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Border Patrol re-energized about mission
Guarding the Mexico frontier has always been challenging, but now it's also a high-profile task, writes the Tribune's Michael Martinez

By Michael Martinez, Tribune national correspondent, recently along the U.S. border with Mexico

June 7, 2006

BROWNSVILLE, Texas -- Border Patrol agent Vanessa McKeon had once wanted to be just like Agent Clarice Starling of "The Silence of the Lambs."

It was the FBI that seemed the dream job for the daughter of a Missouri Highway Patrolman who convinced her that life as a G-man, or G-woman, was the way to go. Good pay. Better benefits. Some travel.

It was the undisputed No. 1 federal law agency in staffing back then.

But, in 1998, she settled for Border Patrol agent.

How times change.

With immigration reform and security of the U.S.-Mexico border emerging as among the most impassioned--and divisive--of domestic issues, McKeon and her co-workers in green uniforms are poised to possibly surpass the FBI as the largest force of federal law agents in the land.

When President Bush pledged last month to send National Guardsmen to the border, he threw some clout behind the Border Patrol's long-term plan to grow to 18,000 agents by 2008, from 11,466 agents as of April 29.

There were 12,556 FBI agents as of May 31, a spokesman said.

The 6,000 National Guardsmen dispatched by the president, according to plans, would eventually be relieved by 6,000 new Border Patrol agents hired over the next two years, patrol spokesman Todd Fraser said. It's up to Congress, however, to fund such hiring, he said.

Here on the border, such a possible turn of events makes agents like McKeon, 34, feel energized about their agency's growing stature, she said. Her husband is also a Border Patrol agent.

"You feel you're making a difference," McKeon said as she escorted a reporter and a photographer during a recent ride along the banks of the Rio Grande.

In discussing staff levels, an FBI spokesman points out that their work is far more wide-ranging than the Border Patrol's and even encompasses agents in 60 U.S. Embassies.

"From the standpoint of the variety and type of jurisdictions that the FBI has, we certainly have the most violations [under investigation] of any U.S. government agency, from violent crime to white-collar crime to counterterrorism to counterintelligence," FBI spokesman Bill Carter said.

For the most part, the work of a Border Patrol agent is considerably grittier, McKeon says, adding, "There's some burnout."

Different parts of the border offer different hazards to agents and illegal immigrants alike.

Arizona has scorching 120-degree heat in high desert mountains.

In Texas, the Rio Grande is the deadly hurdle. It can be a deceptive killer, its seemingly still surface belying a swift current that often drowns illegal immigrants.

McKeon says she would think twice about jumping into the river if an immigrant were drowning.

"Am I going in and get possibly pulled down?" McKeon says. "You see how much equipment I have," pointing to her service revolver and other gear on her belt.

But if an agent were sinking near the Los Fresnos pumping station, where she pointed to how rapids stirred a violent river, she wouldn't hesitate to dive in, she says.

It's steam-bath time of the year along this part of the Gulf Coast, signaling a new hurricane season. Lightning rips the evening sky, and daytime showers are common.

McKeon is driving an SUV in mud along the spine of a Rio Grande levee. From fields to forests, she can point out all the perils of patrol, always right outside the car.

Those perils are exacerbated in the middle of the night, when migrants often employ the cloak of darkness for entry. Stadium-strength lighting along the riverbanks reduces that advantage, along with cameras and seismic sensors.

And there are nearby mesquite groves, where any foray yields ticks all over the body. The fields of sorghum, sugar cane, corn and watermelon have pesticides that can leave your skin itching.

A modest woods begins a quarter-mile from the river. "As soon as they hit those trees, they're as good as gone, it's so dense," she says. "To some extent, it's [like] human hunters," McKeon says of her working life.

She's unhappy about how the 10-foot carrizo bamboo along the banks shields illegal immigrants who come from as many as 60 countries to cross this Rio Grande Valley sector of the border. The carrizo can't be mowed because it's habitat for ocelots and other animals.

"Who would ever think environmentalists would get involved in how the Border Patrol operates?"