Erin Herrgott, a 20-year-old from small-town Michigan, was working at the county probation office and dreaming of becoming a federal law enforcement officer when she stumbled across a job listing for the U.S. Border Patrol.
She didn’t think she was qualified: Herrgott didn’t speak Spanish. She had never been to the Southwest. And she wasn’t “jacked” the way she expected border agents need to be to face off with drug smugglers in inhospitable desert terrain.
A few days after she submitted her application, Herrgott said she received an email notifying her that she was to begin the vetting process. Now she is one of the newest recruits at the U.S. Border Patrol Academy, where a six-month training program funnels new cadets directly onto the front lines of one of America’s fiercest political battles.
President Trump has made a crackdown on illegal immigration a policy priority, pressing Congress to fund a border wall, 5,000 additional Border Patrol agents and 10,000 Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers. He deployed thousands of troops to the southern U.S. border to stop a caravan of Central American migrants, some of whom began arriving in the Mexican border city of Tijuana this month. Border agents needed backup, Trump said.
On Sunday, U.S. Customs and Border Protection – which includes the Border Patrol – shut down the San Ysidro port of entry border crossing when members of the caravan attempted to cross illegally, prompting authorities to take the rare step of firing tear gas at the migrants.
Hundreds of miles away, here in the desert flatlands of New Mexico, the men and women who stand next in line to become the nation’s border enforcers are training to take on the mission.
The Border Patrol has long struggled with recruitment, currently lagging 2,000 agents short of its quota — not including the 5,000 agents that Trump wants to add. The agency loosened admission requirements after 9/11 in an effort to expand the force, decisions that critics now blame for a rash of corruption cases and allegations of misconduct.
Most of the 46 cadets in Herrgott’s class, which arrived at the academy in late August, are in their 20s, with no prior law enforcement experience or college degrees. Many previously worked in non-professional jobs, as cashiers and security guards, manual laborers and sales people. Roughly half are Hispanic.
And many, like Herrgott, stumbled across a career in the Border Patrol by accident.
Trevor Osman, a 23-year-old who most recently worked as an aircraft fueler, found the agency while looking for a job with police departments near his home in Littleton, Colo.
“Most or all of the departments require at least a two-year degree, and that’s something I don’t have yet,” Osman said. “I saw Border Patrol, and I saw that they didn’t require a degree. So I wanted to throw my hat in the ring and just see where it went. . . . And here I am.”
For many of the recruits, the Border Patrol simply offers a steady job with good benefits, an opportunity to provide for one’s family while performing a public service. Among Hergott’s 45 classmates are those hoping to pay off student loans, experience adventure and find purpose in life.
They’ll learn how to be border agents under an extended curriculum — lengthened from three months to six — that the academy introduced last year to strengthen training.
Over the past decade, agents have faced allegations of ties to drug cartels, cross-border shootings, abuse of immigrant detainees and illicit drug use. A recent disciplinary review by the U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s Department of Human Resources found that 135 Border Patrol employees were arrested in fiscal year 2016, largely for drug use and domestic crimes. Those number declined in fiscal year 2017, but the report added that “the number of employees arrested continues to be a concern.”
The new curriculum seeks to produce better agents who are well-versed in the law, less likely to accept bribes from a drug cartel, and less likely to kill or be killed. And as the debate over the Border Patrol’s role has intensified, the academy wants to produce agents who can maintain their composure in the face of adversity.
“If someone challenges them and puts that camera in their face and says, ‘You’re a scumbag. I can’t believe you would do this. I can’t believe you would do those kind of things,’ we’re going to have them react as a top-notch professional,” said academy chief Dan Harris.
During its nearly 95-year existence, the Border Patrol has operated on the literal periphery of the country’s more celebrated and visible law enforcement agencies. It is outranked in the popular imagination by the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Drug Enforcement Administration, and it is off the radar for many Americans who live far from the border.
The starting salary for a Border Patrol agent with no prior military or law enforcement experience is $41,187 — comparable, Harris says, with the other federal agencies with which Border Patrol competes for recruits.
But the requirements are less stringent — a successful applicant needs neither a college degree nor relevant work experience — and the job usually requires agents to live on the hot, desert border, where schools and services are often lacking.
Charged with preventing drugs and people from illegally entering the United States, Border Patrol agents are stationed between the country’s ports of entry, sometimes in remote stretches of mountains, deserts and forests, and in areas that can only be reached on foot or horseback.
To recruit, the Border Patrol goes to military bases, college campuses and career fairs. Recruiters also speak at special events.
“You’d be surprised how many applicants we get from the PBR,” the Professional Bull Riders rodeos, said Harris. Such events are attractive to people who grew up on ranches and have a strong sense of “obligation to serve their country,” he said.
Not all make it in. The most common disqualifier for applicants to the Border Patrol Academy is drug use or lying about drug use on the mandatory polygraph test. And attrition is common. About one in four leaves before graduation day. Some drop out because of injuries or other personal issues. Others fail — the immigration law class tends to be the hardest.
Then there are those who finish the program and embark on their mission but leave the agency after a few years for more desirable jobs with other federal agencies.
“This will be the first year our hiring will outpace our attrition,” Harris said.
The new curriculum shifts training out of the traditional classroom and into what the instructors call real-life scenarios. Cadets simulate immigration checks, interviews, drug busts and other confrontations, often with Spanish-speaking actors who argue, run or fight back. In one scenario meant to simulate a drug bust, actors playing the role of smugglers throw wads of cash at the agent-in-training, who must then decide how to act.
They also receive instruction in shooting, how to use a stun gun, hand-to-hand self-defense and off-road driving. They learn to twist tourniquets to stop the blood flow from a wound, and how to turn their clothing into flotation devices should they end up in the Rio Grande.
The early days of a cadet’s life at the Border Patrol Academy are a hellish gauntlet of sweat, commands and failures, meant both to provide an introduction to operating under stress and to weed out some of those unlikely to make it through the program.
The recruits represent a diverse array of body types and athletic stamina — traits that Hergott’s class exhibited immediately upon stepping off the bus into the shouted orders of instructors who behaved like drill sergeants.
“Move!” “Hurry!” “On the line! Not next to it! On it!” they shouted.
The instructors ordered the new class to stand in formation, keep step, count off and run — sometimes with their luggage — around parking lots and between buildings, up and down flights of dormitory stairs, and back into line, again and again for their first three hours on campus.
The recruits sweated, stumbled, grimaced and crashed into one another.
It’s not the athleticism or stamina the instructors say they care most about in the early days; they’re watching to see how the cadets react to stress.
“Do you control your emotions? Do you control your frustrations?” explained Harris. “You can’t let anybody see you sweat.”
In this heated political environment, self-control is a critical skill for Border Patrol agents. QTIP is an acronym the instructors here emphasize: Quit Taking It Personally.
It was a lot to take in for Herrgott, the daughter of a builder and a substitute teacher.
“Learn Spanish, learn how to shoot, learn how to drive, learn how to do all these cool fancy things while being a good person,” she said, describing the tasks ahead of her after day one.
When she left home, her parents were proud, but also unnerved. They never thought she’d go so far away to a place that seemed so foreign: A place where there was no grass or lakes; where there were so few women; where her first thought when walking into Walmart was “wow, I’m the palest person here.”
“I didn’t expect it to be completely different, but it’s like a total 360 from a small town way up north to like, deep south Texas,” she said. But the change excited her. “I get to be opened up to a whole new world, which is what I wanted.”