'Border Live': Ex-US Marshals commander Lenny DePaul on what's really going on at the border behind the political veil
The decorated former law enforcement officer gave us a vivid behind-the-scenes insight into the imminent perils a border enforcement agent faces on a daily basis.
With many Democrats considering a border wall “immoral", the national debate on one of the most polarizing issues facing America is not considering the ordeal a border agent has to go through each day.
Discovery on December 5 premiered a 6-part multiplatform series Border Live, that documents "the work of law enforcement on the U.S.-Mexico border as well as the real lives, real moments and real stories of those that live and work along its remote stretches."
'Border Live' crews are embedded out in the field with officers and special agents at key border sites from Nogales, Ariz., in the west to the Rio Grande Valley in the east.
Discovery is working with law enforcement offices on-the-ground in Texas including the City of San Juan Police Department and Cameron County Sheriff’s Office as well as in Arizona with the Cochise County Sheriff’s Office.
That apart, the network also has on board a team of experts to provide context and insight, including Lenny DePaul, a retired Chief Inspector with the US Marshal Service, and Dr Victor M Manjarrez, Jr., a retired Chief Patrol Agent who served in both Tucson and El Paso Sectors.
MEAWW interviewed DePaul, who shed light on the recent developments at the border and gave us an insight into the tough life of a border enforcement agent.
DePaul has a long-established career in federal law enforcement. As chief inspector/commander with the US Marshal Joint Fugitive Task Force, he oversaw investigators from over 90 federal, state and local agencies on fugitive cases including narcotics warrants, criminal aliens, gangs, and weapons violators.
DePaul spent five years in the Navy and another six with the United States Secret Service. Here's what he had to say on the burning issue.
What's the current situation at the border now with the migrants just outside the gates? Are they turning back?
Apparently, they are frustrated from what I understand. While we understand what exactly a good percentage of them are looking to do, we have to be well aware of the obvious criminal element. However, I believe the numbers are starting to decrease due to frustration. I feel bad for them, in a way.
President Donald Trump seems firm in his decision to not allow them in. What does the foreseeable future look like for these migrants?
Well, it comes down to the legal aspects of the whole situation. I always say no matter how high you build a wall or what you build it out of, people are going to come here. I mean, this is arguably the greatest country in the world and all kinds of people, good and bad, want to come here for obvious reasons. However, the ones that want to come here for asylum and what not; if they are having issues in their own country and they feel threatened, etc. I'd put them up in my house if they come here the right way. So, with respect to what the president is doing and what he's laying out, what his vision is, etc. is one thing. Nonetheless, law enforcement at the border will always have their hands full. Border agents have taken an oath to adhere to the rules and regulations and enforce the laws. Whether it's economic migrants or otherwise, if there are gang members or terrorists that feed off of what the harmless migrant is trying to achieve by coming into our country legally, it's sad and it hurts everybody. That said, it's tough for everybody - good and bad - on both sides of the wall.
How are the agents and security forces dealing with hostile migrants, especially after news of stone pelters and women and children being used as human shields?
The question and the answer both lie with the men and women that are at the border, doing what I call "God's work" every day. For the past few decades, I myself hunted down some of the most dangerous and violent felons and fugitives across the globe - be it terrorists, murderers, rapists - you know, the worst of the worst; I thought I had it bad, but these guys are wide open down there. They are confronted with many situations. "Deconfliction" is the keyword; you certainly don't want to escalate any issues, especially during a verbal confrontation. When human instincts turn into animal instincts, things happen. They are bound to pick up rocks and stones out of frustration and throw them at law enforcement authorities. I get the frustration, but they must understand it doesn't have to come down to that. Having said that, there are some wide-open questions to the ones on the other side: Why do they want to come here? What are they being told? Why are they exercising their "right" to be here? Nonetheless, border agents have a duty to deploy some sort of deterrent, whether it's tear gas or whatever. I mean, they don't want to do that obviously, but at the same time they don't want to get hit in the head with a giant boulder and end up in a hospital. So, it is a fine line, it really is. These agents are enforcing the law, taking a step back, grinning and bearing with what they've got to do, but they are certainly not going to put up with that type of violence.
How many migrants are we looking at currently and how many will possibly make it through? What will happen to those who are disallowed from entry?
