MISSION, Tex. — On weekends, the Border Patrol agents perform in Spanish.
They play love songs and Mexican ballads, crooning about pain and heartbreak, pausing to remind their audience who they are.
“We are Customs and Border Protection,” says lead singer Manuel Maldonado, putting down his accordion, a pistol holstered in his belt. “Sí, somos de a deveras.”
“Yes, we are real.”
Down here, close enough to Mexico that you can throw a football across the Rio Grande, the officers who chase migrants through ranches and across highways are not especially popular. Federal agents needed a way to soften their image. So they formed a band. More precisely, they formed a conjunto band.
Their name? Los Federales.
“Is it a shock to people? Probably, man,” Maldonado said. “But this is how we connect with the community.”
At a time when the White House has warned of a border under siege, calling for deployment of the National Guard and a wall that could slice through South Texas back yards, federal agents are trying to strike a balance between enforcing immigration law and not alienating the communities where they operate.
The city of Mission is 88 percent Hispanic, with a sizable undocumented population. Its highways and rivers and ranches are often swarming with Border Patrol agents. Just outside the town, protests have been held about the planned border wall and the National Guard’s mobilization. Last month, at one demonstration, activists held signs reading, “No militarization of the border.”
The Border Patrol is now taking a stab at diplomacy. Agents visit elementary school career days and local parades and gun fairs. They have their own equivalent of the Boy Scouts — the Border Patrol Explorers — that allows teenagers to “observe and assist with surveillance operations.”
And then there’s Los Federales.
The saxophonist is an agent who spends his days pursuing border crossers through the ranch land north of the Rio Grande. The bass player is a special operations officer who tracks migrants in the desert. Maldonado, on the keyboard and accordion, is in charge of operations at some of America’s busiest international bridges.
On weekends, they perform across the Rio Grande Valley, the stretch of America’s southern border with the most illegal crossings. They play on parade floats and at barbecues and at Cinco de Mayo parties. Recently, they played at a public park on the banks of the Rio Grande, where their conjunto music — accordion-driven, polkalike folk songs — could be heard across the border.
In the park on the Texas side, families ate tacos and drank Corona. Some weren’t happy to see the agents, viewing them as a sign of hypocrisy in a country that eagerly hires millions of undocumented immigrants even as law enforcement pursues them.
“They’ve probably all got illegal Mexican women cleaning their houses,” said Maria Palacios, whose family set up their cookout about 50 yards from Maldonado.
Then she started dancing, a little two-step. Her husband, Jose, joined in.
“They’re actually pretty good,” Maria said.
Los Federales started performing six years ago, when the regional office of the Border Patrol participated in a Hispanic heritage event. Over time, senior officials in the agency began to see the band as one of their greatest outreach tools.
“People used to see us and say, “You’re just here to arrest people,’ ” said Amador Carbajal, who left his job as an assistant manager at Walmart to join the Border Patrol. “But now they’re starting to know us.”
The reception isn’t always warm. Once, the band played a small town in the Rio Grande Valley where the crowd stared at them icily as they set up.
“I thought to myself, “Should we be wearing body armor?” said Arnold Velasquez, a special operations Border Patrol agent.
“It can sometimes feel like being in a neighborhood where you don’t belong,” Carbajal said.
But there have been breakthroughs — like in a nearby border town called Granjeno, where locals started calling in suspicious activity, including possible drug trafficking, not long after the band performed there.
“They started to trust us,” Carbajal said.
The Rio Grande Valley, a region along the Texas border the size of Connecticut, has always been its own world, borrowing from the United States and Mexico, with many residents crossing between countries multiple times a day.
“We learn both cultures as effortlessly as we do two languages,” Brownsville-born writer Oscar Casares wrote of the Valley. “We learn quickly that we can exist simultaneously in both worlds, and that our home exists neither here nor there but in the migration between these two forces.”
For decades, residents of the Valley farmed land on both sides of the Rio Grande. An annual parade wound between Brownsville, on the U.S. side, and Matamoros, on the other. Texans went to dentists in Mexico. Mexicans shopped at Walmart in Texas.
But the Valley has increasingly become the center of the Border Patrol’s efforts — last year, the agency apprehended 108,000 undocumented immigrants in the region, more than half of the nationwide total. Of the 5,000 new agents the White House wants to recruit, many are expected to be sent here. The longest stretch of the border wall funded by Congress in March — 33 miles — is slated to be built here.
The Border Patrol continues to hire agents locally, most of them with family connections to Mexico. It’s another quirk of the Rio Grande Valley — the deployment of officers whose own relatives once migrated across the river.
“A lot of the agents are from here, they know the reason people are crossing,” said John-Michael Torres with the advocacy group La Union del Pueblo Entero (LUPE). “But they have pressure from above to deport, deport, deport.”
All of that is subtext when Los Federales take the stage. The band members say that when they perform, they aren’t looking for people to detain, even though they are technically on the clock, earning federally mandated overtime. They know that when they play for a large crowd in the Valley, there are probably undocumented immigrants in the audience.
“We’re not there to check papers,” Maldonado said. “The objective is to connect with the people, to become a conduit.”
Maldonado is the right frontman for the job, a broad-shouldered man with a wide smile who cracks jokes as easily in Spanish as in English. His mother was born in Mexico (she crossed the border legally). He joined Customs and Border Protection when he was 23, drawn to an employer that promised a competitive salary and the prospect of promotion.
He describes Los Federales’ appearances with overwhelming enthusiasm. “It was an awesome reception, bro,” he said of a Christmas posada, a traditional Mexican holiday party.
During the band’s recent performance along the Rio Grande, Maldonado shifted between country music and conjunto, squeezing in a little Enrique Iglesias. In front of him, on the Rio Grande, the Border Patrol’s marine unit zoomed past in speedboats. A few yards north of the river, another young family had come to barbecue.
The father’s name was Jesus. He was 27. He had crossed the river illegally when he was 4, eventually securing a U.S. passport. On his wife’s side, much of the family was still undocumented.
Now he was listening to the Border Patrol play conjunto music.
“I’m pretty sure I’ve heard all these songs at my family’s parties,” he said.
Many of his relatives turned the other way when they spotted men in Border Patrol uniforms. But the more he saw Border Patrol job postings, the more he figured he would make a pretty good agent himself.
He knew it might sound strange — someone who crossed the Rio Grande illegally now considering patrolling it. But he was a child of the Valley, where, for many residents, those contradictions melted away.
“It pays well,” he said, Maldonado’s accordion playing in the background.
“Somebody is going to do the job, right? It might as well be me.”