Border Patrol Agents Are Now Both Heroes and Villains in the Texas Shooting

Members of a Border Patrol special ops team killed the gunman, according to the agency, but their actions—and their complicated presence in the community—are under scrutiny.

In the chaotic hours after an 18-year-old gunman went on a rampage at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, killing 19 young children and two teachers, a narrative emerged about a heroic Border Patrol agent who stopped the massacre before it got any worse.

The agent, initial reports said, was off-duty and hurried to the scene of the shooting, then charged in without waiting for backup and single-handedly took out the gunman, who’d barricaded himself inside a classroom. The purported act of selflessness and courage was a balm for an otherwise unthinkable tragedy—at least one cop did his job and saved lives.

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But that’s not what really happened.

It’s now clear that crucial minutes ticked by—around an hour—as police stood outside Robb Elementary while the gunman, Salvador Ramos, went on a killing spree inside a fourth-grade classroom. Dozens of Border Patrol agents did respond to support local officers, but it was a four-man team of tactical agents who went in together. And while their actions were undoubtedly heroic, one witness, a 10-year-old boy, has come forward to say the cops inadvertently helped the gunman identify another victim to shoot.

In the aftermath of the worst school shooting in Texas history, multiple law enforcement agencies now face hard questions about why they failed to stop the gunman from entering the school and why it took so long to confront him after he was inside and killing children. Authorities now acknowledge a significant amount of time elapsed between when Ramos entered the school wielding an AR-15-style rifle and when he was killed by Border Patrol agents. 

At a press conference Thursday, Victor Escalon, South Texas regional director for the Department of Public Safety, said that after an initial exchange of gunfire with the gunman as he entered the school and traversed the hallways, the initial police officers on the scene retreated and called for backup, including a Border Patrol tactical team. “Approximately an hour later,” Escalon said, Border Patrol agents arrived and killed Ramos. Escalon said there was “a lot of gunfire in the beginning” and that officers were subsequently “kept at bay” by additional shots. He did not offer additional explanation for why officers didn’t try to enter more quickly.

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“There's a lot going on,” Escalon said. “It’s a complex situation.”

A spokesperson for U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), the parent agency of Border Patrol, responded to questions from VICE News about the timeline of events and the actions of agents who killed the gunman by referring to a statement by CBP Commissioner Chris Magnus. 

“CBP responded immediately to the incident with local law enforcement,” Magnus said. “Many of our local CBP personnel live in Uvalde; they call this community home, and they work to protect their families, friends and neighbors every single day. We continue to coordinate closely with our federal, state and local partners in the aftermath of this senseless tragedy.” 

Border Patrol agents are undoubtedly part of the fabric of the community in Uvalde, located about 70 miles east of the Del Rio port of entry on the Mexican border. But whether the immigration enforcers ought to be considered heroes depends largely on who’s asked. 

Over 70 percent of Uvalde’s residents identified as Hispanic or Latino, according to 2022 census data, and while many families are multi-generational U.S. citizens, there are mixed-status households that include people at risk of arrest and deportation. And for those without the proper immigration documents, life in a small town crawling with Border Patrol agents was already stressful enough before the horrific events of this week.

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People without legal status in Uvalde could be cut off from accessing trauma counseling, food relief, and other emergency services—or even too afraid to go outside and collectively mourn with others in their community, said Sarah Valdes, director of released unaccompanied children services at RAICES, a Texas nonprofit that provides legal services to immigrants.

“Can you imagine being in this community and having this happen to you or your friends and neighbors and not being able to go out and drive because you're afraid?” Valdes asked. “I’m concerned about the practicalities of people being cut off from school lunches or medical assistance, but there’s an emotional side of it too. You're cut off from being able to be in a shared space with your neighbors.”

Valdes said local Border Patrol agents in Uvalde have been “complicit” in Operation Lone Star, a campaign launched in March of 2021 by Texas Gov. Greg Abbott ostensibly to help stop drug and migrant smuggling. While Border Patrol is a federal agency that does not answer to Abbott or state officials, Valdes said there have been people with little or no criminal history picked up by Border Patrol in the Uvalde area in the past year or so and turned over to Immigration and Customs Enforcement or ICE for deportation, or removal from the country under a policy known as Title 42. 

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She read a message from a colleague that works with clients in the area. “We’ve had several clients picked up by Border Patrol in that area and turned over to ICE even after they’ve been in the U.S. for years,” Valdes said, relaying the message to VICE News over the phone.

On Wednesday, the federal Department of Homeland Security, which encompasses ICE, CBP, and Border Patrol, issued a statement saying Uvalde had been declared a “protected area” and that agents would avoid immigration enforcement “to the fullest extent possible” so that all residents of the community can access services without fear.

But Adam Isaacson, director of defense oversight at WOLA, a Washington, D.C.-based organization that promotes human rights in Latin America, said a promise from federal immigration authorities may no longer be trusted after years of hardline enforcement.

“Even when CBP says they’re making an exception, as is the case in Uvalde today, undocumented people have very little reason to take that assurance at face value,” Isaacson said. “The track record has not been one of building trust with these communities.”

The tension that exists in Uvalde is present all over the U.S. in communities with people without legal immigration status, Isaacson said. While Uvalde is an hour’s drive away from the border, it falls within a 100-mile zone that gives federal agents broad latitude to operate, including by setting up immigration checkpoints.

