Imagine the NFL and NBA sending Tom Brady and LeBron James to accompany the U.S. Border Patrol on a hunt for undocumented immigrants. Or how about Mike Trout and Serena Williams watching as a group of immigrants are apprehended trying to cross the border.
Several members of the Professional Bull Riders (PBR) did just that on a scorching day in July, riding horseback along the U.S.-Mexico border.
Although immigration and border security are among the most polarizing political topics in the U.S., the PBR did not hesitate in putting four of its prominent personalities front and center.
On that day, 2016 World Champion Cooper Davis, 2018 Rookie of the Year Keyshawn Whitehorse, 17-year tour veteran Sean Willingham and bullfighter Seth “Shorty” Gorham joined the Border Patrol. And they were not disappointed.
The group sprung into action when surveillance cameras spotted undocumented immigrants on the American side of the Rio Grande River. One of the PBR members broke from the pack and may have broken the law during a hectic scene.
Patrol boats and a helicopter swooped in to offer support and protection not only for the agents but also for the Border Patrol’s special guests. The U.S. Customs and Border Protection supports the PBR in another way: with a $2 million sponsorship deal this year that the Border Patrol says is used to bolster recruiting.
Over the past three years, the Border Patrol has spent more than $5 million on the partnership.
The partnership actually began in 2008 and ended in 2011. It was renewed in part because of President Trump.
According to the Border Patrol’s “Statement of Work” that was obtained by USA TODAY Sports, the most recent deal between the Border Patrol and PBR started in the wake of Trump’s executive order in January 2017 that authorized the hiring of 5,000 additional Border Patrol agents. The challenge the Border Patrol faced, according to the document, was a “shrinking pool of candidates” and “difficulty with recruiting” because of negative news media coverage, public perception and reduced budgets.
The agreement with the PBR provides the Border Patrol with a variety of recruiting tools, including its logo being splashed across riders and arenas and a series of TV ads running in local markets.
The possibility of any backlash did not scare off the PBR.
“We make choices based on what’s going to be good for our business and the sport,” said Sean Gleason, the organization’s CEO. “It’s not politically driven. Others may see it as being ‘politically incorrect.’ Everyone’s entitled to an opinion. We are just going to go about our business.”
Ron Vitiello, former acting deputy commissioner of the U.S. Customs and Border Protection and key in consummating the partnership, says he believes the sponsorship helps to tone down the incendiary dialogue around immigration.
“Under this president, this whole immigration thing has taken on a very strange kind of connotation, right?’’ Vitiello said. “The law is controversial. It always has been. But his rhetoric on it inflames people.
“So it’s good that we’re with the PBR because, you know, they stand for the flag and there’s a ceremonial piece to what they do in the arenas.’’
There’s still the question of whether this sponsorship and others like it increase recruiting and are an appropriate use of public money.
For example, a government report found that between In 2012 and ’15, the Department of Defense paid more than $50 million for marketing and advertising contracts with the NFL and other sports leagues. The report, which was co-authored by former Sen. John McCain, characterized the “patriotic tributes” and military hero ceremonies as a waste of taxpayer dollars.
Gleason said the PBR has received only a couple of emails objecting to its partnership with the Border Patrol and there has been no public outcry — even after the highly unusual ride along in July.
Productive or propaganda?
Gorham, the 41-year-old bullfighter, gave the the Border Patrol a good dose of exposure in when he posted a video on Instagram of himself attempting to chase down an undocumented immigrant who was trying escape as others were apprehended. Gorham has 60,000 followers on Instagram.
“I had one right here,” Gorham said on the video, referring to an undocumented immigrant. “Had him close. Had one. Found him under a tree. Tried to get him to stop. He ran off. I don’t have a radio, so I can’t talk to these guys (Border Patrol agents). But I did manage to take my shirt off and flag the helicopter. I let them know that there was one in the area.”
Of the experience, Gorham later told USA TODAY Sports, “It was a lot of fun. I’ll tell you, I always thought that fighting bulls would get your adrenaline going, but nothing like that experience there.”
The Border Patrol considered the July ride-along a success.
“What better way to have brand ambassadors speak on your behalf and take your message to the fan base,’’ said James Searl, Assistant Chief, U.S. Border Patrol Headquarters, Mission Readiness Operations.
Searl said the partnership with the PBR is a “multi-pronged effort … to get people into the system and to make our brand attractive to people as the employer of choice for people looking for a law enforcement career.”
But the agency’s investment in recruitment has come under scrutiny. In 2018, a report issued by the Office of Inspector General concluded that the Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) was at risk of wasting millions of taxpayer dollars on a contract with a third-party vendor expected to hire agents. The contract was terminated last year.
