One day in 2008, Border Patrol Agent Brendan Lenihan was working alone in southern Arizona when he received a dispatch to investigate a motion sensor that had been triggered nearby. The US borderlands with Mexico hold thousands of hidden sensors, and only Border Patrol knows where they are. Lenihan went up a narrow road into the Las Guijas Mountains, named for the 19th-century Spanish miners who searched for gold there. The closest community to him was Arivaca, Arizona, a small unincorporated town located about eleven miles north of the border.
Its population was concerned about the increasing number of people entering the town in distress or injured, or dying in the surrounding desert. When Homeland Security installed a checkpoint in 2006, people from Arivaca could not leave their community—to go to the grocery store, to go to the doctor, to go to school—on any paved road without going through a Border Patrol blockade. In a few years this imposition would cause a great deal of activism, including protests at the checkpoints themselves, and a petition signed by more than half of Arivaca’s 600 people demanding the blockades’ removal.
Lenihan’s green-striped truck scraped against mesquite branches as he drove up the narrowing trail between large rock faces. As he pushed farther in, he didn’t know what to expect. Sometimes the sensors expose people attempting to cross the border, other times they reveal stray cattle. The trail came to an end by an abandoned mine shaft close to the top of the ridgeline. With nowhere left to drive, Lenihan parked and got out of his car. He paused to survey the sweeping view of the San Luis Mountains, the Altar Valley, and the Buenos Aires Wildlife Refuge, home to fleet-footed pronghorns, pumas, and more than 300 species of birds. To the west was Baboquivari Mountain with its pronounced, vivid peak—the region where I met Juan Carlos. Agent Lenihan told me it was a “beautiful spot,” as if he could have just sat there, staring out onto the borderless landscape, for the rest of his shift. He could see not only hundreds of miles, but millions of years, if you considered the lifetimes of the mountain ranges.
“Seen from space,” wrote retired astronaut Scott Joseph Kelly in 2020, following in the global-consciousness footsteps of his predecessors, “the Earth has no borders.” Among the “side effects of seeing Earth from the perspective of space, at least for me, is feeling more compassion for others.” Kelly’s words seemed to foreshadow what Brendan Lenihan was about to experience, one of the most powerful stories of empathy I’ve ever heard.
Roman Krznaric, author of the book Empathy: Why It Matters, and How to Get It, argues that human beings have the ability to see the world through other people’s eyes, and feel the world through their experiences. The ability to empathize is an innate sense, like sight or smell, and, like a muscle, it strengthens with use and atrophies with neglect. Krznaric is not talking about watered-down versions of empathy designed for consumption—often used by politicians for political gain, or corporations to sell products—but rather a vehicle of great transformative power that leads ultimately to solidarity.
What made Lenihan’s experience even more notable was that one of the four blockades to empathy, Krznaric writes, is prejudice. And the definition he lays out could have come directly from a Border Patrol training manual: “[To] make snap judgments based on first impressions, and casually project our biases and preconceptions onto people while knowing very little about their lives.”
After taking in the view, Lenihan continued to investigate what may have triggered the sensor. There were “all kinds of footprints,” he said, fresh footprints that crossed the road in front of him and then went up into a saddle on the ridgeline. He figured that a small group was about 45 minutes ahead of him, the exact time it took him to get up the trail. He quickly made a plan. He would call for help, then hike quickly to the north side of the ridgeline to cut off the group in the valley below.
Just as he was getting started, the situation changed. A man appeared out of a ravine on the other side of the road and ran toward Agent Lenihan, frantically waving his arms and calling for help. Lenihan had trouble with the rapid-fire, panicked Spanish, but he could understand that a relative of the man was in trouble. Trained to make quick, snap judgments, Lenihan quickly scanned the man and the surroundings. He told me that the first thing he noticed was that the man had on nice boots, and that the man seemed “comfortable” in the terrain. He seemed athletic, muscular but not burly. Then Lenihan noticed something else.
