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Defend the Border and Save Lives
Solving Our Most Important Humanitarian and Security Crisis
By Tom Homan
Read by John Pruden
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Illegal immigration is the most controversial and emotional issue this country faces today. President Trump was elected on his promise to fix illegal immigration and build a wall on our southern border. Because he won on this issue, the Democrats refuse to work with him, and we experienced a government shutdown as a result of this divide. The Democrats have supported funding in the past and, in his State of the Union, the President said that he wants to unify and work together to resolve this and all the other challenges facing America. The Democrats sat on their hands. They won't budge. Clearly, as a party, they don't care about the facts, only about denying whatever success they can to this president.
Former ICE Director and Fox News contributor Tom Homan knows the facts. He's spent his life on the border and knows that if we don't control illegal immigration now, this country will continue to suffer the consequences of crime, drugs, and financial strain—and it will get much much worse.
In Defend the Border and Save Lives, Homan shares what illegal immigration is really about. Illegal immigration should not be a partisan issue. Now is the time to fix this issue that has claimed so many victims and divided this country. We need to pull the curtain back and expose what truly happens and separate facts from fiction. Illegal immigration is not a victimless crime, and the victims are the illegals and their innocent children as well as the Americans who suffer at the hand of the criminals who sneak into this country.
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Readers will notice my use of the term illegal alien in this book. In today’s conversation on immigration, this term has been labeled by some as derogatory. That is certainly not my intent, and I think a review of this book will set the record straight that I have spent my entire career saving lives and protecting those that are most vulnerable while enforcing the laws as written. It is more a “term of art,” with a precise, specialized meaning within the profession of immigration enforcement. The term illegal alien has been interchanged many times with the term illegal immigrant, but that is often inaccurate as the terms alien and immigrant are separately defined in federal statute, specifically within Title 8 of the United States Code, and are not always interchangeable.
WHO I FIGHT FOR
There were 4,158 child exploitation cases initiated in 2018, and 1,588 criminal arrests for human trafficking.
—2018 HOMELAND SECURITY INVESTIGATIONS
31.4 percent of women and 17.2 percent of men have been sexually abused during their journey to the United States’ border.
—2017 DOCTORS WITHOUT BORDERS REPORT
During my law enforcement career, which spans over three decades, I was part of a team of men and women who were deeply respected. Most Americans acknowledged the job as necessary and dangerous. But in the past few years, I’ve been labeled as heartless, a racist, and even a Nazi—and that’s just by some Democrats in Congress.
Human traffickers, drug dealers, and criminals of all types never called me such names. I’ve arrested thousands of illegal aliens, and the vast majority of them respected the power of the badge because they knew we had an army of badges. Many actually feared the badge because they were so accustomed to police corruption in their homeland.
Whether people realize it or not, every country and every community depends on a clear set of laws and the brave people who help enforce the law. It’s on behalf of those amazing men and women—local, state, and federal—that I offer my perspective on the most pressing issues facing the United States: border security, public safety, and immigration.
But it’s not only about the law; it’s really about what—and who—the law protects.
In early 2003, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) was created along with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). This department and agency were established because of the terror attacks of September 11, 2001, given that many of the perpetrators were in this country illegally. Our citizens wanted to better secure our borders and enforce our nation’s immigration laws. ICE was created out of the legacy US Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) law enforcement components and the legacy US Customs (USC) law enforcement component. Sorry to give you four acronyms in one paragraph, but it gives you a sense of the challenge I was up against—helping the two legacy agencies transition into the new, post-9/11 world.
In March 2003, I was sent to Washington, DC, as part of a team transitioning and creating the agencies—and frankly, trying to make sense of it all. You can’t imagine the tangle of policies and personnel involved. I’ll spare you the details, but there was much distrust between the personnel of both agencies and a lot of jockeying for power. It was a very tense time. However, we tried to make it work because, at this point in our nation, combining two border law enforcement agencies into one was the right thing to do.
While on extended detail to ICE headquarters in DC, I was asked to travel to Dallas on May 13 to join Bob Wallis, who was the acting special agent in charge, at the time. Yes, we like acronyms and refer to that title as SAC. Bob Wallis was a legacy INS senior leader and also my longtime mentor. At one point in his career, he was the leader of one third of the Immigration and Naturalization Service. It was a huge job, and he was good at it. I was most excited about the trip because it was another chance to see my wife and kids. Dallas was my home station, and I’d been on detail to DC for several months, able to return home only every couple of weeks.
