Recruiting ad for Border Patrol agents put out by the U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency

Faced with tens of thousands of parents and their children crossing the Southwest border last year, the U.S. Border Patrol pledged to hire up to 1,600 women.

The motivation was simple: Female migrants, many of whom are sexually assaulted on their journey, often prefer to be searched by women and would be more likely to share information about smugglers with an agent of their own sex.

The Border Patrol, whose ranks have long been dominated by men, embarked on its first-ever female recruitment spree, getting rare dispensation from the government to target only women.

The deadline for the effort was the end of the fiscal year last week. It netted just 50 women.

We are really looking to ramp up,” said Stacy King, Supervisory Human Resources Specialist for the U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency, “but recruitment, hiring and retention of female law enforcement officers continues to be a challenge for us.”

After the female-only announcement was posted last December on, the government’s largest job board, Border Patrol officials received applications from 3,972 women, King said, mostly from California, Texas, Florida and Arizona. Ten months later, a few hundred candidates are still being vetted and given background checks.

Just 5 percent of the 21,000 Border Patrol agents are women, the lowest among federal law enforcement agencies, which average about 15 percent.

Salvadorian immigrant Stefany Marjorie, 8, watches as Border Patrol agents body-search her sister last year in Mission, Tex. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)

The work is solitary, outdoors and it can be dangerous, with overnight shifts. Many agents are assigned to remote areas in communities that lack good schools and day care. Policing the border is less glamorous than working as an FBI agent. A college degree is not required, but fluency in Spanish is. Salaries for starting agents start at $39,400 for a GS-5 grade level to $50,000 (GS-7). Men and women are held to the same physical standards at every stage of their training and once they’re in the field.

Keeping female agents has not been easy; 6 percent quit within their first year, compared to the average of 4 percent for men.

“The way I see it is, we’re federal cops,” said Adriana Palacios, 36, an operations officer and recruiter for the Border Patrol station in Edinburg, Tex., in the Rio Grande Valley. “You work by yourself. You could be alone in the dark and your partner is a mile down the river.”

But she said the advantages to adding female agents are huge. Many migrants “traditionally see males as law enforcement,” she said. “When they see a female, they feel more comfortable: ‘Wow, there’s a woman.’ They’re able to open up more.”

Border Patrol agent Nicole Ballistrea looks through the U.S.-Mexico border fence on Dec. 9, 2014 in Nogales, Ariz. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)

Monique Grame, 39, deputy patrol agent in charge of the Border Patrol station in McAllen, Tex., said, “We have an incredible cadre of agents, but with the increase in women and girls, the women are flagging us down like taxicabs” when they cross the border. “They have had one heck of a journey from when they leave their home countries.”

McAllen, the largest station in the Rio Grande Valley, was ground zero for the wave of migrants who crossed the Southwest border in 2014. While the number has dropped by about 45 percent this year, families continue to come.

The recruiting continues, and the Border Patrol is marketing to veterans and athletic organizations. The agency is hiring men too to meet a congressionally mandated surge in agents.

King said part of many women’s hesitation to apply is the volatile climate for law enforcement officers right now, with high tensions between them and minority communities. “There’s been a lot of negative press, and it’s a tough time right now to recruit for law enforcement positions.”

She also said many potential recruits confuse the Border Patrol with the Transportation Security Administration; both agencies are part of the Department of Homeland Security. “Someone might have a bad experience at an airport,” King said. “That presents a separate challenge for us.”

The Border Patrol is trying to boost its budget for signing bonuses for women, which is now capped at $618,000 a year, officials said.