In March, USA TODAY, citing a review of government documents, congressional testimony and interviews with agents, reported the Border Patrol was facing a crisis in hiring, training and retaining agents as well as keeping track of what exactly its more than 19,000 agents are doing at any given time.
The CBP did not respond to a request last week for its recruiting budget and declined to provide data showing the partnership with the PBR has resulted in increased hiring.
Spokesman Matthew Dyman offered a broad overview of the recruiting efforts, saying the CBP has made gains “through multiple improvements to our recruitment and hiring processes, including a close partnership with the Department of Defense, which helped us to reach veterans and transitioning service members who can continue to serve their country on CBP’s frontline.”
But Jenn Budd, a former Border Patrol agent who is now a critic of the agency, lambasted the ride-along and the Border Patrol’s deal with the PBR.
“It’s propaganda,” Budd told USA TODAY Sports. “Law enforcement should just say it has openings. All this other stuff is an attempt to get at kids at young ages. Plus, the vast majority of agents do not ride horses. They sit in a filthy truck for 12 hours staring at a fence or sit in processing.”
She called Gorham’s attempt to chase down one of the immigrants “vigilantism.” Jaclyn Kelley-Widmer, a law professor at Cornell University who specializes in immigration, said Gorham’s actions may have violated the federal code that sets out authority for immigration officers to interrogate, arrest, search and seize aliens without a warrant.
“I would say that (Gorham) would not be authorized to arrest or interrogate or search anyone,” Kelley-Widmer said. “And his action seems to be adjacent to be making an arrest or part of making an arrest. So it probably is unlawful under this statute.’’
In response, the Border Patrol issued a statement.
“The United States Border Patrol routinely hosts border tours for both government and non-government entities,” the statement read. “For safety purposes, visitors are closely monitored and accompanied by uniformed law enforcement personnel. During these tours, encountering illegal activity is also common. In such an event, it is the responsibility of the accompanying law enforcement personnel to ensure the safety of visitors, and to take all law enforcement action necessary to address the illegal activity. This is consistent with the events that transpired on July 11, 2019. Visitors on this tour were kept safe and took no law enforcement action.”
‘They get a bad rap’
The narrative is more controlled at PBR events, with the Border Patrol’s Searl calling the PBR “a good partner in that they help the Border Patrol tell our story our own way.” In fact, it is spelled out in the contract.
During the opening ceremonies at PBR events, the Border Patrol provides color guards and, when available, mounted horse patrol, a 10-person drum and bagpipes. At some events, the Border Patrol’s special operations group’s rappelling team descends from the arena ceiling before the playing of the national anthem.
Also, Border Patrol patches are affixed on the protective vests of four riders and the logo is prominently displayed on the front and back of the bullfighters’ jerseys. The bullfighters have been branded the “US Border Patrol Protection Team.”
“We really celebrate them for the heroes they are,’’ said Gleason, the PBR’s CEO. “It’s a very diverse group of American patriots that literally put their life on the line to defend the borders and execute the laws of the United States. And they get a bad rap.’’
Sometimes that bad rap may be deserved.
For instance, during fiscal year 2018, misconduct by Customs and Border Patrol officers was on the rise, according to a report issued by the U.S. Customs and Border Protection Discipline Analysis Report.
But Davis, one of the three PBR riders who visited the Border Patrol in July, offered a glowing assessment of the agents.
“What they do, they’re saving people’s lives,” Cooper said. “Because a lot of times (undocumented immigrants) come over here and they’re on their last leg and they end up saving their lives because they haven’t had food in forever and they haven’t had water in forever. They’re saving people’s lives daily.”
Yet in 2018, at the PBR World Finals in Las Vegas, Vitiello said he arrived unsure of the reception the Border Patrol would get before he and others were ushered onto the stage at T-Mobile Arena.
“It was overwhelming,” he said. “The whole place, they stood up and they clapped. It wasn’t a standing ovation but it was a huge shout-out and a round of applause.’’
Vitiello told the crowd the Border Patrol was looking for potential employees, but perhaps no one yet envisioned that three of the PBR’s top bull riders and one of the bullfighters would be present during an interdiction at the U.S.-Mexican border in July.
“When it all first started, we were taking kind of a joy ride,’’ Davis said. “One of the guys we were with said, ‘Hey, there’s seven illegals up here.’
“They asked if we wanted to be a part of it and that was absolutely the coolest thing I’d ever been a part of. It wasn’t necessarily like a heroic feeling or anything like that, but you feel like you’re doing your country justice as far as apprehending these people that are trying to cross into your country illegally.”