Bob and I were there to give a speech to the International Association of Chiefs of Police, trying to explain what DHS and ICE were, and how this new agency would work with local law enforcement. On the first day of the conference our cell phones began to light up during our presentation. At first, we ignored the calls and tried to focus on our talk for a few minutes, but they kept coming—and were from a Washington, DC, area code. Something was wrong. We excused ourselves and called HQ.
There had been a deadly human smuggling incident in Victoria, Texas, and media were already swarming the scene. Because of my experience in human trafficking investigations I was directed by the new ICE director, Michael Garcia, to immediately deploy to the crime scene. Bob was also directed to accompany me because of his reputation for handling international incidents. He oversaw the widely publicized Elian Gonzalez international custody battle in 2000. We didn’t know much about the crime, but we knew this would be a crucial test for a brand-new agency. Our response would make or break us. As our first large-scale case, it was imperative that we work quickly and effectively. Failure was not an option. The eyes of the entire nation were on us—including those in the Oval Office of the White House.
With only the clothes on our backs, Bob Wallis and I flew down to the crime scene on a small Air and Marine plane from Love Field in Dallas. Bob was to handle all media and communication and serve as the senior official on the scene. I was to oversee the investigative operation and incident response. I was fine with this plan since I’d spent a major portion of my time as a special agent investigating and prosecuting alien smuggling and human trafficking organizations in Phoenix, Arizona. And I learned from one of the best, Armando Garcia, who recently retired as an assistant special agent in charge (ASAC) in Phoenix and remains a dear friend to this day.
In Victoria, Texas, we were picked up by special agents from ICE and driven to the site of the incident. We noticed multiple media outlets trying to capture video, and we were warned that the scene was horrific—multiple dead bodies in a tractor trailer. State and local law enforcement were there, along with fire crews, attempting to shield the site from view. The county sheriffs quickly escorted me into the crime scene. The looks on their faces told me to prepare for the worst. Even after thirty years in law enforcement, I was not prepared for what I saw.
THE TRUE COST OF CHAOS
As we stood before the open doors of the tractor trailer, I couldn’t believe my eyes. Seventeen dead bodies lay inside on the hot metal floor and on the ground outside the open doors. A total of nineteen people died—seventeen were dead at the scene, and two died on the way to the hospital. We learned that the bodies on the ground had been piled up near the doors. When the doors were finally opened, several victims fell to the ground. Then, as more than fifty survivors rushed out to get air, they knocked more bodies out of the way. I tried to survey the scene as an investigator. Most of the dead were stripped down to just their underwear in an apparent attempt to get relief from the extreme heat.
I jumped up into the trailer with an ICE photographer and stood there for several minutes. “Oh my God. Oh my God,” I stammered.
Even with the doors open it was unbearably hot in that steel box. My eyes were quickly drawn to the body of a small boy who was wearing yellow underwear and lying on his stomach. He seemed to be about the same age and size as my youngest son. His body had already started to discolor with livor mortis (lividity), bluish-purple discoloration in the lowest part of the body. Investigators and coroners use the images of this discoloration to help ascertain the time and cause of death. The color was most noticeable on his tiny face. I could tell he’d been dead for hours. I slowly walked around the dead bodies and instructed the photographer about the pictures I needed, intentionally avoiding the small boy.
Every time I glanced at the child, an overwhelming sense of anxiety came over me—not only because of the horrific scene, but because he so reminded me of my own son. After we had all the other photos, we finally approached the boy, who was lying partially under the collapsed body of a man who we learned was his father. It appeared that the father was embracing and comforting his son at the time of his death. Several survivors later testified that this innocent little boy was the first to perish, crying “Daddy, Daddy, I’m dying.” I knelt down and put my hand on his small head, and I prayed for him.
I somehow kept my composure but was an emotional mess inside. After a few moments I stood back up, looked at the photographer, who was also visibly shaken, and asked him to take pictures of that small child. I wanted those pictures to be seen by the special agents working the case, the prosecutors, the media, those in the court, and the jury. I wanted everyone to see what I saw so they would show no mercy to the people responsible for these murders. Hence, the investigation was called Operation No Mercy.
I spent the next several hours combing through the crime scene with the photographer, who I told to “take pictures of everything” even though the local sheriff’s team had already photographed the area. As we surveyed the scene and interviewed survivors, the true horror of the scene became painfully obvious. Bodies were piled up near the back of the truck in a desperate attempt to find fresh air around the locked doors. The suffocating passengers broke out some brake lights to create ventilation. Many appeared to have died in the struggle to breathe. It was estimated that the temperature reached as high as 173 degrees inside.
