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How a U.S. Customs and Border Protection veteran sees his agency's mission

U.S. Customs and Border Protection Agent Ryan Riccucci was on patrol in the Baboquivari Mountains in Arizona, close to the U.S.-Mexico border, on a night in 2009.

The mountains are rugged and remote — an ideal route for people hoping to sneak narcotics into the U.S., according to Riccucci.

On this rare night that he wasn't alone on patrol, a seismic sensor alerted Riccucci and his partner that someone was driving nearby, through land controlled by the Tohono O'odham Nation. The agents headed north, trying to cut off the travelers.

The driver spotted them in the dark and turned sharply around, speeding back toward Mexico.

The agents chased the vehicle. When it reached the border, the car rammed into a steel beam barrier that divides Mexico and the United States. The impact ejected the passengers through the windshield. They landed south of the border — alive and screaming in pain — where the two agents couldn't make them out in the dark.

Riccucci and his partner searched the car on the U.S. side and found bales of marijuana. As they unloaded the drugs, their radio chirped.

"You guys have got to get out of there. There's 13 guys about a mile south of you with long arms, with machine guns, that are running your way," Riccucci recalls a fellow agent warning them.

With backup hours away, the two retreated, leaving the injured passengers on the other side of the border. Riccucci later learned that the vehicle's doors were stuffed with cash — a possible explanation for why its driver tried to abscond back to Mexico.

"If we did seize and find that money, they probably would have been dead anyway," Riccucci said.

Riccucci has worked for U.S. Customs and Border Protection for 17 years. No longer on patrol, he's now division chief, overseeing the Tucson Sector's law enforcement operational programs. He's responsible for the things that agents use to reach the remotest parts of the desert — off-road vehicles, aircraft, horses — across a territory as vast as five Connecticuts, he said.

Riccucci's agency is central to the immigration debate, but the public often misunderstands the agency's role, he said.

"People can have opinions on whether they think the laws are right and wrong, but we are agnostic," Riccucci said. "We are doing our job to the standards that we were trained to do."

Advocates for migrants have accused Border Patrol agents of disrespecting, even physically abusing, migrants whom they encounter along the border. The American Civil Liberties Union of Arizona sued the Tucson Sector Border Patrol in 2015, accusing agents of detaining migrants in "inhumane and unconstitutional conditions." The court later ordered the sector to take better care of migrants in its custody.

Allegations of abuse by Border Patrol agents date back decades. New York Times journalist John M. Crewdson won a Pulitzer Prize in 1981 for his reporting on illegal immigration, including a story about migrant children sent alone to jail after their parents were picked up by the Border Patrol.

Today, agents encounter many migrants who are happy to see them

Travelers abandoned in the desert by human traffickers look for Border Patrol agents not only so they can surrender and seek quasi-legal status through the asylum process, but also so they can stay alive.

Riccucci recalled when he began to grasp that Border Patrol agents play an important humanitarian role in the desert.

"I started carrying candy, or I would have a little stuffed animal," in case he encountered children, Riccucci said. And his EMT training came in handy while on patrol.

"One time I ran into a group, and they didn't run. They asked me to go find an older lady they had left behind," he said. "It was an old Guatemalan woman, and she was delirious. I was able to give her an IV. It brought her back to life because she was so dehydrated."

That type of lifesaving work isn't always acknowledged by the media or the public. "I wish that there were more opportunities to tell our story," Riccucci said.

Riccucci also hinted at frustration among his fellow agents

Many agents have been taken off patrol to help process the ballooning number of migrants seeking asylum.

"Some days it's terrible because you're at the mercy of forces you don't understand. You want to be out there patrolling the border," he said.

But he stopped short of criticizing the Biden administration's asylum policy.

"If the mission calls for brute force — to have all our agents in processing, making sure we're able to get all these thousands of people that surrender, that want to claim fear and claim a benefit — that's the mission," he said. "But most of us came in wanting to guard the backyard and let them go through the front."

Over his nearly two decades of guarding the "backyard," Riccucci has never fired his weapon. That night in 2009 was the most terrified he has ever felt on the job, he said.

Items in Riccucci's office suggest an interest in spirituality: Along with various plaques and trophies, he keeps a Tibetan singing bowl and a collection of crystals on a shelf.

"The most important thing at the end of the day is you go home from your shift safely," Riccucci said, "and that you have the coping mechanisms to be healthy and unplug to refresh yourself and come back ready for work the next day."

Still, it's a job that can get you killed.

As our team departed the Tucson Sector office, we passed images of deceased agents rolling past on a digital screen in the lobby. When agents die, their colleagues play bagpipes in their honor.

Earlier that day, we heard a high-pitched drone emanating from a rear parking lot. When we drove past, we saw a man practicing his bagpipe, preparing for the next funeral, whenever it may come.

The audio version of this story was produced by Lilly Quiroz. The digital version was edited by Obed Manuel.