Birding and the Border Patrol – a Rio Grande encounter


While birding the Lower Rio Grande Valley a few weeks ago, we visited a number of out-of-the way places where illegal aliens routinely cross the border from Mexico into the United States.  It’s one thing to imagine how difficult that journey must be, but to go there and see the cactus and thorn scrub woodlands through which these people sprint in the dark on the hope of a better life somehow makes their desperation that much more palpable.  At the same time, you are struck by all the nefarious activities happening in the same place – the smuggling of drugs, guns, people.  We saw some houses in the area that looked to be completely surrounded by 8-10′ chain link fencing – folks just get sick and tired of desperate Mexicans running across their lawns in the middle of the night.

Our federal government in its infinite lunacy, has proposed a multi-billion dollar wall along a good portion of the Rio Grande to “secure our borders”.  But, as demonstrated by Penn & Teller on their Showtime original series, “Bullsh*t“, the wall as planned is easily breached (in less than a minute) by digging under, going through, or climbing over, and with no more technical equipment than a pair of tin snips.

We conservation-minded folks tend to be anti-border wall, both because we’re smart people in general (and it seems like a big waste of money just to pacify a subset of the gullible American public) and out of concern for barriers to dispersal among wildlife populations. Ocelots and jaguarundis don’t realize the significance of crossing the Rio Grande in their search for food or mates, and barring their dispersal could lead to extirpations of these species, particularly on the American side. So at our conference, we saw many vehicles sporting “No Border Wall!” bumper stickers.

In our wanderings, we mused about finding Minutemen in the field, or somehow running afoul of Border Patrol Agents. We surmised that these were probably not guys with a great sense of humor. Perhaps nothing would amuse them more than detaining a few smart-mouthed bird watchers for a few hours.

Eventually we did encounter a Border Patrol Agent, right there on the Rio Grande in Salineno. We were at that point spread along the river, hiding in the bushes, making weird noises, and generally looking suspicious. You know – birding! The Agent tracked us down for a conversation.

My first impression of this guy was how intimidating he would be to a poor, desperate kid scraping across the border with nothing but the shirt on his back – if he had one. The Agent was HUGE – I’d say 6’5″ and ripped. His uniform was immaculate, and he was loaded with gear. He seemed to be of Mexican ancestry – dark skin and slight accent – and I got the sense that he was equally eloquent in English or Spanish. He asked us the predictable questions “Have you seen anything unusual this morning?” and then we got down to really talking.

We were really interested in learning more about the issue from a guy who lives it every day. He was happy to engage in a little public information with us. He said that we were in the midst of one of the busiest border crossings, and an especially problematic place for drug smuggling. He pointed to the reeds across the river (right below where the gray hawk had perched minutes earlier) and said there were people in there now, watching. They communicated by cell phone to people on the American side and gave the signal to run when the coast was clear. He said the Minutemen were really more active farther west – it was just the BPAs patrolling this area of Texas.

Then he had some questions for us.  He wanted to know more about birding.  Why was the Lower Rio Grande Valley such a destination?  It was a great opportunity for me to explain to him a little biogeography and a little of the philosophy of “listing”.  For people interesting in building their North American lists, it means more to find a Brown Jay in Starr County than in Tamulipas.

As we chatted, I got brave enough to talk a bit about the border wall with him. “You know, a lot of eco-minded people like us oppose the border wall.” He was completely polite and professional and really listened to what I had to say. Far from the stereotype jack-booted thug, this guy really epitomized how silly that stereotype is. These agents have an incredibly difficult job, and the short time we got to spend with this guy really enlightened me to the fact that while he could certainly dispatch me in an instant with his left pinkie finger, he probably relied more in his job on his skills in communication and rapid response to head off violent encounters before they occurred. This was a really impressive guy, to say the least.

In the end, he admitted that nothing we (the U.S.) does will really ever make a dent in the problem of illegal immigration. “They will keep coming until Mexico fixes their economy.”

He bade us farewell, told us to “be careful out here”, climbed into his truck and drove off.

On our way back to the car, we set up our scopes for a while and did some birding right by the boat ramp to the river. A woman sat there in the shade, talking on a cell phone. She received 5 or 6 calls in the 10 minutes that we were there . . .

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4 Responses to Birding and the Border Patrol – a Rio Grande encounter

  1. TR says:

    I have run into the border patrol numerous times birding in San Diego in and around the Cleveland National Forest off I-8. They must get quite a few birders cause they never bat an eyelid when we tell them what we’re doing. And in all the situations I’ve run into they have been very courteous.

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  2. S Nicol says:

    In general, the Border Patrol officers that actually go out on patrol (as opposed to defending desks in DC) are locals who need the work. The border in south Texas has twice the rate of poverty as the rest of Texas, so good paying jobs are hard to come by. Unfortunately, they are not allowed to speak their minds about the wall. Just like the dedicated US Fish and Wildlife employees who work to maintain our refuges, they are afraid for their jobs. It is shameful to think that those who live and work along the border, and would be able to provide meaningful insight, in essence lose their right to freedom of speech (at least on this one issue), but it is currently the case.

    One fundamental problem with the border wall that is currently under construction in California and Arizona and will break ground (literally) in Texas in the next month or so is the fact that DHS does not have to obey any of our nation’s environmental laws. Section 102 of the Real ID Act says, “Notwithstanding any other provision of law, the Secretary of Homeland Security shall have the authority to waive all legal requirements such Secretary, in such Secretary’s sole discretion, determines necessary to ensure expeditious construction of the barriers and roads under this section.” Department of Homeland Security Secretary Chertoff has already waived as many as 19 federal laws, including the Endangered Species Act, the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, and the National Environmental Policy Act, to build walls in California and Arizona. With endangered ocelot and migratory birds in south Texas’ refuges he is almost certain to write a Real ID waiver for Texas. The Defenders of Wildlife and Sierra Club have petitioned the Supreme Court to rule on the constitutionality of Chertoff’s power, but if the court eventually takes up the case it may be too late for the Lower Rio Grande Valley.

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  3. heidi says:

    I think there’s a difference in temperment for field patrol vs office guys – though most are even helpful if you have a flat tire or are stopped on the side of the road (out here they’re more reliable than cops and civilians combined just due to the frequency of their travel), the guys at checkpoints are very hit-or-miss. Never joke. Oddly, the worst BP experience I’ve had was getting back into NY from Canada. Again.. checkpoint.

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  4. Reblogged this on The Waterthrush Blog and commented:

    Eight years ago, I had this illuminating encounter with a Border Patrol Agent in the Rio Grande Valley.

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