“He had kind eyes,” Lenihan told me. “I trusted his face.”
Lenihan grabbed his heavy assault rifle and slung it over his back. “Show me what’s going on,” he said. Rogelio, as Lenihan would soon learn was his name, led him to a remote spot a few minutes’ hike from where he had parked. On the sandy ground in the wash at the bottom of the ravine he saw Rogelio’s young brother, Roberto, lying in his cousin Miguel’s lap. Miguel, who seemed older than Rogelio and Roberto, was propping up the young man’s head, gently rocking him, as if he were a child. Miguel smiled sofly, but said nothing to Lenihan. Around them were tortillas and a few jugs of water. Roberto’s eyelids were closed. When they opened, his eyes were rolled back, only the whites visible.
Roberto needed immediate medical attention. Lenihan’s thoughts turned fast and staccato. There was no way that they would be able to land a helicopter in the ravine. But the turnout on the road where he had parked his truck might be a good place. He called dispatch and requested air support for a medical evacuation.
The three of them had to team up to get Roberto out of the ravine. The boy had a stocky build. He was difficult to lift. Then he began to vomit. The rising sun burned down on them. They tried different ways to hold Roberto. “I was worried about him choking,” Lenihan said. By now, they were sweating profusely. Finally, Lenihan braced arms with Rogelio, forming a bridge, a sort of stretcher to carry Roberto in a lying position. As their grip started to slip due to sweat and strain, the agent felt the heavy AR-15 dig into the carotid artery in his neck.
Their hold on Roberto continued to slip until Lenihan and Rogelio found themselves holding hands. When Lenihan felt Rogelio’s callused hands, everything started to shift. The situation became “strangely intimate.” The boy continued vomiting, black bile oozing slowly out of him like lava. The heavy vomit rolled down Roberto’s chest. It rolled onto Lenihan’s and Rogelio’s arms as they clasped hands. The Border Patrol agent looked down at Roberto. Then Lenihan was no longer Lenihan. Intimately touching Rogelio’s hands, for a moment he became Rogelio. He began to see the boy as if he were his own brother.
“It was a bond,” Lenihan told me, “that was strangely deep.”The ability to empathize is an innate sense, like sight or smell, and, like a muscle, it strengthens with use and atrophies with neglect.
During Lenihan’s training for the US Border Patrol, a drill sergeant yelled at him for 69 days. In role-playing scenarios, he was assaulted and beaten as part of his training. Police-grade pepper spray was shot into his eyes as he did jumping jacks. He underwent 77 hours of intensive firearms training, often using outlines of human torsos and heads as targets. The lines of good and bad, innocent and evil, legal and illegal were drawn clearly every day.
Yet when Agent Brendan Lenihan clasped Rogelio’s callused hands in their common struggle to carry Roberto to safety, for a fleeting moment, the border was gone. With it went his uniform, badge, laws, and gun. In their place was a bridge, across which he could see and feel the world from Rogelio’s side—his longing, his love, his family, and his anguish and despair. As the black bile continued to ooze out of the boy’s mouth, Rogelio looked at Brendan with a terrified grimace. Then the radio crackled, calling Lenihan back to the US Border Patrol once again. For Roberto, in the agent’s arms, the border had never left. It continued to kill him.
The helicopter wouldn’t be able to safely land by the car. They landed instead at a nearby clearing. As Brendan snapped back to protocol, the previous moment remained with him—a transformative moment, a bridge to another reality. “I usually have hands-on contact with someone just long enough to put on handcuffs and send them away, and there I was, holding hands with someone I’d usually just arrest.”
“As a border patrol agent,” Lenihan said, “you have a muted sense of empathy because you see so much all the time that you just don’t know how to cope.”