I will never forget the scene, the thought of what these people endured, and what must have been their excruciating final minutes of life. It’s still fresh in my mind, and when I tell the story I still get choked up. I can still smell it, taste it, see it. Tears fill my eyes as I write this.
HEARTBREAK TO ANGER
That night, when I finally arrived at a hotel, I called my wife and tried to convey the experience. I couldn’t get the images out of my mind—the expressions of agony and fear on the lifeless faces. As a border patrol agent, I’d seen death before, but nothing like this. Their contorted bodies barely looked human.
I couldn’t sleep that night or for the next three nights. Every time I closed my eyes, my mind was flooded with memories of the scene. What if that was my young son in the trailer? What if I was in there with him?
I imagined what the father must have thought: I did this to us. I put us in this situation. I killed my little boy! But I couldn’t imagine hearing the cries of my five-year-old as he collapsed in my arms.
Let’s be clear. This was not a “tragedy.” This was mass murder. These people didn’t have to die. Stories like this have become so commonplace that our reaction is often to mutter, “How sad,” and move on to the next crisis. Unless you’ve stepped through a crime scene with seventeen dead bodies, you cannot fathom the deep horror. We know how uncomfortable it is to be in a hot car in the summer. Imagine being in that car but unable to unlock the doors, open a window, or turn on the air-conditioning. You are locked in a metal box. An oven. After an hour you can’t swallow because you have no fluid left in you. Your nostrils burn every time you breathe, and every breath becomes more pointless. The trailer was so packed, it was standing room only. It was a nightmare, and these people experienced their death in slow motion.
Even though I’d been a cop and border patrol agent for almost two decades, this experience made Tom Homan who he is today. Don’t let anyone tell you that illegal immigration is a victimless crime. Our crisis on the border is actually hundreds of crises and crimes—every single day.
The more we learned about this human smuggling operation, the more my sorrow intensified and turned to burning anger. We had to find the people responsible for these deaths. US Attorney Michael Shelby, probably the most talented US attorney I’ve met in my career, immediately joined us and declared that everyone responsible for this would be held accountable. I called ICE headquarters and told them we needed agents. We worked very closely with the sheriff’s department, the Texas Rangers, and Customs and Border Protection. We had agents assigned in all the major surrounding cities because we knew there were different branches of the trafficking organization. It was all hands on deck, and we hit hard. The Houston field office was ground zero and had many talented agents. One particular agent was Marc Sanders, a smart investigator who knew exactly what needed to be done.
Within weeks, fourteen people were arrested, including the driver of the truck, who had abandoned the scene. During the criminal proceedings, we learned that the driver was paid $7,500 by smugglers to transport the human cargo. The rendezvous point was changed to a location two hundred miles farther. He heard the people banging on the doors and pulled over to see what was going on. After slipping a few bottles of water through an opening the desperate passengers had created, he drove on toward the meeting place, ignoring their screams for help.
He then called the smugglers and demanded more money because of the damage to his rig. At a rest stop, he was spotted putting more water bottles through holes in the trailer. The driver opened the back doors, saw several dead bodies fall onto the pavement, unhooked the trailer, and sped away. According to the ruling by the US Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, “There were several dead bodies on the ground by the trailer doors. Bodies, both dead and living, were stacked in a pile in the trailer. Some of the aliens were standing behind the pile. The aliens were stripped down to their underwear and were sweating. They had clawed at the foam on the inside of the trailer, and the trailer smelled of vomit, urine, feces, and blood.”
FOR JOSE AND MARCO
I left out one important detail from the first day of the investigation. Once all the bodies were bagged at the crime scene and the photography was complete, we hired a tow truck to hook up to the trailer. We needed to move the trailer but also wanted to test the air-conditioning system to see if it worked. Shock turned to disbelief as cool air began to flood into the steel box where seventeen people died.
The driver had turned the cooling system off to evade suspicion at truck checkpoints.
As I watched the coroners tag and carry away the stiffened corpses, I was struck by the fact that these were human beings, but their hearts weren’t beating and their lungs weren’t breathing.
Nineteen people were murdered, including Jose and Marco, the father and son who perished in each other’s arms. All this misery and death happened because criminals wanted to make money.
If you saw what I saw that day, you would understand why I’m so emotional about border security, illegal immigration, and national policy. This story is just one example of the preventable human cost of the chaos—created, then ignored, by politicians and special-interest groups. Unspeakable horrors like this are not what legal immigration is about—this is organized crime, operating within our country.
