is gathered at a central location and a radio call for transport has been made, you and your partners begin to ask a few simple biographical questions of the group. Some of them are from Europe and a few appear to be of Asian descent.

What countries did they travel through? Was Italy one of them? Are some of them from China? With the COVID-19 pandemic being worldwide, do these questions even matter? The reality that anyone could be sick hits you. Did the cartel or local smuggler have all these individuals cramped up inside a dilapidated house? If so, how long? You already know those stash houses are never clean.

Transport arrives and the group is taken to the nearest processing area. You and all your partners give each other some concerned fist bumps as you all return to your vehicles, remove your mask, gloves and begin searching your bag for some hand sanitizer. You tell yourself to get to the nearest location where you can actually wash your hands with soap and water. That will be hours from now.

As you begin driving back to your assigned area, you get a call from a friend of yours. Your friend is an agent as well and works at a Border Patrol checkpoint. Your friend sounds worried; they just foiled a human smuggling attempt and discovered over 40 individuals inside a tractor-trailer.

You immediately react, “Tell me you were all wearing masks and gloves!”

“We were, but it’s still scary. There were over 40 individuals in there! These smugglers just don’t give a damn about anybody! I don’t want to catch anything here and then take it home to my family. Nobody does.”

You do your best to place your friend at ease and then continue patrolling your area.

For the remainder of the night, you do your best to focus on the job. For the most part, you’re able to do so. It’s just that every now and then concerns about COVID-19 invade your thoughts and remind you of our stark reality. It’s everywhere.

Toward the end of your shift, you hear over the radio that an individual was found badly hurt after having entered the country illegally and is being taken to the nearest hospital. What happened, you wonder.

As your shift ends, you drive back to your station, turn in your equipment and change out of your uniform prior to going home. You see the agent that had to make the trip to the hospital and ask what happened. Your partner says the individual was beaten badly and claimed the smuggler had done it.

“But the sad part of it all was the look on the faces of the medical staff at the hospital. They look exhausted. Those folks are going through much of the same stuff that we are experiencing. Their work doesn’t stop either.”

You acknowledge this and remind your partner to wash up well before going home.

“Stay healthy and keep your family safe… we’ll be at this again tonight. Don’t you dare get sick on me either, we need everybody on board.”

Your partner laughs.

“Hey, but in all honesty… if you do feel sick, stay home and seek treatment. I don’t need you getting me sick either.”

The two of you laugh, do a quick fist bump and go home.

This scenario isn’t so bad, right? It’s a daily routine for the courageous men and women of the United States Border Patrol and these are just a few of the things they encounter.

And remember, they still have to get home and take precautionary measures there.

I promised you this would be a story of superheroes. Who else can do this every single day or night?

To these individuals I say “THANK YOU” and I wish them all the best and encourage them to take a couple of seconds each day or night and remind themselves of their personal reasons for wanting to join this agency.

An agency that is here to protect our families, our neighbors, our communities, our country. For me, they are definitely heroes and not a single day goes by when I don’t try to figure out a way to thank them.

Yet this pandemic has impacted all of us. So to everyone… I beg you to help each other out and assist all our first responders by doing the right thing. Stay home, stay safe, slow the spread and, if you get a chance, say “thank you” to any individual who is still out and about working for all of us.

The views expressed here are the writers’ and are not necessarily endorsed by Homeland Security Today, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints in support of securing our homeland. To submit a piece for consideration, email HSTodayMag@gtscoalition.com. Our editorial guidelines can be found here.

Sergio A. Tinoco
Sergio A. Tinoco is the author of Proud American: The Migrant, Soldier, and Agent and has joined HSToday as a columnist to provide insights and facts about the conditions, challenges, and humanity of the situation on our southwest border. Tinoco started his journey to America as a poor migrant worker of Mexican descent, having to pick crops for a living from the age of 7. As a way to break from the family cycle of farm labor and depending on government welfare programs, he joined the United States Army and served 10 years on active duty. He deployed to Bosnia-Herzegovina shortly after the Bosnian War only to find and deal with the aftermath of the genocide that took place there and be caught in the middle of several attacks. His experiences in Bosnia ultimately led to experiencing signs and symptoms related to PTSD. After completing 10 years of military service, Sergio joined the U.S. Border Patrol. Being of Mexican descent and having family in South Texas and in Mexico introduced new issues of having to counter threats against his family and ill-willed opinions of him for arresting and deporting “his own kind.” He is currently serving as a Border Patrol agent, and all observations and columns are his own and not endorsed by CBP or the Border Patrol. Sergio A. Tinoco was born and raised in Rio Grande Valley, commonly known to them as RGV. As a child, he had gone through many struggles. Having to come up with a big decision to leave his family behind at such a young age, Sergio began to live a dangerous life in the battlefield with the US Army. Between the Army and the DHS, he has worked in government service for over twenty years. He earned a master’s degree in organizational management. His wife, also a military veteran, works for the Department of Veterans’ Affairs. Together, they strive to provide greater opportunities and aspirations to their kids.

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