Conflict & Justice

Patroling the border with Mexico

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Tijuana crossing (Photo: Ruxandra Guidi)

By Ruxandra Guidi

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Tijuana crossing (Photo: Ruxandra Guidi)
Angelica De Cima has been a Customs and Border Protection agent in San Diego for 12 years. As a CBP agent, De Cima was trained in behavior analysis, interviewing techniques, shooting a firearm, immigration and customs law. She started working here at the San Ysidro border crossing before the attacks of September 11, 2001; back then, border and immigration enforcement was a much smaller undertaking.

This port of entry is the busiest in the United States. There are 24 lanes at this crossing. Every day, officers stationed here see up to 40,000 vehicles and inspect close to 90,000 people. De Cima said she spends about half her day inspecting people as they come into the country.

On this day, De Cima zigzags on foot through the traffic arriving from Tijuana. It's 11 a.m., no longer rush hour, but the rows of cars extend as far as the eye can see.

Suddenly, another agent calls out "915"; that's code for human smuggling. De Cima rushes past the booths to see if the agents handling the smuggler need backup.

"They got people in the trunk on this one," De Cima said.

They take the driver out and handcuff him. Then the officers move the beige Honda Accord to an area right under the pedestrian bridge, where they handle drug and human smuggling cases.

"We have four adults in the trunk of this Honda Accord," De Cima said, "two males and two females. We'll give them water, we'll make sure they're okay." If not, they'll call for medical help.

The four Mexicans get out of the trunk, covered in sweat. They're visibly upset; they look like they might cry, but otherwise they seem to be fine. The four, who are shoeless, sit next to each other on the curb, staring at the ground until the Honda is fully checked.

"You see this everyday," said De Cima, "people trying to come into the country hidden in the trunks."

Sometimes they are found hidden deeper in the vehicles, in specially built compartments. "We call them coffin compartments," she said. "People can't get out of them."

Later, the four men and women will be processed and charged, and then sent back to Tijuana. The driver will likely face a human smuggling charge in the US.

De Cima said the work is tiring and challenging, but never boring. "You never know what you're going to run into. You could run into a person who is armed and dangerous; you could find somebody, a missing person or child who was kidnapped."

De Cima said she loves her job.

"I do it with a sense of pride for my country," she said, "and it's not against anybody. I have family in Mexico, I love the Mexican culture – so that doesn't take away from the job I do everyday to secure this nation."

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