The First-Person Project

Joseph Leclaire ’08

Eagle Pass, TX

Border Patrol Agent, Eagle Pass

Major: History

Minor: Political Science

I grew up in Hinsdale, right outside of Keene. When I was in high school, I wanted to be a history teacher. I had a history teacher that I didn’t really care for, and I thought I could do better. It made sense to go to Keene State, which is known for producing wonderful teachers. It’s the only place I applied to.

I didn’t quite come into myself until my sophomore year, when I became a resident assistant in a dorm. That’s when I started making friends outside of my usual circle. Getting into residential life really helped me meet new people and people of different backgrounds and from different areas.

I started taking education classes, but I didn’t think I had the true heart to be a teacher. So I shied away from education but stuck with history, which was my second major and which has interested me since I was a kid.

For a three-year period I was unsure what I wanted to do with my career. Midway through my first senior semester, I was talking with a friend of my dad who was an air marshal. I said, Oh, I might be interested in doing that. He steered me away from it. It’s an interesting job, he said, but you see the world jet-lagged. He suggested the Border Patrol as a good foot in the door for federal law enforcement. Put in a few years on the border, and then you can go where you want – FBI, US Marshal Service, DEA. I applied just before the last semester of my senior year. I submitted the application in January, took the test in February, the medical exam and background checks started in March and April, then in May, I handed in my last college paper and took off to Boston for an interview. In June and July, a background investigator came and checked things out, and come August, I was offered a job.

Law enforcement is part of my family history. My grandfather was a police chief in Brattleboro, Vermont, in the early ’80s. My father was a police officer in Brattleboro; he’s been a security supervisor at Vermont Yankee my whole life. He would say, Don’t be a police officer. Try not to get a job where you have to work nights. I ended up getting a job where I work nights, but it’s a little bit different.

It’s a complex job. There’s a humanitarian piece to it. Last year, we had children crossing, people crossing with babies. It’s ostensibly a jail, our facility. We’re not designed to handle three-year-olds. I was bringing in my son’s old toys. One of the mothers, she couldn’t get her son lifted up to drink out of the water fountain, so I gave her my water bottles. Young guys who never had kids were handing out diapers, making bottles. And then on the other side of the room you have an aggravated felon, drug smugglers. It’s a tough balance.

I don’t work at the border crossings. That job is done by customs and border protection officers. They let people in legally and facilitate trade. What I deal with is in between those ports of entry. So one day I could be at a pecan orchard, just driving back and forth, or another day on a very remote ranch following tracks for 10, 15 miles on foot. You have to really enjoy the outdoors. I spent three years with the boat unit, patrolling back and forth on the Rio Grande. Very extreme weather with that. Extreme cold and extreme heat.

I’ve been on the job seven years. I thought I’d be here a couple of years and move on to something else, but I really enjoy what I’m doing. Right now I’m working as a field training officer. When new agents graduate from the academy, they have to spend 12 weeks with a field training officer. You’re pretty much taking someone who knows nothing about how to actually do their job, and in 12 weeks making them ready to work a regular shift. We have to teach the new agents how to access private property, what roads we can use, what roads we can’t use. We also teach them how to track, how to follow footprints. That takes time.

When you’re tracking, some days you’re just looking to see if people have been passing through an area. Or if you find footprints that look recent, you’re going to get out of the vehicle and follow them. One time, we found this individual out on a remote ranch. He said he’d been out there for three weeks, and he almost looked like a skeleton. We were giving him capfuls of water; he could barely keep that down. I didn’t think he was going to make it. We used an emergency blanket as a stretcher, put him on the back of one of our trucks and just took off and got him to the hospital. If he’d been out there a few more hours he probably would have died. You don’t want to see anybody die out there.

When I was in field training, we stopped a car carrying 830 pounds of marijuana. I’d never seen anything like that before. The car crossed right in front of one of those camera towers, and we said, Yeah, they’re loading it up into the vehicle. We pulled over the vehicle, the individual stopped. Sometimes they take off, but in that case he just stopped; that was it.

We’ve had other incidents where you turn on your emergency lights and the vehicle takes off and you don’t know how that’s going to go. I had that happen recently where we chased a vehicle about 15 miles going between 80 and 90 miles an hour. It was a pickup truck with eight people in it, and the driver crashed through a fence. Luckily nobody got hurt. The people that cross the border, they don’t know what they’re getting into – that someone they’ve paid to smuggle them in might treat them like that, with disregard for life like that. They pay thousands of dollars to be crossed, taken to a house, and what they don’t know is what waits for them at those houses. These stash houses are horrible. Deplorable conditions.

When we’re doing the processing, we ask, Are you afraid to return to your country? You hear some stories that are just horrible, and you check the box and their case is referred to an asylum officer. Some people are legitimately escaping grave danger.

The most important thing we do here is to make sure we go home at the end of the day. Nothing is worth getting injured, getting killed over. This isn’t TV or the movies. It’s not worth dying over, because it will keep coming. All of the drugs will keep coming. It’s not worth having to go and tell someone’s mom, dad, spouse, boyfriend, girlfriend that they’re not coming home.

I live in a border town. It’s 90 percent Hispanic here, the complete opposite of New Hampshire. Most businesses, you walk in, and odds are you’re going to have a conversation in Spanish. People cross legally from Mexico just to go grocery shopping. People go both ways – some go to Mexico to shop, some come to the US to shop. I had a little bit of Spanish in high school, and I took one semester in college. I went to Guatemala with the Global Village Project with Habitat for Humanity my senior year at Keene State.

I met my wife, Yesenia, at a party here in Eagle Pass. She was down from Austin, visiting relatives, and I was friends with her cousin. We hit it off, and about a year later, we got married. Our son, Joseph II, was born three years ago. That changed everything. My main focus when I’m not working is spending time with them. He’s just finally pedaling his bike on his own without me having to push him, and throws a baseball, kicks a soccer ball, throws a football, all those little steps. He’s talking up a storm, he can count to 50.

Future plans? We want to consider a larger city where the schools are a little bit better. I’d like to move into management with the Border Patrol and get involved with some different programs. I think we’ll probably stay in Texas, but every now and then we talk about Vermont. I’m not sure if I want to go back to the cold, and I’m not sure how my Texas family would handle that.

I’m absolutely pleased with the way my life has gone, even though it’s been in a direction I did not expect. I thought I’d be a teacher living in New Hampshire and now I live in Texas doing something completely different. I think I am doing a good thing. I think I am doing a service. Enter to learn, go forth to serve – I do think about that when I think about Keene State.