Training to be a Border Patrol agent in the age of Trump

Agents are taught to be humanitarians

@CBPArizona/Twitter via CNN

ARTESIA, New Mexico (CNN) - On his first day of training to become a Border Patrol agent, Isidro Urbina was given a card with a photo of a fallen agent on it.

It's a tradition on the first day of class here at the Border Patrol Academy. All new recruits get a different card -- a "silent partner," they're called -- as a way of honoring the 127 agents who have died in the line of duty while reminding them of the dangers of the job. The agents-in-training will carry the cards throughout their career.

Urbina is proud to wear the card in the chest pocket of his uniform, over his heart. But he doesn't need the reminder.

The man in the photo is his uncle.

"I don't want to quit, because I know he's watching," Urbina said. "He was 34 years old when he died, and I'm 34 years old entering the Border Patrol. It feels like I'm finishing what he started."

Urbina's uncle, Roberto Duran, was killed when he lost control of his vehicle and crashed one morning while returning from his overnight shift in the field. That was 16 years ago.

Now Urbina is picking up where his uncle left off. He is training to become a Border Patrol agent at one of the toughest law enforcement academies in the country. And he'll be deployed at a time when the eyes of the world are on federal authorities' treatment of immigrants at the US-Mexico border.

The academy's expanded curriculum

The Border Patrol Academy is one of a handful of schools at the Federal Law Enforcement Center in this desert city of 11,000 people some 150 miles northeast of El Paso.

It's made up of dorms, classroom buildings and gyms, plus firing ranges and driving courses that span more than 1,000 acres. Everything the trainees need is on campus, including a grocery store, dry cleaners and even a bar.

For the first time in its 84-year history, the academy has expanded its curriculum from three months to six months to better prepare trainees for what they will encounter in the field.

On a large barren lot, old train cars, school buses, and barns are repurposed as "classrooms" where trainees interact with paid role players in various scenarios. These new training simulations mimic what agents might experience in the field and test their decision making.

"Expanding the curriculum was really a couple of things," said Dan Harris Jr., the school's chief. "One, I want them to be prepared for any situation they may encounter. The second thing is that I want them to have every tool available to them to handle that encounter safely. The last thing we ever want to do is take someone's life."

For example, recruits are often faced with the choice of whether to "shoot" an actor in a simulated situation or use less lethal tools. Use-of-force training at the academy has increased from 58 hours to 94, and recruits now also receive training in less lethal methods.

Trainees graduate with 14 certifications, up from two, in areas such as firearms, driving, and operations training, which includes classes in spotting fraudulent documents and working in detention centers. The time spent in immigration law and Spanish classes now count for 18 college credits.

Spanish language class is now mandatory for all trainees, even if they're a native speaker. About half of agents in the field are Hispanic, and the majority of migrants that they will encounter at the border will be Spanish speakers.

In the Trump era, the academy also has been given a new mandate: recruit more agents. According to Customs and Border Protection there are about 19,400 agents on duty -- nearly 2,000 below the congressionally mandated 21,370. President Trump has called for 5,000 more agents, which means the academy will need to churn out hundreds of graduating classes to meet the new mandate. The academy can accommodate up to 50 trainees per class, but most graduating classes have hovered in the 20s.

Chief Harris admits there's pressure to find men willing to do a remote, dusty and sometimes dangerous job which pays an entry-level base salary of about $40,000. But that's nothing compared with the pressure to find women.

Female agents are rare

Susan Schwartz graduated from the Border Patrol Academy last month. At 41, she is beyond the academy's age limit of 37. But her 15 years of military service allowed her to bypass the rules.

"I'm not in my twenties anymore," she said. "My body's a lot different, but it goes back to mental toughness. Your body's going to do what your mind is going to tell you to do."

She's one of only three women to graduate in her class -- and that's considered a high percentage. The agency is desperate for female recruits, in part because they prefer to have female migrants questioned and searched by female agents.

Just 5% of the 19,437 agents on patrol are female, the biggest gender gap in the federal government. Chief Harris hopes women will account for 10 percent of future classes. He's also quick to point out that for the first time ever the US Border Patrol is run by a woman, Carla Provost.

"It's definitely harder on a lady to have to go out into the middle of the desert among hundreds of miles from anywhere and spend their day on their shifts," Harris said. "It's challenging in that sense."

Schwartz grew up in Queens, New York, nearly 2,000 miles from the southern border. She did four tours of duty abroad in Iraq and Kuwait -- two of those as a single mom to a young daughter. The first time she saw the US-Mexico border was when she moved to El Paso five years ago.

She wanted to continue to serve her country but be closer to home.

"Being in the military that's also a smaller demographic of women," said Schwartz, who is black. "But it wasn't anything that made me shy away from the challenge. At the academy I never once felt singled out in a negative way because of my gender or my race."

At her graduation, Schwartz was all smiles as Chief Harris pinned a badge to her green uniform. Her husband and daughter, now 19, were there cheering her on.

But the reunion was short-lived. The next day Schwartz left for her new Border Patrol station in Lordsburg, New Mexico. This time, instead of halfway around the world, she's only a 2 ½ hour drive from home.

For him, Border Patrol is a 'golden ticket'

Urbina has known what he wanted to do with his life since he was 15.

He grew up just 20 miles north of the border in Anthony, New Mexico. When his uncle was still on patrol he'd come to visit and they'd sit on the couch for hours while Urbina listened, wide-eyed, to his uncle's stories from the field.

Urbina became a corrections officer because he needed a 9-to-5 job and a decent paycheck while his wife went to nursing school. Now that she's working full time, he can pursue his dream.

"This is what I've always wanted. Being a Border Patrol agent is almost like a golden ticket," he said.

But he also has learned that being a Border Patrol agent who is Latino comes with its own set of challenges.

"When I talked to one of my neighbors and I told him what I was doing, he said, 'You're a Hispanic -- aren't you going to feel guilty or sad deporting somebody of your own kind?'" said Urbina, whose father immigrated legally from Mexico and settled in the US to start a family.

"It's sad watching people get deported, but my dad was able to come here the right way and I'm here today for that reason, thanks to him."

And joining the agency in the age of Trump adds extra, and at times unwanted, attention. Some agents have been criticized for using excessive force on migrants and for their handling of the family separations. Harris says under the new curriculum trainees are taught to be humanitarians first.

"I am a compassionate person," said Urbina. "I'm a father and I have a heart. We're trained to do a job and that's what I plan to do when I get on the field."

Trainees can ask where they would like to be stationed, but it's not always guaranteed. Urbina will graduate in November and immediately be sent to his new post: in Chula Vista, California. It's where his uncle was stationed.

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