The U.S. Border Patrol maintains one training academy, in Artesia, New Mexico. It’s where every newly-hired Border Patrol agent goes for basic training before being assigned elsewhere. It’s typical for an agent, fresh out of the academy, to be assigned to the southern U.S. border. Someone attempting to cross into the U.S. may have just spent days walking through the desert, and the first face he’ll probably see is an agent, ready and waiting for him. One of the first things an agent learns is how to ask, “Tienes hambre? Tienes sed?” “Are you hungry, or thirsty?” in Spanish.
It’s a cold January morning in northern Maine. There’s a few feet of snow on the ground, and the wind is blowing the top layer of powder into the roads, making parts difficult to see. Often driving alone, and not far from what agents call “The Slash,” a clearcut, 611-mile path that wraps around Maine, the third longest border in the nation’s 20 sectors, Fort Fairfield Border Patrol Agent Tyler Libby watches the line, looking for any sign of human activity.
“Growing up here, I would ride dirt bikes and snowmobiles on the international boundary, and back then—the boundary—it was there, but to us it didn’t exist. We would go into Canada, get gas, then come back straight across, and it didn’t really mean anything…and now…you wouldn’t be able to get away with that.”
He’s one of the guys in green who protects everything in between the legal ports of entry into the United States. Winter can be a busier time of year for agents. What was once a water border in the summer has frozen over, becoming a land border. Potato fields only a tractor could cross become wide open express lanes for snowmobiles. And Libby spends his time piloting a pickup, ATVs, snowmobiles and occasionally snowshoes, always keeping his eyes on The Slash.
He’s been with Border Patrol for the past eight years since leaving the Air Force. He says it’s been a while since he’s had to arrest someone for crossing into the U.S. illegally. The U.S./Canadian border isn’t as active as America’s southern border with Mexico, mostly because of Canada’s economic stability, according to Border Patrol.
“It’s kind of random up here,” John Krause, deputy patrol agent in charge, said. “It’s infrequent enough you can’t put a finger on a pattern. Sometimes you can see activity and start to see a trend…we’ve interrupted and disrupted lots of Hells Angels hydroponic marijuana smuggling rings and ecstasy pills and meth, guns going north, money going back and forth. We’ve disrupted serious organized crime rings. Stuff happens here, it’s just not so often you can say ‘two times a month.’ You can’t really put a number on it.”
It’s important for an agent to get to know the community near the border he’s sworn to protect. The better a relationship an agent has with the flock he’s trying to keep safe, the easier his job becomes. Calls come in from locals who trust the men in green when they spot the unusual taking place in their backyard.
“A lot of people on this road, they see us every day, all day, to and from, so if they see something they’ll let us know,” Libby said.
“Getting involved with the community on a one-on-one basis is extremely important to them and to me,” said Daniel Hiebert, the chief patrol agent for the Houlton sector, “so that the people of the state of Maine, and anywhere in the country, have respect for the border patrol, the border patrol agents. They know who to call, they trust them, they know they don’t have to worry about going to bed tonight.”
“That they’re accepted by the community, and that they accept the community, just gives them that heightened sense of responsibility and dedication to go out and make sure the job is done right every day.”
One day, Libby recalls, “There was an elderly man…he was coming out to get his mail, and as I was driving by he fell. He was trying to get to his mail and his driveway wasn’t plowed, so I stopped, helped him out and made sure he was alright, and then I called three other guys who came out and we shoveled his driveway.”
What makes an agent successful is the heightened state of awareness of his surroundings. A sense that begins forming at the academy spreads through every fiber of his being after his first 10 month stint on the southern border.
“Now it’s just become a habit, any vehicle that passes I try to read their license plate. Go to a restaurant, I have to sit facing the entryway,” said Libby. “To me, being prior military and now Border Patrol, that’s how it’s been instilled. Never put your back to the door.”
Don’t mistake an agent’s quick glances at license plates or him facing the entrance when he’s out to lunch as paranoia—it’s his job to be ready. He now lives in a world of possibility, as opposed to the world of probability many of us live in (a law enforcement philosophy discussed in depth by Dr. Kevin Gilmartin, a name an agent might drop when discussing deep questions on the emotional survival of their vocation).
“If it’s possible, I’ve got to be prepared for it,” Richard Funke, a border patrol agent, said. “I always approach an arrest the same way. I approach this arrest as if this person is Osama bin Laden, and he’s here to kill me. And once I determine that’s not the case, we can start changing our hats.”
“That guy that’s been walking through the desert for four days [at the southern U.S. border], often times they would be crossing Mexico, walking for days. I’ll arrest him. I have a job to do. I’m going to enforce the law,” he said. “But I’m also an EMT, so I’m going to…provide you with necessary medical care. I’m going to make sure you get everything you need because we’re all human. Even though I have a job to do—I have a job to enforce the law, because that’s what makes us a nation is our laws—that’s what makes the United States special around the world.”
Today, Libby’s assigned to the north route of The Slash. Tomorrow, he’ll head south. He doesn’t find the long drives lonely and he’s developed the uncanny ability, as all agents have, to shoulder the weight of responsibility that comes with protecting the boundaries between each port of entry. He knows anything can happen and that there are those out there who are up to no good. You can bet he won’t be caught with his back to the border when the bad guys try to get in.
“I give the best I can for 10 hours,” he said. “I know every day I’m not going to come to work and catch somebody. Just driving up and down and making sure nothing’s come across, I did the best I could possibly do. I gave it my all.”