You know, the problem is that they are coming in droves. The numbers are phenomenal and although they are decreasing in size, there's only so many that can be processed within a time frame. Manpower is a major issue at the ports of entries. There is talk about a possible government shutdown, but if that happens and they go into another CR (Continuing Resolution), you lose your contract helpers, you lose administration support, the non-essential personnel will be let go, and that's going to back things up enormously. With the court systems and what not, people are still making final decisions as to who should or shouldn't be in this country. So, it is a slow process, to begin with. We certainly don't want a government shutdown during the holidays: You got men and women who want to take vacations with their families. In a nutshell, it is a bad time in the year. A whole lot of people want to get in. Nonetheless, border agents are doing what they can despite being wide open. All I can say is that they are going a 100 miles an hour down there and doing the best they can with what they have. So, again, it's tough. It's tough on everybody.
Do you think the migrants' demand for a $50,000 compensation from the US government in order to turn back is reasonable?
I heard about that and respect the effort. But when you make that kind of a demand, you know you have a better chance of seeing God. I don't mean to sound crazy but it all comes down to their frustration level, desperation, and human instincts turning into animal instincts as I said earlier, and so they will try and do or say anything. Is it going to happen? I'm sure it's not. Is it reasonable? Hey, it's a number you throw out there and maybe they will negotiate and say "here, we'll give you this" to respond to that. [laughs] That said, I don't think it is a reasonable request.
How is the Mexican government reacting to the caravan in their country? Are they cooperating with the US government?
While I'm not hands-on at this point, I do have my finger on the pulse. You know, my agency, as well as my former agency, both have offices in Mexico City. We work well with our counterparts down there as far as extraditions and criminal proceedings are concerned. While I can't confirm or deny any of this, the new president of Mexico Andrés Manuel López Obrador is fairly cooperative with our administration. Mexico has always had migrants coming in from Central America trying to settle in the city, but it was more of a fluent, revolving door kind of situation. However, now they are just sitting down and not moving, thus making it a humanitarian issue. People are hungry and starving, there are health issues, and overall it's a huge burden on the country of Mexico.
How would you describe a day in the life of a border agent?
In today's world, especially during such a climate, it is an extremely difficult job. They're up against it and they know that. There's a big target on their back so they need to be careful with what they say or do. They also have to be wary of narcotics violators and gang members who want to eliminate the border agents down range one way or another. So, they are up against it all the way around, it's a 360-degree world for these folks and I feel for them. It's a tough job to begin with, but now with all these added challenges to their daily routines, it becomes even more testing. You know, we're talking about men and women that are working overtime, weekends, holidays, and then they have to run home and see their son play baseball or see their daughter's dance recital and then get back to work. They're ultimately human beings, they're your neighbors and friends, and you've got to put yourself in their shoes as well. They are up against it, it's a tough climate for them, and I tip my hat for each one of them. They know that they are in the spotlight, not individually, but if somebody messes up it becomes an agency issue and everybody talks about it. So, yeah, it's tough right now.
How is President Trump's "Catch and Detain" different from the erstwhile "Catch and Release" practice? Is it in effect?
I would say a little bit. The jails and courts are crowded and it's becoming increasingly difficult as far as the numbers go obviously. With the president speaking via social media about some form of deterrent, when it comes down to nuts and bolts of the operation, what the men and women and doing down range, what their bosses are requesting - you only have so much manpower, so much space, so much room in a jail cell when it comes to detaining people. Of course, there could be valid reasons to contain them in cases of criminal aliens, illegal re-entries, and things of that nature. I think the idle threats (maybe) coming from of the White House in terms of what they want to do now, shift gears, etc. is more of a "deterrent" factor if you will.
How are the women and children being accommodated? What are provisions in place for them?
Well, you're dealing with human beings on both sides of the wall. With border patrol agents, ICE, and homeland security investigators working together, they're not going to treat women and children the way it's being illustrated in the media. It's not happening I can tell that for sure. I talk to people down there all the time and we treat these migrants on a human level. When I was active on duty, hunting down fugitives and what not, you respect everybody until they turn their corner and then you've got to react accordingly. You know, there's medical treatment available, provisions in terms of water and food, etc. However, I think it's the waiting factor that's mostly in play after having to sit there for months to be processed and to them, it's worth it. So, God bless them all.
