In this episode of The Cut, activist and reporter Ana Adlerstein has a series of conversations with active duty patrol agent and National Border Control Council VP Art Del Cueto. Del Cueto has worked for Border Patrol since 2003. The recordings span several years and include personal conversations, an interview following the Lonnie Swartz proceedings, and a discussion regarding Adlerstein’s arrest. During their conversations, both parties push the other in an attempt to make them see things differently. The Cut host Avery Trufelman talks with Adlerstein about the current state of border patrol here.
AVERY: From October 1997 to September 2018, 7,505 people have died trying to get across the southern border. And that’s just the number of found remains that are reported to Border Patrol. The true number of deaths could be—and probably is—thousands more. No statistic can account for the bodies that were never found in the vast and harsh expanse of the Sonoran desert.
ANA: The reason people are crossing these really remote stretches of desert is because of a 1994 Clinton era policy called “prevention through deterrence,” which essentially decided that if you push people further out into a really vast expanse of dangerous wilderness, then they won’t cross. But that didn’t happen. Like those checkpoints you and I drove through, those are all forms of deterrence.
AVERY: People used to migrate through urban centers without a lot of physical danger. But the deterrence—the checkpoints, the criminalization of migration and aid, the stretches of border wall—all of these obstacles mean that, if you want try to make it into the country without being thrown in prison or deported or separated from your family, you have to attempt to cross the most desolate, remote parts of the desert.
Here, Adlerstein inquires about Del Cueto’s job: his day-to-day routine, whether he finds it fun.
ANA: Are all of your tasks essentially looking for undocumented immigrants?
ART: Yes. That is your primary role, to find undocumented immigrants. Yes.
ANA: Do you like the work of looking for people?
ART: Yeah. I wouldn’t be doing this if I didn’t like it. So, I think it’s a good job.
ANA: Is it fun?
ART: It is fun. It is fun. You’re out here in the middle of nowhere at times. And look at how the desert’s beautiful. So, I think there’s a lot of people that work in an office, they wish they had this view every day.
ANA: And the element of finding people who are hiding from you?
ART: Though more and more lately, it’s not really people that are hiding from you, it’s people that are just coming up to you when they see your vehicle, and they turn themselves in.
ANA: Because they have asylum claims?
ART: Because they have asylum claims.
In October of 2012, José Antonio Elena Rodríguez was shot at 16 times by Border Patrol Agent Lonnie Swartz. Swartz claimed Rodriguez was throwing rocks, so he fired for protection. Six years later, Swartz was found not guilty of manslaughter. Del Cueto attended the trial. Here, Adlerstein interviews Del Cueto as he leaves the courthouse.
ANA: So, what happened in there, Art?
ART: Not guilty.
ANA: Of what?
ART: Well, of involuntary manslaughter of course…I believe that justice was definitely served, and the reality is in my eyes the justice system worked today.
ANA: Will the fact that there has been two trials now influence any way that the border patrol operates in terms of holding border patrol agents accountable for excessive use of force?
ART: We’ve always held our agents accountable when they did something wrong. And in a case like this, we’ve always backed up our agents when we believe that they did the right thing. The union is here to support the agents when we truly believe there’s some kind of injustice. And yes, we financed it because that’s our job. We finance those kinds of things.
In May of 2019, Adlerstein was arrested at the border for accompanying an asylum seeker into Lukeville, Ariz. She was detained for over four hours. In this conversation, Adlerstein tells Del Cueto about the arrest for the first time, and is surprised by his shock.
ANA: I got arrested. I was accompanying an asylum seeker to the port of entry. They walked up first, and then I was behind them.
ART: You got arrested for harboring, for assisting, for what?
ANA: The CBP officer came running out and called me an illegal alien smuggler.
ART: But where were you?
ANA: I was on the Mexico side.
ART: On the Mexican side. And I don’t want to get into—I don’t want you to tell me who it is. Because I don’t know what the whole thing is. But obviously, you’re doing your job as a reporter, and you want to observe how this happens. Because these individuals told you, “Hey, I’ve come through here before, and they pushed me away.” “Okay. Well, you know what? I’m a reporter. I want to document that they’re actually doing that, and not allowing you to come and do the asylum.” Correct?
ANA: Well, I’ve also been volunteering at the shelter.
ART: Okay. It is what it is. I volunteer in a lot of places, too. And I think it’s a good thing. Yeah. I don’t even know what to say. I don’t know. I wasn’t there. I don’t know. But that’s just shocking to me.
And in an effort to see each other’s point of view, Adlerstein and Del Cueto discuss the concept of good and bad. Del Cueto urges Adlerstein to answer the question of whether a border patrol agent can be a good person. And more specifically, if she thinks he is a good person.
ANA: I’m not ready to call a border patrol agent a good guy.
ART: But I’m a border patrol agent, and I’m not a bad guy. You think I’m a good guy?
ANA: I don’t think there are good guys and bad guys.
ART: But you said you weren’t ready to call a border patrol agent a good guy.
ANA: I don’t think there are good guys and bad guys.
ART: Do you think I’m a good guy?
ART: You don’t think I’m a good guy, Ana? Yes you do. You’re just trying to sit there because you’re trying to justify what you just said. Let’s not justify what you just said. Don’t even put it on record. I don’t care if you don’t put it on record, but you know you want to say I’m a good guy. Because you don’t think I am. I’m not.
ANA: I think that I enjoy talking to you. I have a lot to learn from you. I’m fascinated to spend more time with you. I believe individuals are good. I believe in the humanity of people.
ART: So, you are prepared to say a border patrol agent is good?
ANA: As an individual, as an individual.
ART: Well, we are. We’re individuals. You can’t define people just specifically for what they do for a living.
ANA: Well, I think we see reality a little differently there.