Care Tactics

U.S. Border Patrol shoots down an agent's request to be near his ailing mother

Nikos Michas was only 5 when his father left town. From then on, it was just Nikos and his mother Alyce against the world.

Alyce spent as much time as possible with her son while working strange hours to meet the bills. It was a tough grind, but when Nikos graduated from ASU in 1997, Alyce felt like she might have done a pretty good job of child-rearing.

Michas wanted to be a U.S. Border Patrol agent. After graduating from the patrol academy, he accepted an assignment in May of 1998 at the Wellton, Arizona, Border Patrol Station just east of Yuma.

Border Patrol agent Nikos Michas and his mother, 
Alyce, who is dying of cancer.
Paolo Vescia
Border Patrol agent Nikos Michas and his mother, Alyce, who is dying of cancer.

He quickly gained a reputation for relentless dedication and soon the first of many outstanding ratings appeared in his employment record.

Back in Phoenix, though, Alyce, 63 years old at the time, was having trouble. Her memory was slipping and she was losing her peripheral vision. In March 1999, she had two car accidents in the same week.

After a battery of tests, doctors finally discovered the problem: She had tumors in her brain and lungs. It was small-cell cancer, the most aggressive of all cancers. She was given six months to a year to live.

Michas immediately requested family leave and returned to Phoenix. He got Alyce's finances in order, he took her to chemotherapy and radiation therapy. He went to the store, cooked meals and tried to provide the care and moral support his mother needed.

"I owed it to her," he says. "She had given everything to me. I wanted to give everything I could to her."

"He is the reason I'm alive today," she says.

When his leave time ran out, Michas returned to Yuma. He was going to quit and find a job in Phoenix. His mother and co-workers said no -- he'd worked too hard for the Border Patrol job. So, instead, he made the four-hour drive to north Phoenix on his days off.

By November, Alyce was in remission. Michas continued to drive back in his free time to help out and hang out. They both knew their time together was limited.

In July of last year, the inevitable happened. A tumor was found on her right kidney. She would begin chemo and radiation treatment again. This time, though, doctors weren't sure if she was strong enough to survive.

In August, Michas requested a temporary duty transfer to Casa Grande so he could be closer to Phoenix to care for Alyce. His supervisor supported the transfer and the Casa Grande sector needed the extra help.

He moved to south Phoenix in late August. From there, he would drive 45 minutes to his midnight shift, then drive two hours with agents down to the border, patrol through the night, return to Casa Grande, drive back to south Phoenix and then be up in north Phoenix by mid-morning for his mother's cancer treatments. It was grueling, but it worked. He continued to be a top agent while tending to his mother.

Each month, Michas had to resubmit his request to the Yuma Sector chief for an extension of the temporary transfer.

Early this year, a new chief took over in Yuma. Michas was asked to submit letters from Alyce's doctors substantiating that his mother needed him.

Her primary care physician, Dr. Donald Spelhaug, wrote a letter, as did her oncologist, Dr. Christopher Verdi. Both said that Michas had been integral in Alyce's treatment. He is her only family, he is her main care provider and she has survived this long because of his support, they explained.

"Alyce is gravely ill with widespread cancer and needs her son's physical and emotional support if she is to survive," Spelhaug wrote. "We request that you allow Nikos to remain in the Phoenix area so that he can continue to provide the support that is so critical to his mother's survival."

But two months ago, Michas was told he would have to return to the Yuma sector. He says a supervisor told him that the new chief didn't want to "set a precedent" by allowing Nikos' transfer to continue on past six months.

Yuma sector administrators say it is also an issue of manpower. Michas' normal station in Wellton is one of the busiest; in summer, the Wellton region is considered one of the deadliest stretches for illegal immigrants crossing the border.

"With the heat coming on, the administration decided it must have its full staffing," says the Yuma sector's public information officer, Al Casillas.

But there may also be some internal politics involved. Casillas says the union that represents Border Patrol agents, the National Border Patrol Council, shot down a proposed job-swapping program that would have allowed Michas to switch assignments with someone closer to Phoenix.

Still, Casillas insists: "This is not retaliation against the union in any way."

Regardless, Michas and his mother were stunned by the decision.

"I'm doing my job well, I'm doing everything I'm asked to do, and they decide to ship me back because they don't want to set a precedent," he says in a recent interview at his mother's apartment. "It's maddening."

And since that ruling, his superiors in Yuma have refused to discuss the issue further, either with him, Alyce's doctors or with the representatives of the local chapter of the Border Patrol agents union.

Now, the National Border Patrol Council is getting more aggressive. Gary Gilbert, the local union president, and other members of the Yuma branch of the council have peppered local and national Border Patrol officials with letters and phone calls asking that Michas be allowed to stay in Casa Grande.

For patrol union members, it's an issue of humanity and respect for employees. And with the federal government wanting to beef up the patrol at a time when it's tougher to find new recruits, patrol officials should be finding more ways to be good to good employees, they say.

"It's not costing the government anything to have him over there," Gilbert says. "The only thing they're taking away is his ability to care for his mother. The patrol is punishing Nikos and his mother because she has survived longer than she was supposed to."

Since the Michases and the union have had little luck with the sector's interim chief, Steve Norman, they are now trying to appeal to the man who will soon become the new sector chief, Michael Nicley.

"The incoming chief seems to be a compassionate man," Gilbert says. "The problem is: He isn't in charge yet."

"We're just praying he'll listen," Nikos Michas says.

Casillas says it is unclear when Nicley will take over the Yuma sector. Union officials predict Nicley will be in place in June or July.

"There's no doubt this is a difficult situation," Casillas says. "This decision was rendered by the current administration. We don't know what the new administration might do."

Michas recently has been apartment shopping in Yuma, and plans to move south by the end of the month.

"They're not responding to any of our pleas, so I've got to go," he says. "As bad as it is, it's my duty. But I have no idea what effect this will have on her."

"He always is doing what must be done," Alyce Michas says. "He has such a strong sense of duty. He'll go. It's just awful that he has to go."

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