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The San Diego Union-Tribune: She Used to Be an Agent. Now She Is One of Border Patrol's Loudest Critics.
Written by <a href="index.php?option=com_comprofiler&task=userProfile&user=58457"><span class="small">Kristina Davis, The San Diego Union-Tribune</span></a>   
Friday, 26 February 2021 09:14

Davis writes: "Jenn Budd uses her experience to advocate for migrant rights and call for accountability on border."

Jenn Budd, a former Border Patrol agent, is now a critical voice against the agency and an advocate for migrant rights. (photo: Nancee E. Lewis/San Diego Union-Tribune)
Jenn Budd, a former Border Patrol agent, is now a critical voice against the agency and an advocate for migrant rights. (photo: Nancee E. Lewis/San Diego Union-Tribune)

The San Diego Union-Tribune: She Used to Be an Agent. Now She Is One of Border Patrol's Loudest Critics.

By Kristina Davis, The San Diego Union-Tribune

26 February 21


he migrant girl was around 6 years old, dehydrated, fluish and despondent. Her head looked too big for her body — a sign of malnutrition — and she had lice in her hair.

The girl had spent two weeks outdoors held at the sunbaked Border Patrol detention center in El Paso with her asylum-seeking family before being brought to a migrant shelter in San Diego. That’s where Jenn Budd found her in the summer of 2018, and she needed serious medical intervention.

It was Budd’s first time as a volunteer at the shelter. Still, another volunteer commented, “You’re probably used to seeing this.”

As a former Border Patrol agent, Budd had witnessed first-hand the cruelties of both the border and the agency. She says she was also a victim of them, raped in the academy, harassed on the job, and in fear for her safety when she quit after six years in 2001.

Even then, she was astonished by the girl’s condition — and that it occurred under the Border Patrol’s watch.

“I’ve never seen anything like this,” Budd responded before rushing the girl to the hospital in the back of her car.

There would be more trips to local hospitals over the next several months, as Budd slowly shed everything she’d been taught as an agent and embraced a new role as an immigrant activist.

Since then, Budd, 49, has become one of Border Patrol’s sharpest public critics, using her personal experience and insider expertise to call out an agency plagued by allegations of misogyny, xenophobia, corruption and human rights abuses.

Her acerbic commentary has generated a Twitter following of more than 27,000, and she is frequently quoted in national media as an expert on Border Patrol’s culture problem — a problem that persisted long before it was reinvigorated under the Trump administration.

The Border Patrol disputes her characterizations of unaddressed corruption and abuse.

“As public servants, the Border Patrol holds itself to the highest ethical standards,” a spokesperson for Customs and Border Protection, the umbrella agency over Border Patrol, said in a statement. “Allegations of abuse and corruption are taken very seriously as the slightest hint erodes public confidence and subverts the Border Patrol’s ability to effectively accomplish its mission.”

Some of Budd’s critics dismiss her as a disgruntled former agent living in the past. But her commitment to activism, vulnerability and candid acknowledgement of her own complicity in a broken immigration system have set her apart.

After four years of former President Donald Trump unshackling the Border Patrol, her outspokenness is likely to resonate with a new administration that is under pressure to rein in the agency and root out any indications of a toxic culture.

“The story of Jenn Budd is the story of redemption,” said Hiram Soto, who took Budd under his wing as the then-communications director at Alliance San Diego, a nonprofit that advocates for immigrant rights.

“It’s really the story of the United States in the moment we are going through now,” he said, “recognizing the cruelty and racism and violence that Border Patrol has inflicted on so many people, and how you can come to turn the page on that and actually find other ways to manage immigration and treat people.”

Escape to the unknown

The border was never something Budd thought about growing up White in Alabama.

But by the time she’d graduated from Auburn University with a pre-law degree, the thought of going to law school was unbearable. It would mean racking up more debt, and the lawyers she knew didn’t make much money. She’d also have to stick close to home, within the grasp of her abusive, alcoholic mother.

