Eyewitness account: I thought I could make a difference at the border

A temporary immigration processing facility in Donna, Texas. PHOTO: Jaime Rodriguez Sr/U.S.CBP
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I work for a federal agency not under the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). In 2022, an interagency request was published. The requisition began, “The DHS Volunteer Force provides humanitarian and logistical support for those processing through the immigration system. No experience is required, just a willingness to serve.” I wanted to help, so I volunteered.

In early 2023, I was sent to the San Diego, California, sector, which has eight stations. Chula Vista Station was where I spent most of my time. Volunteers like me did not serve in law enforcement capacities. We handed out food, stocked shelves, and made runs to the pharmacy and post office. In contrast, federal employees who work under DHS processed the immigrants.

The months I was there were not considered a busy time for border crossings. And my days there were not well occupied. Despite this, we worked 10-hour days, six days a week. And we got time-and-half for overtime, all paid for by Homeland Security.

The program I was involved with launched in 2019, as a political response to the “kids in cages” story which gained traction in 2017. During my two months at Chula Vista Station, the facility had on average 90 immigrants when we arrived in the morning, less than half of capacity. Over two hundred would be considered a full station.

I was there at a time when Title 42, which allowed for the rapid removal of migrants from the border, was still in place. About half the people we saw each day were deported within four hours of arrival. Title 42 targeted people from certain countries (Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras) for immediate expulsion to Mexico. The other half of the asylum-seekers were from all over the world and processed under Title 8.

I got educated on how the government works, or does not work. I felt my sole purpose there was to take some of the menial work off the shoulders of Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) agents, not to help the immigrants. If this program is a fix — temporary or permanent — to understaffing, it is a terrible solution.

My experience confirmed many things I previously read in the media. I witnessed the entire spectrum of migration. People are still in cages. People under Title 8 spend anywhere from one to 14 days locked up, before they are released. Sometimes the police show up when United States citizens answer Craigslist ads to smuggle adults or even children across the border.

We received a tour from one of the CBP agents. He took us around his typical route in the mountains. The agents work alone and are assigned a certain geographical area. He had ideas on how the United States government could allow more people in, on either a temporary or permanent basis. He said many of the immigrants merely want to work for a while and go home. He accurately pointed out that neither political party is dedicated to solving the issue, as it is much easier to blame the other party. Sadly, he said good agents burn out quickly.

In the end, my time working at the border was a disappointing experience. I feel this program is mostly a waste of taxpayers’ money. DHS pays overtime, lodging, and food for all of the “volunteers.” The one positive benefit is knowing that CBP agents had other eyes watching them to keep them in check.

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