From both sides, the stretch of the Rio Grande that paints the border between southeast Texas and northern Mexico doesn't look that wide. To those trying to make it to the United States, either in search of opportunity or to sell illegal goods, it's a hop worth attempting, even if it takes multiple times to achieve success. To those trying to keep those crossers at bay, it's barely an obstacle at all, not even wide enough to obscure the activities of those on the other side.
The docuseries "Border Wars" (National Geographic, 8 p.m. Wednesdays) focuses on the perspective of the latter group. It's "COPS" with an added dose of geopolitics: Each episode focuses on a handful of efforts undertaken by U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents to bring order to a porous border, not always successfully.
But accidentally or not, "Border Wars" plays like advocacy work masking as law enforcement propaganda. First there is the imbalance in scale between the officers and their targets. The show highlights not only the organization required to track illegal activity, but also the depth and organization of the illegal systems themselves. In one scene, an agent tears open a trash bag filled with all the provisions a border crosser would need for a long journey, provided by the people who steer the grueling trips. It's as thought-through as any of the agent's high-tech tools.
"Border Wars" documents an environment where practically everyone is criminalized. When a body is found floating facedown in the Rio Grande, the voiceover narration notes, "Agents can only speculate if the young man was an immigrant trying to cross or a drug smuggler." (The young man is eventually identified with the help of a cellphone SIM card tucked into his mouth.)
Other scenes demonstrate how far border crossers have traveled, only to get caught. One man who lived in New York for more than a decade had to return to Mexico to care for his ailing mother, then was captured attempting to return to the United States. "I had to risk my life to cross the border," he says, one of the few immigrants who speaks in an on-camera interview. One group is found to include an individual from Sri Lanka, who flew to Brazil, then over the course of many months, made his way north, only to be snared.
In another scene, agents find a mother and her asthmatic daughter, who were left to fend for themselves by the group they were traveling north with. The narrator paints the officers as benevolent, unwitting guides as the mother and daughter are sent toward an uncertain fate: "All the agents can do is hope they get the care they need for the long journey ahead."
The immigrants, who are almost never named, are portrayed as threats, though hardly any effort is made to distinguish among them or their goals. The drug busts captured in other segments of the show at least deliver a sense of righteous victory, but the scenes where people are captured — with teams of agents assisted by all-terrain vehicles and helicopters with heat-sensing cameras tracking down packs making their way through harsh Texas ranchland — are far more emotionally ambiguous.
In this season's premiere episode, all of the spotlighted officers were Latino, in what appears to be an effort to defuse some of the implicit ethnic tension associated with issues of border policing. (That changes in the second episode, though much of the police work shown here is conducted in Spanish.) But to its credit, in other segments, "Border Wars" acknowledges the xenophobia that is endemic to conversations about immigration.
The second episode includes appearances by a civilian group, Texas Border Volunteers, who help scout for illegal immigrants on private land. The two policing groups, official and ad-hoc, appear to view each other with skepticism, each worried that the other isn't quite up to its task. In this case, the ostensible enemies across the river lead to tensions on the same side.