The Border Patrol — what little she knew of it — offered an escape.

“They told me people were bringing drugs across the border, that it was about protecting America,” she recalled. “The idea of riding ATVs and horses — I pictured in my mind kind of like a cowboy thing.”

Budd signed her employment papers two days before her 24th birthday and headed to the academy in Georgia for four months.

She was already expecting a hyper-masculine environment. She says what she found was worse: a program hostile to women recruits.

Male classmates were told by instructors to view their female counterparts as not up to the job physically or mentally, Budd said. They were told that the few women who managed to graduate did so by exchanging sexual favors — or by accusing instructors or fellow trainees of rape, she said.

Budd’s narrative would be no exception.

Budd had tried to come out as gay when she was 19, but her mother told her it would embarrass the family. She continued to hide that part of herself in the academy.

One night, a classmate insisted on walking Budd home to her townhouse. There, he raped her and punched her in the face as she tried to fight back, she said.

Budd was scared to report the attack, but she told her instructors about it a few days later when she was forced to spar in training with the classmate who’d assaulted her. They told her to file a complaint with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission if she had a problem, she said.

She had heard what happened to women who had filed similar complaints — they were failed out of the academy, she said. Budd did not file the complaint.

Weeks later she failed her physical training run by one second, she said. The rules allowed for one more try. “I made sure I smoked the hell out of it,” she said of her second attempt.

She said she later learned from her Spanish instructor that the academy leadership had ordered him to fail her; he’d refused.

She was one of two women to graduate in her class.

It will be different in the field, she told herself.

On the line

Operation Gatekeeper was in full swing by the end of 1995, when Budd arrived as a rookie agent at the Campo station.

Launched a year earlier, the strategy poured resources and manpower into the San Diego Sector, the nation’s hotspot for illegal border crossings at the time.

The initial focus was on controlling the urban San Diego-Tijuana corridor, which in turn drove many migrants east, into the mountains of Campo.

“Working any shift in Campo was constant hiking, running, tracking all night,” she said.

Budd — at one point the only woman working patrol at the station — carried the extra pressure of proving herself to her male colleagues as she learned how to apprehend migrants and seize drug loads making their way through one of the state’s most rugged border corridors. She faced harassment instead, she said.

She’d find used condoms in her mail drawer, panties hanging from video cameras in the processing area, and even a live rattlesnake placed in the cab of her patrol truck, she said.

But mostly, she was ignored.

“I just wouldn’t get any backup,” she said.

She filed an EEOC complaint against two fellow agents, alleging they had spread rumors that she was sexually involved with a male supervisor. Others corroborated the claim, and the investigation concluded that it appeared one of the agents may have engaged in an effort to damage Budd’s professional reputation. But the actions weren’t found to be discriminatory, according to the records.

Other women have complained about sexual harassment in the agency, including a trainee in the academy class after Budd’s who said she was pushed down on a bed and groped by a male classmate. The alleged attacker, who denied the incident, said the woman brought the complaint because she was having problems with physical training, while an instructor blamed the complaint on the woman’s “immaturity” in relating to men in her class, according to EEOC records.

The EEOC complaint was ultimately sustained on appeal, with the agency found liable for harassment.

Another woman reported being raped by an instructor and male peers at a graduation party, according to a report by Newsweek.

When asked about Budd’s assertions of widespread of abuse and corruption, a CBP spokesperson described a multilayered approach to rooting out such issues.

The agency said all reports of misconduct are coordinated with the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Inspector General and referred to the appropriate office for investigation or action, while the Office of Professional Integrity works “to identify and counter threats to CBP’s culture of integrity and security.” All agents are also required to take annual integrity training, the spokesperson said.

The Border Patrol has struggled to recruit and keep female agents. When Budd joined in 1995, women made up about 5 percent of the force. The ratio has been stuck there ever since.

