McALLEN, Texas (KXAN) — Dressed in the standard green Border Patrol uniform, armed with a firearm and all the other equipment an agent would carry, Pete Bidegain cruises in a white SUV through the heavily wooded brush which sits just feet away from the Rio Grande River.
He is on the lookout for illegal immigrants who may be trying to tread the quick-moving water to reach the U.S., and if he sees them, he will detain them.
Still, it becomes difficult to ignore the humanity involved in the job.
“It is just incredible to think about what these kids face,” said Bidegain, an agent in the McAllen, Texas sector of Border Patrol.
OFFICER AND HUMANITARIAN
Sometimes when he approaches an immigrant who has successfully crossed the border, they will run to avoid detention. The city of McAllen sits just a few miles away where they might be able to blend in.
However, Bidegain says children welcome the sight of a uniformed agent and he, one of 3,000 agents patrolling 316 miles of river, is glad to be there for them.
“We like playing the role of someone who is going to help them and they know that,” he said.
Many times the children have already survived the worst of the journey. Drug cartels are hired to smuggle immigrants to the border using many different means no matter how dangerous. Sometimes, the immigrants are “sold” from coyote to coyote who seek a paycheck before the immigrants livelihood.
If they are lucky enough to survive the journey to the border, a heavily brushed area ripe with rattlesnakes and other wildlife awaits before they are put into an inflatable raft 10-20 at a time and sent towards the U.S.
Enduring such a dangerous endeavor is why Bidegain says agents have to balance their job as a law enforcement officer with being a humanitarian. Once an agent finds a group of children, they immediately secure the situation and give them food and water before getting biographical information.
Even when agents do not see immigrants as they move across the Rio Grande, it is easy to see the evidence.
At one landing, several life jackets are thrown into a pile while diapers, stuffed animals, and children’s clothing is scattered about. Many times they are loaded onto the boat with only enough belongings to fill a backpack.
Around a few bends in the river, a wooden ladder sits broken. It was likely used to scale the large wall that protects the border near the Hidalgo Port of Entry.
Once children are in custody, agents might inquire about their journey.
“We will ask them what it was like traveling through Mexico and they just start to cry,” said Bidegain. “It is emotional for them, they’ve seen a lot, they’ve been through things a normal kid shouldn’t have to go through.”
That fear and trauma is why Bidegain believes agents have to show a level of compassion.
“We are the United States. We have a good reputation for a reason.”
Typically, a detained immigrant will only spend 12-48 hours in Border Patrol custody before Immigration and Customs Enforcement gets involved and begins the removal process. Some may pursue amnesty and an immigration judge will make the ultimate call.
But regardless of their ability to pursue amnesty and whatever humane treatment they may receive in the United States, the dangers of the journey make it a much higher risk than reward according to Bidegain.
“There are a lot of ways you can get hurt as a person coming to the United States illegally.”
Border Patrol said they have detained 220,000 immigrants entering the country illegally since last October; a large amount, but not unprecedented. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, even larger influxes were seen, however the recent run of migrants coming across the border is unique because 70 percent are coming from countries other than Mexico.
Nearly a quarter of the immigrants detained this year have been children, although the number has slowed in recent weeks. That is partly attributed to the summer heat which normally slows border crossing activity. Even with the recent decrease, Border Patrol is seeing a 30 percent increase in illegal crossings compared to this time last year.