Border Patrol suicides on the rise
An accelerating border crisis will further strain overtaxed agents
The Biden administration is preparing for record border crossings—what could be 14,000 per day—when Title 42 ends this week. Arrivals have already soared in anticipation of the end of the public health order that allows immigration authorities to immediately expel certain immigrants before they can request asylum.
Border cities and shelters are bracing for a mass influx. After resisting the move for months, El Paso Mayor Oscar Leeser declared a state of emergency. The city expects over 6,000 arrivals per day, and immigrants are already huddled on street corners as an Arctic front sweeps the nation and temperatures drop below freezing.
Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle are raising the alarm about an imminent humanitarian crisis. “It’s a very dire situation,” said Republican U.S. Rep. Tony Gonzales of Texas. Democrat Henry Cuellar, also from the Lone Star state, urged the administration to only accept asylum seekers at official points of entry and turn back those crossing the Rio Grande or desert borderlands.
At the same time, Border Patrol morale is hitting record lows. Fourteen agents committed suicide this year—the highest number since 2009. The agency started recording suicide statistics in 2007. As border chaos escalates in the coming months, experts anticipate agents will experience even greater strain.
Last year, the first federal government suicidologist joined the U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s ranks. Dr. Kent Corso works in the commissioner’s behavioral therapy and risk management office to address the mental health challenges plaguing the agency. The agency also hired 21 clinicians and 13 psychologists for their 60,000-strong workforce.
Corso does not believe the crisis at the Southern border is to blame. “They do talk about the border conditions decreasing their morale, but in no way is that the cause of suicide,” he told the Washington Examiner. “If it were, I think we’d see many more triggers being work-related, instead of triggers being family-related or relationship-related.” Suicide rates were higher among supervisors, Corso found.
Former Border Patrol chief Rodney Scott disagrees. Scott served with the agency for 30 years and became its 24th chief in 2020. He called Corso’s statement “political.” As border traffic has skyrocketed, an agent’s daily work has changed. It’s less patrol and more processing. Instead of scouring the desert for smugglers and criminals, many agents are picking up hundreds of undocumented asylum seekers and shuffling them through makeshift processing facilities.
“All you’re doing day after day after day is going in and processing and releasing people that you know by law that you signed up to keep out of the country,” Scott said, “They know they’re leaving hundreds of miles of border open now and stuff is coming through.”
It’s a 24-hour job. Agents work in shifts. They miss school events and birthdays. Sometimes they move away from their families to remote areas. On top of family pressures and tight schedules, agents see things most people hope to never see. Immigrants who are trafficked and abused. Drownings, vehicle accidents, injuries. “Think of it like sandpaper—so it’s constantly rubbing against you, and if you don’t … rebuild that with something … you can get out of balance,” said Scott.
As illegal activity at the border has increased, Scott says agents get less time to decompress at work. It’s nonstop. “You literally go straight from this work environment to home, and you’re trying to manage that transition,” he said. He remembers having to stay late at work to deal with a case, and driving as fast as possible to his daughter’s school event. Adrenaline raced through him as he walked into an event where he was supposed to relax and enjoy.
Many agents don’t feel supported in their sacrifice. Add to that mounting backlash and social media scorn. Day in and day out agents experience hate for a job they don’t even feel like they’re completing.
“There’s a whole slew of challenges and problems that arise when all of a sudden your intrinsic need … is ripped away from you,” said Scott, “That’s devastating.” It leaves agents more vulnerable to addiction, mental health challenges, relationship problems, and workplace mistakes.
Chief patrol agent Jason Owens heads the Del Rio border sector, an area that spans 242 miles of border and 47 counties—one of nine sectors along the southern border. He leads about 2,000 agents and staff. He’s watched his agents struggle under the mounting pressure.
“Everything about the situation concerns me,” he told me at the end of September. “That keeps me up at night, the things that my men and women have to see when they’re trying to rescue these folks.”
Last fiscal year, agents apprehended 475,000 immigrants in the Del Rio sector. From surveillance cameras and tracking the signs left by immigrants, Owens knows at least 160,000 got away. “Do we have enough people right now organically to deal with the humanitarian crisis and our border security mission? No,” said Owens. “That’s being overwhelmed.”
During his 26 years with the agency, Owens received visceral backlash both on social media and in person: “I’ve had rocks thrown at me, I’ve been spit on, I’ve been called a Nazi.”
James Dudley served as deputy chief for the San Francisco Police Department. He also teaches criminal justice at San Francisco State University and discusses policing trends and challenges on the podcast Policing Matters. From his experience in local law enforcement, Dudley can understand the frustration of Border Patrol agents.
“We’ve experienced the vilification of law enforcement in general,” he said. “[Agents] are frustrated and they’re hands are tied … They’re being vilified for doing nothing. They’re shown on horseback whipping immigrants … when that was shown to be false.” Last year, President Biden falsely accused agents on horseback of whipping Haitian immigrants in Del Rio, Texas. About 15,000 Haitian immigrants camped under the Del Rio international bridge in September 2021.
Dudley said leadership is also key to morale. On Nov. 12, Customs and Border Protection head Chris Magnus resigned. Biden appointed Magnus in hopes he would reform Border Patrol to address criticisms against the agency’s white-male dominated workforce, discrimination, and its treatment of immigrants. The agency’s union resisted his efforts. “He was so busy chasing imaginary ‘culture’ problems in B.P., he forgot his primary job,” the union wrote. “B.P. doesn’t have a culture problem, it has a leadership problem, starting with Biden.”
Agents need to know that their leaders are focused on solutions and effective policies. “So the mental health issues and addressing it with therapists and counseling and check-ins … that’s all great. But if you come out of your session and you go right back to your patrol vehicle … down to the border, and you’re right back dealing with the same stuff. What’s really changed?” Dudley said.
Reps. Gonzales and Cuellar introduced a bipartisan act, Taking Action to Prevent Suicides (TAPS), to create a multiagency task force to investigate the underlying factors contributing to high suicide rates. It would also protect agents who seek mental health services from poor job performance reviews.
In the meantime, Scott argued agents need more than 30 minutes of therapy. It can be hard for law enforcement to trust a clinician or reach out for help. “Reaching out for help is just not normal,” he said. As chief, Scott encouraged agents to check in with one another and let their superiors know if they needed mental health support.
“You’re not afraid to call on the radio and say you need help,” he said. “But even more importantly … you can hear the tone of their voice change and know they need help even when they don’t ask for help.” He urged agents to do the same thing at the stations—to pull teammates aside and ask if they are okay.
Scott also emphasized the role of the church in rallying around agents in crisis. The former chief has spoken from agents who didn’t feel welcome at mainline churches, especially those that focus on social justice and equate border security with cruelty toward immigrants. Agents need to process their experiences without feeling like their occupation conflicts with their faith.
Associate Pastor Shon Young at City Church in Del Rio is committed to welcoming Border Patrol agents and Texas Department of Safety officers. Young also leads the Val Verde Humanitarian Border Coalition, a respite center for immigrants. City Church hosts barbecues at their local Border Patrol stations and hands out care packages to agents. When I visited the church in late September, Young told me a few of the agents and officers attend regularly.
“We understand that the morale at Border Patrol could be low at this point, so we want to let them know that the church cares for and loves them and is here for them through their tough times.”
After they give an agent a care package, they pray with him. “We … let them know they’re cared for,” he said, “and we love them and are behind them.”
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