EL PASO, Texas - A white obelisk stands in the high desert plains of northern Mexico, a lonesome area the locals call “out there.” Some several feet south of the U.S. border, the monument, with its harsh angles and erect posture, has an appearance of authoritative stoicism. But in the shadow of a border fence and sand-strewn air, the once-admired demarcation rests like a lighthouse in the desert; just as insignificant and just as useless. From the U.S., it sheepishly pokes out from the maroon-colored metal border fence … a subtle reminder of yesteryear, when the border was a boundary and “illegals” were immigrants.
It is here, Yesenia Leon, a U.S. Customs and Border Protection agent, silently stood, staring through the fence, past the monument, with the special intensity that comes with years of ingrained discipline. The agent had visited this location several times before, in search of any illegal activity, but on this day, Leon explored her past.
Born in Chihuahua, Mexico, Leon was one of four children in a single-parent home. In 1986, when Leon was four, the family moved to El Paso, Texas, where she would eventually complete high school and attend the University of Texas at El Paso. Studies aside, Leon remained adamant about community service, a passion which led to a conversation with an Army recruiter.
“Growing up in a single-parent home, I got a lot of my drive from people outside of the house, mainly those who were reaching out to help the community,” said Leon, sitting in a Border Patrol truck. “These experiences made me realize that even if you touch a person, you make a difference. So, in wanting to do the same, I called an Army recruiter and joined the Army Reserves.”
Leon began her military career as a chemical specialist out of McGregor Range, N.M. The camaraderie and discipline Leon experienced, during monthly training and annual exercises, led to a reenlistment at the end of her four-year term. Now a paralegal specialist, Leon became a member of the 647th Regional Support Group in Ascarate Park, Texas. In 2006, the 647th mobilized in preparation for Operation Iraqi Freedom, only to be demobilized a year later.
Leon finished her military contract two years later. Although the separation was difficult, admitted Leon, she had a new community endeavor in mind: The U.S. Customs and Border Protection. The career shift offered Leon, who briefly lived in Oklahoma, an opportunity to “go back home” and “help the community.” And the transition process into the agency, according to Leon, was made all the easier by her military experience.
“The agency is paramilitary agency, and as such we are required to train in that fashion, as well as, maintain proper uniform appearance,” said Leon, turning the key to start the Border Patrol truck. “The structure is not as rigid as the military, but we are still required to follow a certain hierarchy and obey certain rules.”
After a 52-day academy, Leon was assigned to the Las Cruces, N.M. station, a post designated with monitoring three U.S. Border Patrol interior checkpoints. The inspection stations, which fall under the agency’s jurisdiction of 100 aerial miles of the border, are designed to deter illegal immigration and smuggling activities. And in her five-year stint at the checkpoints, Leon saw a significant amount of both, engendering a familial trust in the Border Patrol and her fellow agents.
“Similar to the military, there is a true sense of togetherness in the Border Patrol,” said Leon, pressing the gas pedal, forcing the truck to move forward. “Depending on our shifts, sometimes we will see each other more than our families, and as a result, we become our own family.”
In 2014, Leon was assigned to the U.S Customs and Border Protection Public Affairs Office in El Paso, a detail which requires two years of service. The pace is different, said the Army veteran, who admittedly finds the high-tempo an invigorating learning experience. From media tours, to press interviews, to school presentations, Leon was required to adjust immediately, a trait the military had taught her years ago.
“You can always tell when someone has prior military experience; their attention to detail, discipline and pride are ingrained in their work effort,” said George Gomez, a Border Patrol agent for the U.S Customs and Border Protection Public Affairs Office in El Paso. “So as one would expect, Ms. Leon, who is a very fast learner, has adapted well to the atmosphere.”
On this day though, the atmosphere in the desert was not one of illegal activity or stressful deadlines, but of calm reflection. As Leon turns the wheel, guiding the truck left, the border can be seen in the rear-view mirror; proverbial eyes in the back of her head. For as an agent, the border is never of out sight. And as a native of the area, the border is never out of mind.
“This is my community,” said Leon, peering into the rear-view mirror, “and, I will always protect my community.”