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Family Separation Is Not New — The Scale Of It Is, Border Patrol Veteran Says


We're going to start the program again with the issue of immigration, especially the issue of how families are treated when they attempt to cross the border without authorization. By now, you've probably seen some of the images of children being held in detention centers after being separated from their parents under President Trump's new zero-tolerance policy. Americans across the political spectrum are reacting strongly to this - even some of the president's customary allies. We're going to get a variety of perspectives today, including from a couple who are raising money to provide legal assistance to parents who've been detained. They hoped to get $1,500, but they've raised millions.

But we're going to start with a perspective you might not have heard, and that is of a longtime Border Patrol agent, Terence Shigg. We met him last year at a live town hall-type event that we hosted in San Diego. He's a 22-year veteran of the Border Patrol and a spokesman for the Border Patrol agents' union in San Diego.

Agent Terence Shigg, thanks so much for speaking with us once again.

TERENCE SHIGG: And thank you for having me.

MARTIN: So I take it you have a problem with the way you see this issue unfolding in the media. What have you been hearing or seeing that you think is wrong or inaccurate?

SHIGG: A lot of the things that we think are wrong or inaccurate are just the way that it's being portrayed in the media as a new event. This is something that my 22-year career has been going on throughout that whole time. And then just the lack of information as to how we got here and what these conditions came from - that - those are the troubling parts to me. And then the - just the language that is being used to describe the agents that are charged with enforcing the laws. Those are the three main things that really disturbed me.

MARTIN: Well, give me some more detail. I mean, first of all, you're saying this is nothing new. You're saying that nothing's changed under the Trump administration? Because we're told that, in fact, the scale has changed quite a bit.

SHIGG: So when I say nothing's changed, I mean the process hasn't changed. As far as separating families - that's not the new portion of it. The new portion of it is, like you said, the scale of it. Yes, the numbers of families being separated has increased, but the amounts of unaccompanied minors has not increased. That's actually lower than it was in 2014.

MARTIN: You were saying people should educate themselves about how we got to this situation. What do you mean by that?

SHIGG: Well, I was referring - and I'm referring to the fact that we've had this going on for a while. But, back in 2014, when we had the big influx of unaccompanied minors - and the Border Patrol - usually, we're set up for incarcerating those that we encounter because when we encounter someone, we're arresting them. So we only had jail cells. So we were putting unaccompanied minors into pretty much jails.

And it was our agents that went to the command staff and went to the public and said, OK, hey, we need to do something different. We don't want to be housing the minors in cells. So the decision was made - OK, let's try to find a secure way of holding them that is not so harsh. So that's where the fencing came in - so that it was more open, so that it wasn't the concrete blocks with cement floors and wool blankets.

The reason they have those - what they call space blankets now - it's because the wool blankets - there was a lot of scabies and lice, ticks. I mean, and those things are common if you're traversing cross-country for, you know, 30, 60 days, that makes sense. So that's why they went away from the wool blankets to those type of space blankets that they can be disposed of. And it cuts down on the likelihood of those types of things spreading.

So that's just one of the things - I just don't think people think about them. They see these pictures, and they think that's where we started. No, we've kind of evolved to here. And we're OK with evolving to something else, but recognize that the intention was to make this less restrictive and a better situation than it was, which was concrete blocks and concrete beds so that it's not such a harsh environment.

MARTIN: You also feel that the agents have been sort of portrayed as - what? - unsympathetic, as inhumane...

SHIGG: Right.

MARTIN: ...And you feel that that's not correct in your view.

SHIGG: No. I mean, the agents have been vilified in all of this. And, to me, that's not correct because throughout my career, as I say again, and working in different places going back to 2014, the agents were the ones who would bring diapers and food and water and bake cakes for the kids that were in our custody before the public was in this uproar about it. We were the ones that were caring for them - bringing bottled water and bottled milk to these kids. So before any of this was a, quote, unquote, "big deal" for the public, we were the ones that were going into our own pockets and taking care of the kids then - as we do now as humanely and as safely as we can.

MARTIN: So this week, the president announced a change, a reversal of sorts. There was an executive order that is meant to keep families together, a reversal of - you know, many people say it wasn't necessary, but he signed it. Is it clear to you how it's supposed to work? I mean, for example, there's this judicial ruling that bars children from being held in adult detention facilities for an extended amount of time. Have you gotten any new guidance on how this should work since this order was signed?

SHIGG: For us, it will allow the families to stay together and be together throughout the process. Now, the question is - and it's going to have to be decided in the courts - is whether or not that can be longer than 20 days. Because that's what that decision said is that you can't hold minors in our detention facilities longer than 20 days. And, sometimes, that process takes longer than 20 days. So no one is quite clear on what will happen then. Will the family unit be released, or will they just continue to hold the entire family unit beyond that 20 days? So that we haven't gotten any clear guidance on, and I think they're waiting on that to be decided in the court.

MARTIN: How is morale among the agents working the border? What have you been hearing?

SHIGG: That they're frustrated. And, again, we're used to being the bad guys. We're used to being vilified, but not to this extent. We're not used to our families being threatened. We're not used to our information being put out there in the public. I know I've personally gotten direct messages from people telling me that I'm going to hell because I'm supporting this immoral child abuse policy. We've had everything from being called similar to the Nazis - we're running concentration camps, what we're doing is immoral, and we should not follow these orders. So all those types of things are what our agents are being hit with.

MARTIN: OK. So let me ask you, though, what do you say to people who say to you you shouldn't be participating in it? What do you say?

SHIGG: Then I would challenge them with the fact that we are taking in people that have risked rape, robbery, assault, murder, have spent their life savings and given it to a criminal cartel to get them to the United States. They've already gone through that. We've taken them, we've put them into a shelter. We've given them food. We've given them clothing. We've put them in a climate-controlled environment. And we are protecting them. And then we are processing them in a humanely and as expeditiously as possible. And I would challenge them to explain to me how that is immoral.

MARTIN: That's Terence Shigg. He's a longtime Border Patrol agent, a veteran of 20-plus years. He's also a spokesperson for the union of Border Patrol agents in San Diego. He was nice enough to talk to us from his home. Agent Shigg, we appreciate you very much. Thank you so much for speaking to us.

SHIGG: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.