James Wong, a retired deputy assistant commissioner for CBP’s Office of Internal Affairs, said the Border Patrol’s culture problem was evident when he was overseeing investigations and vetting new applicants. The agency was plagued by cronyism, which often didn’t bode well for women deemed outsiders, he said.

“It is a male-dominated organization. They call themselves the Mean Green Machine,” Wong, who spent part of his career in San Diego and retired in 2001, said from his home in Louisiana.

“They didn’t welcome new ideas,” he added. “You were either a reflection of the group of people who hired you, or you didn’t get hired, or you didn’t get promoted.”

A renewed effort to recruit more women has continued with “The Fearless Five” campaign, developed with the Border Patrol’s Taskforce for Women “to honor the purpose, pride, and passion that women in our ranks have for the difficult mission we execute every day,” the CBP spokesperson said.

A video launching the campaign compares the 5 percent of women in the agency to diamonds created under intense heat and pressure.

Faltering mission

Looking back, Budd says the walls that she had developed to cope with an abusive childhood were helping her survive on the job.

She said she tried to ignore other corruption she saw — agents with ties to drug traffickers, superiors convincing agents’ girlfriends and wives not to report domestic violence incidents. She focused on her own apprehensions and seizures. But that became unfulfilling, as she slowly began to see cracks in the border security narrative that had been drilled into her.

One night, she tracked a large group of migrants north of Tecate, across state Route 94 and up a rocky slope that descended into a treacherous crevasse.

“If you go down there you’re going to die,” she shouted. “Let me give you a ride back to Mexico. You can try again tomorrow.”

They finally acquiesced.

She settled in with the group to wait for backup. She lit a cigarette while many of the migrants ate quietly.

Budd asked why they were crossing. “Have you ever been to Mexico?” a man responded in English. “Don’t you think you need to know something about the people you’re arresting?”

Budd was defensive: “You committed a crime,” she said.

“We committed the crime of crossing an arbitrary line to find work,” he said.

The migrant, who told her he had a law degree from Mexico, kept pushing.

“He asked me if we hunt down Canadians. It made me start to think about what I did for a living,” Budd remembered.

“I had to admit to him it was racist; we didn’t treat White people like this.”

Before the man was taken away, he put a hand on Budd’s uniformed shoulder and challenged her: “You know better than this. Think about what you’re doing,” he said.

“OK, OK,” she shrugged, “Get back in the van.”

But Budd was rattled.

“I never forgot about that guy.”

By the late ‘90s, Operation Gatekeeper was pushing migrants farther east into even harsher environments. She saw the effects firsthand during a temporary detail in Indio. People died of heatstroke and dehydration in the desert, or lost limbs while hitching rides on trains.

“It was miserable out there, so much death,” Budd said. “We spent our off-duty nights getting drunk constantly, not realizing it was being caused by the trauma.”

Her misgivings were getting stronger. She had joined the Border Patrol to catch smugglers, seize drugs and help people. Instead, she was spending most of her time apprehending migrant farm workers.

“We’re just the labor police,” she concluded at one point. “What’s the worst thing undocumented people are doing? Bending over 12 hours a day picking strawberries to get paid almost nothing? That’s just not what I got a degree in.”

Budd, who eventually advanced to a senior agent position, was finding it harder to stay in in the field.

She transferred to the intelligence unit. “I’m thinking the higher up I get, then I can do good, go after the drug dealers and smugglers. It turned out to be just as corrupt.”

Blowing the whistle

Budd had heard rumors that a high-ranking agent was aiding in the smuggling of drugs. Her own growing suspicions — bolstered by intelligence from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration — led her to quietly launch her own investigation, she said.

Her boss did not act on her findings, she said.

She was told she had misunderstood some things and was offered a management position at sector headquarters that would keep her safe. She declined.

When she got home that evening, she was notified that she’d have to pull a patrol shift in Campo that night, sitting in a truck outfitted with a high-powered scope camera pointed toward the border fence.

