But in its quest to protect the American way of life, the agency has also hit rough waters. Some of that turbulence spilled into public view last month, when the union representing 11,000 agents issued a vote of no confidence against Border Patrol Chief David Aguilar.
Aguilar is a familiar face in Southern Arizona, where he spent five years in charge of the Border Patrol's Tucson Sector before being promoted to the agency's top job in 2004.
Announcing their vote on April 23, leaders of the National Border Patrol Council charged Aguilar with implementing policies--for the sake of political expediency, they say--that actually make frontline enforcement tougher. These policies include restrictions on agents' ability to give chase and an overreliance on roadside checkpoints. The council also targeted Aguilar's support for a guest-worker program.
However, the heart of this rift seems to be lingering bitterness over the recent convictions of two agents in Texas, for the 2005 shooting of an unarmed illegal alien. Osvaldo Aldrete-Davila was shot after he was caught smuggling 743 pounds of dope and tried to flee. Agents Jose Alonso Compean and Ignacio Ramos said they believed the smuggler was armed.
Although Ramos shot only once at the man, Compean fired several times, and then removed his shell casings from the scene. Neither agent notified their superiors of the shooting.
Aldrete-Davila's urethra was severed by a bullet, and he now endures a rubber catheter protruding from his belly. The two agents were convicted of shooting an unarmed man and then attempting a cover-up. They were each sentenced to more than a decade in prison.
This incident has become a sizzling topic on right-wing talk shows, with critics calling it yet another example of a chaotic border--and agents being penalized for trying to exact control.
In turn, Aguilar has drawn fierce criticism from the Border Patrol Council for his silence on the convictions and long sentences. But agency officials have called it inappropriate to comment on a Justice Department case--or a jury's verdict. "The Border Patrol doesn't sentence people," says Todd Fraser, an agency spokesman in Washington, D.C. "The agents were sentenced by a jury and judge."
Following the Texas convictions, U.S. Customs and Border Protection (parent agency to the Border Patrol, within the Homeland Security Department) issued a statement saying that "Mr. Ramos and Compean were investigated by an independent office concerning their actions and afforded due process in a court of law. CBP respects the decision made by the court."
Meanwhile, embattled Chief Aguilar has received strong support from the Bush administration, from CBP Commissioner W. Ralph Basham and from Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, who has called Aguilar "a magnificent leader."
Following the Border Council vote, Basham issued a statement defending Aguilar. "There is no more demanding job in law enforcement today than that of the chief of the Border Patrol," Basham wrote, "and no one more capable of doing it than David Aguilar."
T.J. Bonner begs to differ. He's president of the Border Patrol Council, and not a man given to delicate phrasing. In The Washington Times, he called Basham "a political hack" and an official who "appears to be far more concerned about the public perception of the bureau's leadership than the underlying problems that led to the vote of no confidence."
Bonner's position hasn't softened since that April 27 story.
"Anyone who's out there and acting in a spineless manner for political expediency has no business (being) in charge of an agency like this," he tells the Tucson Weekly. "This vote was driven from the bottom, contrary to the way CBP and Border Patrol are trying to spin this. This is driven from extreme frustration at front-line levels of the organization.
"Basically, agents aren't allowed to do their jobs," he says. "And if they do their jobs, they receive no support from Washington, or at any level" within the agency. "They are not treated fairly."
To Bonner, agents Ramos and Compean are poster boys for that unfair treatment. "There are bad agents out there, and I'll be the first to concede that," he says. "But when agents act properly, they deserve to be presumed innocent until proven otherwise, the same as any other person."
When it's suggested that Compean and Ramos were presumed innocent until a jury convicted them, Bonner replies that the prosecution withheld critical information about the victim. "The jury had no chance to realize that they were dealing with a hardened criminal," in Aldrete-Davila, he says. "He was certainly not as the prosecution tried to paint him, as some down-on-his-luck kid. It's the most implausible story I've ever heard. How the jury ever bought it was beyond me."
Bonner concedes that the agents didn't follow procedure. "But if it was a good shooting in the first place--and I believe it was, because when someone turns around and (appears to) pull a weapon on you, you have the right to open fire on that person to protect your life--what happens afterwards is really immaterial. It doesn't transform it into a crime just because you failed to report it, and just because you picked up the shell casings.
The Border Patrol Council is now calling for Compean and Ramos to be exonerated. Meanwhile, things have become particularly nasty following the condemnation of Aguilar. The Tucson union local has the chief pictured on its Web site under the banner "No Confidence." Below that, it reads, "All show and no go."
The council claims that anti-Aguilar posters have been torn from bulletin boards in the Border Patrol's San Diego Sector. They also allege that Jeff Self, an Aguilar lieutenant, has appeared at Border Patrol musters in Tucson. Self has reportedly demanded a show of hands from those supporting the council's position.
Back in Washington, agency spokesman Ramon Rivera finds such assertions far-fetched. But either way, Rivera says Aguilar is getting a bum rap. "You know, the chief is really doing an outstanding job. If people would come and visit and see what he does, they would understand. It's sad that he's going through this and doing the outstanding job that he's doing."
Whether the chief can weather these rough waters--and condemnation from 11,000 Border Patrol agents--remains to be seen.