Don’t tell me you care about immigrants and yet want to do nothing to stop human smuggling—and nothing to support the men and women of law enforcement who go after these criminals. There’s a crisis, but a solution is possible. We want law and order on our streets and in our communities, so why is there even controversy about having law and order at our border? There is no downside to securing our border. There is no downside to fewer illegal drugs pouring into our country. There is no downside to less human smuggling, and there is certainly no downside to taking dollars away from criminal cartels—the same cartels that have murdered our agents and officers.
We are a sovereign country and have every right to protect our borders, because not everyone crossing that border is coming here to have a better life. Some will be smuggling drugs, some will be smuggling guns, some are coming here to terrorize neighborhoods for profit. The reason you have locks and alarms on your home is the same reason we should have locks and alarms on the southern border. Secure borders save lives. Isn’t that reason enough?
Secure borders strangle human smugglers, drug traffickers, and cartels. Secure borders create secure communities. That’s what this battle on the border is all about.
When you grow up with a sense of community, you want everyone to have the same experience.
From the moment I first walked that Victoria crime scene, and for the many weeks that followed, I couldn’t help but wonder, What brought these victims to the point that they risked so much? Why did that little boy’s safety and life have to be on the line?
I was also pondering questions about my own life. How was I so fortunate to be born in a country that was so rich with opportunities? Why did I have such a great childhood and never have to cope with the struggles these victims had. Was it luck?
I grew up in the small town of West Carthage, New York. The population was probably no more than two thousand people—a small village, really—and located about six miles from Fort Drum. At the time, Fort Drum was a large military training camp. West Carthage was, and still is, a very patriotic community. Most people worked at one of the nearby paper mills, at Fort Drum, or on small family farms.
My parents had seven kids, two boys and five girls. Our upbringing was very conservative and very Catholic. We went to mass every Sunday and sat in the same pew every time. God help anyone who arrived before us and sat in our seats! My father was a World War II hero who was awarded two Purple Hearts and a Bronze Star with an Oak Leaf Cluster, which symbolizes a second Bronze Star, but he never talked about his experience in the Pacific much. He worked at Fort Drum but also was a police officer, and he later became a local magistrate, which is what judges were called in our community. My mom, for most of my childhood, was a stay-at-home mom. I remember her always being in the kitchen or doing laundry, and she always wore an apron. With that many kids, there were plenty of mouths to feed and dirty clothes. As a little boy, I distinctly remember that her apron was usually damp from doing dishes or laundry, and it always smelled like soap. She was a loving mom. My dad was tough and not very high on the affection scale, but my mom showed enough affection for both of them. Don’t get me wrong—my dad loved his family greatly and put his love into action every day, so we could have what he never had. In high school, I competed in the wrestling program, and no matter how far I had to travel across the state for the match, my dad was always in the stands.
I never met my grandfather Homan. He died when I was a baby, but I always heard about his life as a police officer in our town. I still have his police whistle and well-worn paperback notebook, which was given to me when I followed in his footsteps. Because I never knew him, I treasure that notebook with its handwritten records of his police activities. And his writings are also stirring because they point to a time and place in America that too few of us have experienced.
One of my favorite entries from my grandfather reads, “I had to go to the Millers’ house to retrieve a pair of mittens, which was stolen by one of the children from another child.” If only the television show Cops had been around then. Of course there were other, more controversial notes, like “Mr. Davis was drunk and passed out at a bar. I picked him up and drove him home.” Does this sound like Mayberry, USA? It was. And that’s why The Andy Griffith Show is my favorite TV series of all time.
In our community, everybody knew everybody. You know the old saying that it takes a village to raise a child? Well, in many ways, it does. When I got out of line, I was corrected by my mom—and by my neighbors’ moms. When I was at my buddy’s house, his mom was my mom, too. The paper mill whistle went off three times a day: eight a.m., noon, and five p.m. Saturdays—or any day in the summer—usually began by riding our bikes around the neighborhood and yelling for our pals to join us for a baseball game. If we could round up a dozen or so, we’d ride to the park and play all day long. But we knew that when the noon whistle went off, it was time to sprint home—or to a friend’s home—for lunch. Then we’d head right back to the ball field. The evening whistle called us home for dinner.
People weren’t worried about kids being kidnapped or hurt. Safety was normal for us. In the winter, hockey replaced baseball. Up until I turned sixteen, I listened for the ten p.m. fire alarm from the village of Carthage, right across the river. That meant curfew had begun. If you were under sixteen, you better head home fast, or the local police would give you a stern lecture.