About 3 a.m., she was startled by the explosive sound of automatic gunfire ricocheting off the rocks next to her. The flashes were coming from Mexico.

She sped away in reverse, calling on the radio for backup. Nobody responded.

She soon saw headlights coming toward her. It was the same official she’d been investigating.

“He says, ‘I heard that you were calling for help. You’re getting shot at and nobody is responding to you. I thought I’d come out and see if you are OK,’” she recalled.

After a moment of silence, he added: “Have you learned your lesson?”

Budd didn’t answer and drove off. She went to the station, threw her keys on the supervisor’s desk and announced her plans to quit.

She went home and got her girlfriend, now her wife, out of bed. “I don’t even believe in what we do anymore,” she told her. “I’m going to die out there and nobody’s going to care.”


Budd tried to shed the last six years of law enforcement by reinventing herself as a custom woodworker, building furniture at her girlfriend’s woodworking shop. But she was unraveling inside.

“I felt like everything I’d worked so hard for was just thrown away,” she said.

In 2015, she attempted suicide in the woodworking shop. She was saved when her wife found her, but her hands were permanently damaged in the attempt. She is on disability, the chronic pain, lack of mobility and numbness preventing her from using her hands to drive, type or do much else for prolonged stretches.

To heal the rest of her, the walls she’d built would have to come down.

At the same time, presidential candidate Trump was talking about building walls.

His outsized focus on the securing the southwest border understandably buoyed morale among Border Patrol ranks. A Trump administration would significantly raise their influence, and in some ways embolden a troubled culture.

Budd, deep into therapy and blogging about her own experiences as an agent, was watching closely.

It was easy for her to condemn the anti-immigration policies she was seeing unfold — the detention of asylum-seekers in overflowing Border Patrol facilities, the separation of families, the “Remain in Mexico” program. It was more challenging to admit her own role in the same system.

Her transition into the world of advocacy was not immediate. She first had to listen to experiences of the same migrants she would have apprehended. And she had to earn the trust of immigrant rights activists in San Diego, many of them Latinos who’d dedicated their lives to the cause and had their own traumatic pasts with Border Patrol.

“She was scared other people would judge her,” said Soto, who met Budd through his work at Alliance San Diego.

Soto knew one of the most powerful things Budd had to offer was her personal story. He got her writing seriously.

Budd’s “Open letter from an ex-Border Patrol agent,” posted by the Southern Border Communities Coalition, spoke directly to the current ranks. She eviscerated Operation Gatekeeper on the 25th anniversary. When investigative news outlet ProPublica broke news of the “I’m 10-15" private Facebook group to which thousands of current and former Border Patrol members belonged, she wrote that she wasn’t in the least bit surprised at its crude, misogynist posts.

Several former and current agents have reached out to her in solidarity, most of them privately, she said. Others have pushed back.

“She’s an idiot and probably didn’t do much work in the field,” Art Del Cueto, a Border Patrol union official, said in 2019 on “The Green Line,” a podcast produced by the union. He went on to list a number of female agents he admired, adding: “I don’t want female Border Patrol agents to be judged on what this moron has said.”

Andrea Guerrero, Alliance San Diego’s executive director, describes Budd as “a very extraordinary, unique person.”

“She’s done really hard work to recognize her role in a troubled past that she was also a victim of, and I wish there were more agents like her who had courage to come forward, had courage to question what they’re asked to do, and had the conviction to do something about it,” Guerrero said.

At times, Budd would find herself slipping into the same thought patterns or hard exterior of an agent. Once, when she volunteered at the migrant shelter in San Diego, she had to be reminded to smile at the group of migrants standing in front of her.

She was still holding onto a part of her past.

One day, she dug out her leather Border Patrol jacket, her commemorative badge and cowboy hat, and turned them over to Soto.

“I don’t need to hang onto this anymore,” she told him. your social media marketing partner