Some Border Patrol Agents Get More Flak Than Others

MARY JANE CRUZ remembers the time she almost regretted the job she has to do as a Border Patrol agent in the El Paso, Texas, sector of the US-Mexico border.

While on duty at El Paso's airport, she stopped an older Mexican couple with an 18-year-old daughter, she recalls. ''It was clear they had risked a lot and spent everything they had to get over here and make things better,'' she says. ''They were ready to fly away and probably never see the Border Patrol again, but I had to stop them. That one time I felt bad.''

Ms. Cruz, with the Border Patrol for nearly eight years, loves her work on the front line of America's battle against illegal immigration. But she says that as a woman and a Hispanic, she sometimes faces challenges that her male Anglo colleagues don't worry about.

''Most of the time the illegals I pick up joke with me, they ask when I'll be off duty so they know when to try to cross again,'' says the energetic Cruz. ''But sometimes they want to know if I'm Mexicana, like that will make me feel guilty. Others say a woman should have sympathy and let them go, like their mamas always let them get away with things.''

Cruz, who grew up in a small south Texas town where ''speaking Spanish wasn't even allowed,'' says her Mexican heritage stops pretty much at a Texas-born grandmother who never learned to speak English. But she says she sometimes even faces pointed comments from other agents. ''I don't like it when they call me a 'native,' '' she says.

On the other hand, she says some of the new recruits coming in under the Border Patrol's expansion are a little deficient in awareness of the Southwest border. ''Some of them have never even seen a tortilla,'' she adds.

Cruz is not alone in feeling a particular challenge as a Hispanic on the US-Mexico border. Other Hispanic agents say they sometimes confront more hostility from Mexicans they stop than do their Anglo colleagues. ''They can hold it against you more that you are where you are,'' says Marco Ramirez, a Mexican-American agent in the San Diego sector.

For their part, Mexicans trying to cross illegally have few kind words for the Hispanic agents. ''The Anglos and the blacks are OK, they're just doing their job,'' says Jose Antonio Villalba, a solderer from Sinaloa state trying to cross to a job in San Diego. ''But the Mexicans [Hispanics], they're more likely to beat us up or treat us poorly, as if to put a distance between us and them.''

Arguments for clemency can get creative, agent Cruz says, but for her they hold no sway. ''I've been told this [Texas] used to be Mexico, and I've been told that instead of building fences we should be building bridges,'' she says. ''I just say we won Texas fair and square, and that bridges aren't always feasible. I have a fence around my house that separates me from my neighbors,'' she adds, ''and I like it that way.''

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