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Copyright © 2016 Albuquerque Journal
DEMING – The morning is still dark when Border Patrol agents file into the station to get assignments and hear the latest intelligence. Of the agents present, there are 30 men and two women.
Armed with her standard-issue pistol, Agent Lorena Apodaca checks out additional weapons for her shift – an M4 automatic assault rifle and an FN303 “less lethal” launcher that shoots paintball-like projectiles. She is one of six women among 300 agents assigned to the Border Patrol’s Deming station.
Faced with a shortage of agents and an influx of Central American women and children migrants over the past two years, Border Patrol has been looking to hire more women to the force. The agency, with the lowest ratio of women in federal law enforcement, said in 2014 it would hire 1,600 females.
But its recruiting efforts – including a campaign specifically targeting women – have come up short.
More than 6,200 women applied to vacancies posted between October 2014 and September 2015, according to the U.S. Customs and Border Protection, the Border Patrol’s parent agency. From that pool, more than 1,300 were considered qualified. Just 54 were hired.
About 5 percent of Border Patrol’s nearly 21,000 agents are female, compared with an average of about 15 percent across other federal law enforcement agencies, according to Women in Federal Law Enforcement, or WIFLE, an advocacy group.
“They are working hard,” WIFLE executive director Cathy Sanz, a retired agent of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, said of Border Patrol. “They are trying. Other federal agencies are watching what they are doing” – i.e., looking for signs of success in attracting women to the force – “because others are thinking they might want to go down this road.”
Apodaca, who is 5-foot-2, secures her weapons in the back seat of an F-150 pickup and puts a booster pillow up front. She describes how, at 37, she was one of two women in her class to make it through the agency’s rigorous academy.
She jokes about being a woman in Border Patrol as she scoots her seat forward: “That’s the biggest challenge we face – reaching the pedals.”
But the challenges of the hiring process and the field are real.
Built in hiring bias
Border Patrol is still examining why it hasn’t been able to attract and retain more women.
The agency has a high attrition rate of applicants who opt out during the 10-step hiring process, according to recruiter Agent Jennifer Ortiz. A Border Patrol union representative notes that the job is “difficult, even for males.” Sanz says the hiring process itself is “designed for people to fail” but is especially biased against women.
A 90-question application is the first of 10 hurdles. Then comes a written test, an oral interview, physical fitness test, medical exam, drug screening, polygraph and an FBI background check. The oral interviews in the Border Patrol sector that includes New Mexico are conducted in El Paso – so would-be recruits from anywhere in the state must travel to West Texas.
After clearing those obstacles, recruits attend an 11-week training academy – 19 weeks if they aren’t already proficient in Spanish – in Artesia.
“Just the process alone stops you from hitting your numbers,” Sanz said. “From a ‘women in law enforcement’ point of view, we look at processes that are biased. It’s designed for people to fail. The focus becomes women because some of the categories affect women more.”
The training isn’t local, so “single parents start to self-select out,” Sanz said. She points to the “arbitrariness of some of the physical requirements,” including scaling the seven-foot wall, which “has been shown to be discriminatory,” she said.
The Border Patrol academy requires the seven-foot wall as part of its confidence course, according to an online manual of the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center in Artesia.
Some potential “biases” aren’t unique to Border Patrol, but were built into a federal law enforcement system that was by law almost entirely male until the 1970s.
Before 1969, women were not allowed to work any position in federal law enforcement that required carrying a gun, Sanz said. President Richard Nixon signed an executive order ending that ban and the first women were hired in 1971.
The percentage of women in federal, state and local law enforcement has been growing at the rate of one-tenth of one percent per year since then, she said.
“It took two decades to go two percent,” she said.
The 2,000-mile U.S.-Mexico border features urban pockets like El Paso and Ciudad Juárez or the spot where Nogales, Sonora, meets Nogales, Ariz. But vast stretches, including much of New Mexico’s southern border, are difficult, mountainous, desert terrain.
Border Patrol agents work alone. In places like New Mexico’s remote Bootheel – trafficked by drug runners who occasionally travel 10 together, carrying 60-pound loads of marijuana – agent backup can be an hour away.
“Once people see the job, it’s not for everybody,” said Shawn Moran, a border agent and spokesman for the National Border Patrol Council union, which represents 16,000 agents. “It’s very physically demanding. It’s a difficult job, even for males. The odds are never in our favor. You have the dangers of law enforcement in general and then you throw on the dangers of the terrain and being outnumbered.”
Does an agent’s size or build or voice matter at the moment of a potentially dangerous apprehension?
Sanz says no.
“This is something they find in research: As soon as women arrive on a scene, they de-escalate a situation,” she said.
In eight and a half years on the job, most of them spent in the field, Apodaca has only threatened lethal force once, she said. She caught two suspected unauthorized immigrants in the desert – “one of them was big” – and she drew her weapon but did not point it at them or fire, she said.
Instead, she told them to take their shoes off – a go-to move that she says can quickly put her in control of a situation. (The men were allowed to put their shoes back on after they were handcuffed, she said.)
“Shift work is difficult for any agent,” said Ortiz, who also joined Border Patrol at 37, at the urging of her husband, who is an agent. “As a recruiter, I like to be honest and tell whoever I speak to ‘This is what you’re going to be doing on a daily basis. You are going to be working by yourself. You are going to be working in the dark.'”
Much time spent alone
Amy Flores, 20, waitresses at Delicias Mexican Restaurant in Las Cruces six nights a week and studies criminal justice at Doña Ana Community College during the day. Her dream, she says, is to join Border Patrol.
She is working through the 90-question application online but hasn’t found time to finish, she said.
Flores lights up when she recalls first hearing about Border Patrol from an agent who visited her high school. She loved the variety of the job the agent described: the combination of police and detective work, midnight patrols, drug-busting.
“It’s something I’m passionate about,” she said.
And, she said, “If something is going to happen to you, it’s because it’s meant to happen to you. I’m not really scared of being alone.”