Many houses had American flags on the front porch on holidays, and most people attended the local parades. Friday night football games and basketball games were always packed. We had “typical” small town cops, a small-town barber (who seemed to somehow cut everybody’s hair), and plenty of mom-and-pop grocery stores, like Gruner’s, right up the street from my house. For a quarter, you could walk out with a Pepsi and a cupcake. If that was too rich, penny candy was still available. We’d sit out front and enjoy our treats. Howard Gruner, the proprietor, was an elderly widower and a very kind man. These stores were real gathering places, not the manufactured ones we see on every corner today.
Several nights a week, I’d walk a mile to the Boys Club to play basketball at night. I don’t know why this memory stands out, but I clearly remember walking down sidewalks lined with maple trees and tapping each sap bucket that hung on the trunks. Each one was like a little drum. You could tell how much sap was in the bucket by the sound of the knock.
Even in small towns, I don’t see maple syrup buckets hanging from trees anymore. I get sad when I realize that many children will never experience life in a community where neighbors are like family and everyone looks out for one another.
MINDING MY OWN BUSINESS
My siblings and I didn’t really receive an allowance. If I wanted money, I had to shovel driveways, but only after our own was shoveled. On snowy mornings, my dad would get us up before school to shovel the driveway so he could go to work. And there were a lot of snow days in West Carthage. I would walk around the neighborhood and shovel driveways for two dollars. I might make around twenty bucks before it was time to go home.
The same went for our lawn mowing “business.” As soon as I finished our lawn, I’d fill the mower’s tank with gas and push it around the neighborhood, looking for tall grass. When I got a little older, I got a paper route but hated it. I quickly got tired of asking the same people to pay for their subscription, week after week. There were times when a buddy and I would work on a local farm to milk cows or shovel manure—whatever we could do to earn a few bucks. As a teenager, I sometimes went to my cousin’s farm on the weekends to help him with his milking. Bobby is not only my cousin but also a lifelong friend. After morning milking, his mom would cook up a breakfast so big I couldn’t eat the rest of the day.
I watched my dad in his role as a patrolman and magistrate and found it fascinating. His office was in a front room of our home, and at all hours of the day and night, state troopers and local police would come to our home to have someone arraigned. Those arrested had to be arraigned by the local magistrate prior to being sent to jail, which sometimes included people in handcuffs.
I’d be out mowing the lawn or shoveling the driveway and saw all sorts of colorful characters coming and going. It might seem like a strange or uncomfortable aspect of my childhood, but we were never concerned. In those days there was a tangible respect for law enforcement. I saw it in my father and in the local and state police; they were revered by our community. All the kids in the twin villages respected them greatly, and every adult also knew who our parents were, so there would be no hiding from the truth.
I hope you have similarly fond memories of your formative years, but I realize—all too well—that many people’s childhoods were nothing like this. My family and I experienced innocence, peace, security, and everything great about this country. I want every American—citizens, legal immigrants, and lawful residents alike—to experience the same thing in their communities. And I know how to help make that a reality for more people.
What I can’t figure out is why so many people seem jaded about the future and look on those simpler times with disdain. Our country’s innocence has been stolen, but it can be returned.
FOLLOWING THE CALL TO PROTECT AND SERVE
From the time I was in fourth grade, I knew I wanted to be a cop. There was never a moment of doubt. As soon as I graduated high school, I went to Jefferson Community College to study criminal justice, then attended SUNY Polytechnic Institute and earned a bachelor’s degree in the subject. As soon as possible, I became a cop in my hometown of West Carthage, New York.
When I first walked into the station wearing my uniform I thought, Okay, my life starts now.
I knew it was a small town and that I wouldn’t be there forever, but it was the first step and an important step. As corny as it might sound, wearing a badge on my chest and a gun on my hip was almost overwhelming. Yes, I was entrusted with the authority to lock someone up, but I was also there to repay the community that raised me.
My first call on my first night as a police officer was to investigate a report from a babysitter, who was fourteen years old, about a possible intruder. I rushed to the address, parked my patrol car in plain sight, and walked around the house with my flashlight to see if I could see anything. Once I was sure the property was secure, I walked up to the front porch and rang the doorbell. The little girl had a look of such relief on her face when she saw me. I could tell she’d been crying. I settled her down and I told her no one was out there. She then showed me the window someone had attempted to open. I didn’t see signs of forced entry, but I believed her. Walking through every room of the house, I checked every window and door to make sure they were all locked.
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