What I don't like is how the women and children are being extorted and exploited by other migrants, gang members, the gang rapes that are happening, the craziness that's going on. They are traveling thousands of miles and it's sad all the way around, it really is. From a human perspective, these agents empathize with the migrants and want to bring them home themselves. On the other hand, one has to consider the current mindset of these refugees - they're tired, they're not feeling well, with lack of provisions at the border, they're not healthy. They're trying to get away from their country to a better place in the USA. Law enforcement knows that it is tough and they are treating them accordingly.
What is your position on 'building the wall'? Would it be helpful in terms of border security or is it simply an expensive, futile exercise?
As far as building the wall is concerned, one has to consider the sections that are currently fortified. It is ultimately a deterrent factor, you push the wall in certain desolate areas and it makes illegal crossings more difficult. However, as I said earlier, no matter how high you build that wall or what you build it out of, law enforcement is always going to have their hands full. With the USA arguably being one of the greatest countries in the world, everybody wants to get here, good and bad. That said, with the comments coming down from the Oval Office, the conversations between the President and Democrats last week, it's a huge issue. I really hope they come to some sort of an agreement. If funding's available, we must build the wall in areas that need it and get it done. Border security is paramount and from a law enforcement perspective, these agents have taken an oath to protect the country and uphold the constitution. I always say if someone hands you a bag of m&m's and there's one candy that could kill you, you'd probably eat them all. So, as I said earlier, it's a tough job for law enforcement down range right now.
So, build the wall where you need to, where it's necessary, especially the sections where there's a huge influx of illegal aliens. But as of right now, the men and women wearing the badge are the only 'wall' we have.
President Trump is asking for $5 billion for building the wall. Is it an unreasonable amount?
Well, you're talking about the federal government. If their cheques bounce they probably print some more. So, one must consider if the dollar figure is the issue or if it's a political issue wherein what the constituents are asking for in everybody's district is of prime importance. When a law enforcement officer sits back and tries to gauge the politics behind it, they are left scratching their head, thinking, "Come on guys, let's get it done and stop talking about it. We've got a job to do." It really gets frustrating for active agents. However, personally, I don't think $5 billion is too much to ask for border security.
Looking at the migrants and their condition upon arrival at the border, do you think this caravan was funded by special interests or is it a sincere cry for help?
That's a great question and the jury is still out on that answer for me. It appeared as though there was some sort of financial help coming from somewhere at one point. The way they were reacting, what they were saying while being interviewed, it just seemed a little too obvious. But then again, conspiracy theorists are having a blast with that question. [laughs] So, I can't confirm whether it is accurate or not but you never know. I mean, if that's the case and it's true, it's a pretty sickening thing that's happening, considering you are dealing with human beings - young children, women, etc. It is difficult to imagine but people may have bought into some deal, traveled thousands of miles by foot, maybe got a bus ride, jumped on a train, all for what? To turn around and go home? I really hope that's not what's happening.
From a border enforcement perspective, what are the changes you would like the government to make in order to make the job easier?
Well, it's the almighty dollar, it's manpower, it's putting boots on the ground. The government can help border protection folks by sending the National Guard, you can support them with state and local help. But the most imperative factor is the manpower for border security forces to deal with the situation. You know, these folks are doing so much more with less. They're doing a great job and are going to get it done but the federal government needs to invest in manpower and state-of-the-art equipment. The funding is very important for bringing in state and local counterparts as budgets are depleting. Coming back to the politics behind it, if the government goes ahead and buys a BearCat for let's say x amount of dollars, they are criticized because they border forces look "too militarized". When you sit back, you kind of laugh at this stuff. I mean, it's better to have it and not need it than not having it when you need it; Also, why bring a knife to a gunfight? These folks that are not in my world, they don't understand that. Having said that, I can see how it may seem like an overkill, there's news of 50 agents hitting a house and bringing out just one person, and you hear it all the time. However, I have also been downrange and many a time the same person would have shot and killed two police officers.
Ultimately, I think it is a good conversation for somebody to have over Christmas dinner, but in the end, it's frustrating. Anyway, to answer your question, what we need here is manpower, state-of-the-art equipment and technology, aviation support, K9, night vision, thermal imaging, etc. These tools of the trade are extremely important for the folks at the border and they just don't have enough of it.
Border Live, an all-new six-part multiplatform series, will broadcast the third installment of its first season on Wednesday, December 19, airing 9-11 PM ET/PT on Discovery.