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In Rare Interview, Border Patrol Agent Describes Conditions Inside A Facility For Migrant Children To ProPublica

MARK BRODIE: The U.S. Border Patrol has recently come under fire for  holding children in subpar conditions and for the revelation of racist social media posts. But it's rare to hear an inside account of agents work and why they continue to do it. One agent did speak up though. The unnamed agent  spoke with ProPublica's, Ginger Thompson, about what it's like to do his job today and how disturbing conditions were allowed to become the norm. Thompson joins me to talk more about her conversations with the agent. And, Ginger, why did he decide to speak out?

GINGER THOMPSON: I think because the agent was feeling a bit confused, maybe conflicted about his experiences in McAllen. And, I think that feeling began mostly in the later weeks of his time there and I caught him probably in the middle of those feelings and of an attempt to try to sort them out. And when I reached him, he had even written down some of his feelings in a bit of a journal entry. And so, I honestly think I... just happened to catch him at the right time.

BRODIE: When you talk about being conflicted, it was interesting because as you write about, he talked about, relating his own family to what he was seeing at this facility and McAllen.

THOMPSON: Well, I can't say... he related his own family, but certainly his own family flashed through his mind during his time there. You know, his own child flashed through his mind and I'm not sure; there was a time and experience that he told me about when he first got there and he saw all these small children in the facility in kind of a caged area in the facility. They were all sitting on the ground and they weren't doing anything. Their eyes were sort of blank. Their faces were blank and he sort of thought to himself, he said, you know my kid would have been running laps around this place. Because it's just, at two they're bundles of energy... and these children, who were his children, who were his child's age, were just listless… and that really struck him.

BRODIE: There's been so much talk about the conditions of these facilities and one of the more interesting comparisons, I think, that he made and you made in the piece was, whether or not like, what to compare these facilities to. We've obviously heard talk of them being like concentration camps and... he kind of rejected that analysis. I'm interested in what specifically he described these to.

THOMPSON: Well, so in his conversation with me, I raised the term concentration camp and said, you know, they've been, there some political leaders who compare these facilities to concentration camps. And he sort of stopped and, as he did through most of our conversations, he stopped to think a second. And he began to think out loud and he is like, well I'm not sure I think that's right. He goes, you know, maybe gulag but that feels a little too strong. And then he goes, jail that doesn't quite seem to cover at all. And so, we came up with this kind of military comparison, where he described how in the military, you know, in an interrogations, there's an attempt to get people to talk and they use sleep deprivation and then the next military guys come into the facility and sleep deprivation becomes kind of normal, so they ramp things up a little. And the next guys ramp things up a little more. Until, you finally have kind of a full blown torture situation going on. And what he was saying to me was, that at some point certain kinds of conditions became normal and then they got worse and became normal and then they got worse and became normal. And he said, suddenly the conditions in these facilities felt normal to people, even to the people he said who could fix things.

BRODIE: Did he have any expectation that by speaking out, that might change something?

THOMPSON: I don't think so. No, I don't think that was why he spoke out at all. I think he spoke out because he felt that there was a different reality that needed to be aired. A reality that was different than the one that he was hearing either from the conservatives or progressives on this issue.

BRODIE: What did he make of the political dialogue about this issue? Especially, relative to as he described to you, what he sees on a daily basis and the conditions in which he's working and in which these kids are living.

THOMPSON: Well, you know it's interesting, I spoke to him on the weekend the vice president had visited McAllen. And the vice president, the vice president's visit followed a visit by a team of lawyers and doctors who had gone into these facilities and who were so appalled by what they saw. They spoke out publicly about these conditions and the vice president went in there last weekend and the vice president said that what he saw made clear that the attorney's assertions were unsubstantiated. And so I asked the agent, is that right, were the lawyer's assertions about these facilities unsubstantiated? And what he said to me was, they're more substantiated than not.

BRODIE: During your conversations he talked about sort of walling himself off emotionally from, you know, sort of compartmentalizing his work versus not work. I'm wondering how he described the effect that might be having on him and whether or not he's really able to not take home with him what he sees at his job.

THOMPSON: You know it's hard for me to tell. I will tell you what he told me. The things that he told me, kind of, were mixed on that. I mean, there were things in the journal entry that I thought were quite amazing. How he'd have this experience at the facility and he'd describe it as sort of a zombie wasteland kind of experience, a really jarring emotional description. And then he'd leave and he'd just sort of wrote about his gym routine and he wrote about grocery shopping and he wrote about the very mundane things. So it was clear to me he had some ability to compartmentalize. And I think, you know, he sort of described that as... the only way to make this work, the only way he could do this. And even at one point he said something that was really disturbing to me and I think disturbing to him when he heard himself say it, and that is that, you know, at some point you have to stop caring. At the same time, now that he's home and with his kids and he says that, you know, going to the playground with his kid, it's hard for him to enjoy it.

BRODIE: All right, that is Ginger Thompson a reporter with ProPublica. Ginger, thank you it was nice to talk to you.

THOMPSON: Thank you.

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Mark Brodie is a co-host of The Show, KJZZ’s locally produced news magazine. Since starting at KJZZ in 2002, Brodie has been a host, reporter and producer, including several years covering the Arizona Legislature, based at the Capitol.