Ed Byers: Of Borders and Walls…



by Ed Byers | A United States Border Patrol Agent lost his life in the summer of 1997, near a dusty southern Arizona border town called Nogales. He was a naturalized U.S. citizen, an immigrant from the Ukraine who devoted, and lost, his life in service to his new country. Our country.

The shiny-faced new agent had not been out of the Border Patrol Academy for more than a year before fate gave him the ultimate test. He and his partner were trying to interdict a group of foot smugglers carrying marijuana. Using border law enforcement slang, “they jumped some mules hoofing mota through the bush.” The agent tried to arrest the suspects using accepted arrest techniques (“He tried to prone them out”) and his partner was coming to his aid to assist (“Going to give him back-up”). One suspect started to struggle (“He went squirrely”) and the agent attempted to gain a more secure posture (“Tried to cuff him”). One of the remaining suspects pulled a hidden firearm from under his shirt (“Another mope drew”) and discharged the weapon (“He popped a cap”). The agent was shot point blank in the head and died.

The individual parts to this tragedy happen so often on the southwestern border that slang exists to describe these incidents. Since the death of this Border Patrol Agent, more have been shot and killed. One was the first female agent killed wearing the green uniform of the U.S. Border Patrol. A dubious honor, at best.

Nogales and the surrounding areas would not seem like America to you. It’s hard to tell the difference between America and Mexico in those parts. Sometimes the international fence, where it is up, might give you a geographical clue. However, the manners, customs, and people are virtually interchangeable in the small towns on both sides of the border. Spanish is the primary language and English is a secondary type of communication. Cinco de Mayo is a far larger celebration than the Fourth of July.

Neither Nogales or Mexico is bad. Most of the people are hardworking, family-oriented, and friendly to a fault. The major problem is simply money. The very few decent paying jobs are quickly and permanently filled. Most Americans make more in two months than most Mexicans make in a year. Some border villages lack adequate water or sewer systems. Mexico is not too concerned about AIDS; more Mexicans die of simple dysentery in a day than Americans succumb to AIDS in the same time period.

Take Mexican poverty living so close to American prosperity and add well-funded international smuggling organizations. It does not take much insight to know what will happen. Top off the mixture with a liberal dose of arid mountainous desert and sprinkle in under-gunned law enforcement officers and agents. The mix then becomes explosive. Only by common sense and good grace do deaths not happen more frequently.

The desert is cold at night. Night time surveillance plays tricks with overworked eyes, making trees dance and shadows float. It is hard to see your best friend from six feet but trees glow absurdly in the moonlight fifty yards away Sound is amplified over great distances and the horrible sound of a stray gunshot is impossible to pinpoint until daylight. And daylight seems to take forever when you hope the gunshots will not happen again.
Can you imagine how a kid from Charlestown could perform in such an environment? Then try to imagine how hard it was for a Ukrainian immigrant to adjust to the same conditions. Coming from a former Communist country, he probably wanted to treat other immigrants with some measure of dignity. Good officers always do.

Senior Trooper Robert Dent of the Oregon State police said: “Law enforcement is where you get the test before you get the lesson.” The lessons of border law enforcement are plenty and always dynamic. The consequences of most tests in law enforcement are not so severe. You learn from your mistakes and try to not misjudge again. Here the test occurred before the lesson could be learned by this new agent. He did the best he could at the time, but it was not good enough to pass the test. No blame offered here, just an observation.

The lessons are learned every day by the officers and agents working worldwide in law enforcement. Unfortunately, a few of them will only take the test. Most officers will not take this final exam so early in their career. Their remaining friends will learn their fallen friend’s lesson and continue their duties – hopefully a little wiser and a lot more cautious.

Americans will read of their sacrifices and turn the page. Memorial services will try to offer closure to the living. But to a Ukrainian immigrant who gave it his all while trying to protect the borders of his adopted country, “Vaya con Dios, mi compadre.”

His name was Alexander Kirpnick and he worked for the Nogales District of the United States Border Patrol. Think about his lessons in courage, self-sacrifice, and patriotism the next time you debate border walls and immigration in Charlestown.

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