Border Patrol Museum visitors want to talk about politics, but the staff doesn’t

Robyn Ross

THE WASHINGTON POST – When Paulina Ambert’s cousins came to El Paso last September, her father suggested they visit the Border Patrol Museum.

On a warm Saturday, Ambert, then a college senior, and her relatives drove the short distance from her parents’ home to a blocky one-storey building near the foothills of the Franklin Mountains.

Together, they explored the 6,000-square-foot display area, a single high-ceilinged room where staff said most guests spend less than an hour.

After wandering past retired equipment like a sea foam green 1985 Pontiac Firebird used to chase smugglers in Arizona, they studied archival photographs and text panels about the agency’s history.

That history, Ambert later said, struck her as “a little glorified” – partly because, as a naturalised United States (US) citizen who was born in Mexico, she had grown up in a community with a more critical perspective toward US immigration officials.

Seized weapon on exhibit. PHOTOS: THE WASHINGTON POST
ABOVE & BELOW: Visitor Martin Greene of Tucson takes a photo inside the museum; and founded in 1985 by the Fraternal Order of Retired Border Patrol Officers, the Border Patrol Museum in El Paso receives about 18,000 visitors annually

In recent months she’d been dismayed to observe the addition of troops and concertina wire to the international crossing when she returned to El Paso from visiting family or the doctor in Juarez.

“I don’t agree with how militarised the border is,” she said.

“I respect the job that the Border Patrol does, but I also think it’s important to have a conversation about it from both sides.”

As the flood of Central American migrants and the Trump administration’s response have intensified scrutiny of the Border Patrol, the museum has attracted visitors who want to talk about current events. Yet despite its location 10 miles from the Rio Grande, the museum avoids engaging its audience in a dialogue about immigration or border security. And that is by design.

Although it has no formal relationship with the Border Patrol, the museum was founded in 1985 by the Fraternal Order of Retired Border Patrol Officers, whose members compose its board of trustees. Accordingly, the attraction presents agency history from an internal perspective. There are even recruiting materials near the door.

Museum director David Ham said the history exhibits are meant to be purely factual and that the staff steers clear of political conversations – such as about the border wall – with the roughly 18,000 annual visitors. (The fraternal order doesn’t have a formal policy about whether museum staff can talk about politics with visitors, but it does have policies for its own website, which asks that posters keep remarks nonpolitical.)

“We get political questions all the time, but our parent organisation is a fraternal organisation, and they don’t discuss politics,” Ham said. “We present our history, but what the current strategies are – we have no control over that.”

Ham retired from a three-decade Border Patrol career in 2003 and served on the museum’s local board of governors before becoming director in 2015. A self-described history geek, he compiled most of the text for an exhibit about the agency’s development. That story starts in the early 1900s with mounted guards who enforced immigration restrictions such as the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882.

The Border Patrol was established in 1924, during Prohibition, and often clashed with liquor smugglers.

In the mid-20th Century, the agency’s focus shifted to apprehending people who crossed the US-Mexico border illegally in search of work. One panel explains a 1950s mass deportation of unauthorised workers called ‘Operation Wetback’. (The phrase is “part of our history, but we don’t use it anymore,” Ham said, adding that it is no longer acceptable.) Later, as drug trafficking increased, agents again worked to stop smugglers. A single display covering the period since the agency became part of the Department of Homeland Security in 2003 includes photos of agents surveying terrain and of US President Donald Trump’s April 2019 visit to a Border Patrol station in Calexico, California.

Another exhibit features a homemade boat, made from two truck hoods welded together. A sign explains that smugglers used it to ferry people across the Rio Grande near Laredo for USD500 a person. A visitor named Roger from Silver Spring, Maryland, described the boat as “a combination of ingenuity and cruelty” because of the price smugglers charged. “It’s inhumane what’s happening,” he said, choking up. “They take advantage of these poor people.” Roger also took issue with the nine-minute Border Patrol-produced film he had watched at the museum.

“What it told was the Border Patrol side of the story, and it didn’t touch at all on the issues that we’re facing today with illegal immigrants, refugees, etc,” he said.

Some immigration activists have argued that the museum is making a political statement by offering a selective presentation of history. In February 2019, a group called Tornillo: The Occupation (now referred to as the Tornillo Coalition) included the museum in a weekend of protests that also targetted a detention facility for migrant children. Some participants placed stickers bearing the likenesses of children who died in Border Patrol custody over museum displays, including photos of agents killed in the line of duty.

“The Border Patrol Museum tries to say that it’s not political, but it is very political in terms of its language and in terms of how people who are immigrants are being portrayed,” organiser Elizabeth Vega said.

Over the past decade, more museums have begun to tackle thorny issues, such as race, immigration and climate change, said Director of Methodology and Practice for the International Coalition of Sites of Conscience Dina Bailey, which helps museums and historical sites tell more-inclusive histories and foster dialogue andA reflection among visitors.

“People are trying to make connections to what’s happening in their lives today,” she said. Organisations need to figure out “how to be comfortable talking about contemporary issues, even if we don’t have all of the answers”. Ham said he does plan to update the “2003 to Present” exhibit. “The wall and influx of what I call OTMs (other than Mexicans) over the past year or two all needs to be addressed, because that’s part of our history now,” he said. But he’s still skeptical about engaging visitors in discussions about present-day issues.

“We’re going to show what is currently going on, but we’re not going to comment on the right or wrong of it,” he said. “You can make up your own mind.”