Brendan’s empathy transcended Border Patrol training and culture. No More Deaths, a humanitarian aid organization that compiled thousands of testimonies of people who were abused during short-term detention, charged the Border Patrol with producing “a culture of cruelty” in a 2011 report. Sean C. Chapman, the lawyer of Agent Matthew Bowen, who in 2019 faced federal charges for hitting a Guatemalan man, Antolín López Aguilar, with his Border Patrol truck, gave a glimpse into this culture during the trial. Chapman was forced to explain the trove of text messages from Bowen uncovered by prosecutors, one of which described migrants as “disgusting subhuman shit unworthy of being kindling for a fire.”
Throughout his text conversations, Bowen used the word “tonk”—onomatopoeia for the sound of an agent’s flashlight striking a person’s head. Chapman made a startling claim, throwing the “bad apple” narrative to the wind: In Bowen’s defense, he stated that the denigrating language used by his client was “commonplace throughout the Border Patrol’s Tucson sector, and that it is part of the agency’s culture.” All of this underscores what Greg Grandin wrote in his Pulitzer Prize-winning book, The End of the Myth: The U.S. Border Patrol has been “a frontline instrument of white supremacist power” since its founding in 1924.
Over the years, I have interviewed many agents in many settings, from government offices to private homes. While these interviews and other reporting confirm the existence of a top-down, violent, and dehumanizing culture among border enforcement personnel, it is much more difficult to generalize about the agents themselves. Talking one on one, I have met agents whose attitudes span a wide spectrum. For example, one agent attempted to justify using snipers to shoot at “aliens” if they were suspected of smuggling. When I asked the agent how he could identify who was a smuggler, he replied that smugglers have phones, and pointed to his hip.
Another agent I interviewed was an expert marksman in charge of conducting trainings at a shooting range, but admitted that he hated guns. He told me he had vowed to write a scathing account of the Border Patrol when he retired. A former agent was a thoughtful historian who, while working for the Border Patrol, spoke critically about US drug laws and advocated for legalization. His mother was from Chihuahua, Mexico, and he joined the Border Patrol after he lost his job at Circuit City when the company went under in 2007. But the Border Patrol job did not last either. His pride in his Mexican ancestry and his advocacy for marijuana legalization ended up drawing the attention of those in higher command, who fired him. Even though 50 percent of the Border Patrol agents are Latinx, when they show pride in their heritage, if they dare, their loyalty to the United States is questioned.
After a long interview at another agent’s house, the man invited me to join him for dinner. His openness and hospitality, as with many of my other interviewees, challenged my preexisting expectations and biases. Becoming sympathetic to Border Patrol agents, even liking some of them, has had an odd effect on me. I began to see that the agents were the most visible elements, yet only a small part of a much bigger system that included paper pushers, policy-makers, politicians, and private corporations that sell bullets and weapons and high-tech cameras for a profit.
Focusing solely on the agents obscures this vast and hidden world of the border-enforcement apparatus—a world funded by everybody in the United States who pays taxes. And through taxes, my own connection to this apparatus is direct. I pay the agents’ salaries, I pay for the drones, I pay for the groundsweeping radar systems and aerostats, I pay for the detention centers, I pay the administrators who sign into policy the most heinous treatment of our fellow human beings. I play a part in perpetuating a system that sustains a world of catastrophic inequalities where 2,153 billionaires have more money than 4.6 billion people—60 percent of the world population. Our taxes enforce such hierarchies of inequality and determine who can move across certain lines of division and who cannot, who serves and who is served. Individual agents are cogs in a complex machine made of disposable parts. If they do not sufficiently conform to this system, if they do not conform to the militant enforcement of US borders, they get fired. This grander theater spares no one, including the agents, in its inhumanity. And, as Francisco Cantú writes about in The Line Becomes a River, the theater doesn’t spare the agents from the nightmares and the trauma.