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“The dynamic is similar in any ‘non-sanctuary’ U.S. city where the undocumented population lives in fear of ending up in ICE custody for something so minor as a busted taillight,” Isaacson said. “People cannot access services because it may end up being the last thing they do in the United States.” 

On the other side of the equation are Border Patrol agents who live and work in Uvalde, many with kids enrolled in local schools, including Robb Elementary. Around 80 agents from the community and surrounding area converged on the scene of the shooting, according to the sector’s chief agent, who spoke at a press conference Wednesday.

A CBP official told VICE News the gunman was killed by a member of Border Patrol’s elite BORTAC special operations unit, the agency’s equivalent to a SWAT team. Two other BORTAC members were involved in storming the classroom where the gunman was barricaded, along with a member of BORSTAR, a specialized search and rescue unit. One BORTAC member held up a shield while the other agents engaged with the gunman and shot him dead. 

Members of other law enforcement agencies were present and part of the tactical “stack” formation that entered the school, but it’s still unclear how many, and what their actions were during the confrontation with the gunman. Also still unexplained is how he was able to evade a school resource officer and local cops and get into the school through a back door, then lock himself inside a classroom, where he apparently had plenty of time to methodically gun down the 9- and 10-year-olds he found inside.

One 10-year-old witness, who was hiding under a tablecloth inside the room where it happened, told San Antonio TV news network KENS that the agents who entered the classroom made a deadly mistake by asking any survivors in hiding to call out for help. 

“When the cops came, the cop said: 'Yell if you need help!' And one of the persons in my class said 'help,’” the boy told KENS. “The guy overheard and he came in and shot her. The cop barged into that classroom. The guy shot at the cop. And the cops started shooting.”

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CBP officials have not addressed the boy’s allegations and did not directly respond to questions from VICE News about the possibility that the agents inadvertently helped the gunman identify another victim before he was killed.

Jon Anfinsen, president of Local 2366 of the National Border Patrol Council, the union that represents Border Patrol employees in the Del Rio sector, told VICE News that the agents who arrived on the scene entered the school as quickly as possible. Anfinsen said he’s seen no evidence to confirm the preliminary reports that a lone Border Patrol agent went in without backup, but said one of the first to take action was a BORTAC member who coordinated forming the “stack” to enter the school.

“It wasn’t like BORTAC showed up and everyone went in,” Anfinsen said. “They pieced it together. Generally in training they undergo scenarios that involve people from multiple agencies showing up and going in, and it sounds like that’s what happened here.”

Anfinsen said other agents, including some who were off-duty, acted bravely by working to extract children from classrooms as the shootout was still unfolding.

“Dozens of agents from the community and from surrounding communities all showed up, some were helping get children out of classrooms while gunfire was happening,” Anfinsen said. “Everyone converged on the scene as quickly as they could possibly get there.”

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But whether the agents acted quickly enough after arriving is now under scrutiny. Parents who arrived at the shooting scene have been quoted as saying law enforcement members stood on the sidelines and ignored their pleas to take action, restraining fathers who tried to break through the perimeter to defend their children themselves. Parents were reportedly pepper-sprayed, thrown to the ground, and handcuffed as they tried to get inside the school. 

"The dads were saying, 'Give me the vest, I’ll go in there!'" one witness told the New York Times.

A Border Patrol agent was wounded by gunfire during the shootout and is among the 17 injured survivors. A CBP official could not confirm to VICE News that the wounded agent is the one who killed the gunman, as Texas’ governor said was the case on Wednesday.

As for whether Border Patrol is a welcome presence in Uvalde, Anfinsen, 41 and a town resident himself, said there is widespread support for the agency. Many agents who work in the Del Rio sector call Uvalde home, he said, and are involved as coaches and community leaders. Ansinger said that as far as he knows, migrants usually pass through Uvalde on the way to other parts of the country.

“Border Patrol is well liked in Uvalde,” Anfinsen said. “We have dozens and dozens of agents who live there. We have agents' families who are teachers and students in the community. They volunteer as coaches. We have a lot of agents there. They’ve been pro-Border Patrol for forever.”

“The town is devastated, obviously.”

The Del Rio sector became the focus of public outrage last fall when photographs went viral showing Border Patrol agents mounted on horseback using reins to whip Haitian migrants and force them back across the Rio Grande. Anfinsen defended the agents at the time, saying they were “thrown under the bus” by the Biden administration, which took the agents off duty and ordered an investigation, which remains ongoing.

Anfinsen said the Border Patrol, which typically looks for migrants attempting to cross illegally between ports of entry, is understaffed and spread too thin in his sector. The agents, he said, have been dealing with a large influx of migrants due to confusion around Title 42, a policy that blocks asylum seekers from entering the U.S., which the Biden administration tried unsuccessfully to rollback on May 23. 

After working long shifts, Anfinsen said, some agents responded to the scene at Robb Elementary and are still struggling to process the horror they encountered.

“The town is devastated, obviously,” he said. “It’s not just families and friends who lost children, we have to deal with all the first responders, law enforcement, EMS, firefighters—we had agents who had to help carry children's bodies out of the school. It’s terrible.”

Follow Keegan Hamilton on Twitter.

Tagged:

immigration, border patrol, texas school shooting, Robb Elementary School

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