Another blockade to empathy fits right into this. According to Krznaric, it is “the human tendency to obey authority.” He uses the example of one of the administrators of the Holocaust, Adolf Eichmann, who claimed no responsibility for his actions during his 1961 trial. Eichmann’s defense was that he was simply “doing his job.” Part of that job was to abide by the Nazi classifications of people such as Untermenschen—subhumans—the category given to Jews, Roma, Slavs, and people of color. It is also worth remembering that Adolph Hitler praised US immigration law in 1936 by saying that the United States was “making progress toward a healthy racial order.”
As political theorist Hannah Arendt famously pointed out, there was nothing psychopathic about Eichmann: He was a fairly typical person who “did his duty” and “not only obeyed orders but obeyed the law.” He was, Arendt said, “terribly and terrifyingly normal.” The same is true for most of the Border Patrol agents I’ve met and interviewed. Once, in a weekly birthing class, I was awkwardly paired for weeks with an agent who was also expecting a child. When we shared what we did, he said he worked for the Border Patrol. I said I wrote about the border. And we just left it at that. Most agents want to enjoy their days off with their families and friends. Yet all must obey the top-down command structure. If they do not obey authority, they lose their jobs.
When I first met Brendan Lenihan, I immediately liked him. He was soft-spoken and often chose his words with a thoughtfulness and reflection that eluded many smartphone-obsessed civilians. When he shared with me some of his journal entries, they reminded me of Cormac McCarthy’s writing, a far cry from some of the warstory literature written by other Border Patrol agents. It was through Lenihan’s journals that I first learned of his encounters with Rogelio, Roberto, and Miguel.
Lenihan and the group reached the clearing before other agents arrived. At that point, he was focused on keeping Roberto alive, even as he thought there was little hope. Empathy made him superhuman. When Roberto’s breathing slowed and appeared to stop, Lenihan got a plastic CPR mask, put it on Roberto’s face, and began to breath air into his lungs. Streams of blood and black bile continued to ooze out of the boy. Lenihan started to ingest Roberto’s bile and vomit, but that no longer mattered.
Within minutes the Border Patrol chopper landed down the hill, and a group of emergency medical technicians rushed to the scene. They started to pump oxygen into Roberto’s lungs with a buzzing machine. Lenihan could see the lungs inflate and contract as if the boy had started breathing again. He had a brief surge of excitement and relief that Roberto might make it.
He asked the EMT, “Is the boy alive?”
“No,” the EMT told him. “The lungs always do that. The boy,” he said, “is dead.” That would make Roberto one of 180 people known to have died crossing into Arizona that year. Since the design of the deterrence policy forces people into desolate places, corpses are often difficult to locate. Thousands of families turn to organizations such as the Colibri Center for Human Rights that use forensic data to help search for lost loved ones. And although the remains of more than 8,000 people have been found in the US-Mexico borderlands since 1998, anthropologist Jason DeLeon, author of The Land of Open Graves, estimates that, if you were to include the deaths of people traveling in Mexico, the count might be three to ten times higher.
When agents go off to drink and commiserate, they called it “choir practice.” When Brendan’s shift ended he was deeply shaken, and he headed to a bar to drink it off. Other agents tried to console him. They reminded him, according to Lenihan, that it was all part of the “border game.” But it was hard for him to move beyond the fact that earlier that day a boy had died in his arms, a boy he had seen more as a brother. The next day his supervisor called him while he was home in his apartment. The supervisor understood that Lenihan was deeply troubled by the death.
“Don’t worry,” the supervisor said, “they were drug mules.”
When Brendan recounted this story to me for the first time, he paused at this statement. Perhaps he remembered the faces of the boy and his brother and cousin.
“What did I care if they were drug mules?” he said.
Later that very evening, the smell of marijuana wafted up to his apartment from somewhere below.
“What was I even doing?” Brendan asked me, his voice filled with emotion.
From Build Bridges, Not Walls: A Journey to a World Without Borders by Todd Miller. Used with the permission of City Lights Books. Copyright © 2021 by Todd Miller.