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Crossing Guards in Training

The Border Patrol Academy is a blend of law school, physical endurance and Spanish immersion -- and a dose of pepper spray.

October 19, 2006|Nicholas Riccardi | Times Staff Writer

ARTESIA, N.M. — On a hot afternoon in May, buses carrying people with dreams of a better life rumbled across the desert to a converted Bible college on the edge of this oil town of 12,000.

As each bus rolled toward the front gate, an imposing welcome party came into view: a cluster of about a dozen men and women in sunglasses, broad-brimmed hats and crisp green uniforms, standing ramrod straight.

A former Marine on one bus flashed back to his boot camp days, and groaned: "Oh, no. Not again."

By day's end, the 50 members of Class 620 had settled in at the U.S. Border Patrol Academy, where over the next five months they would be chiseled into America's first line of defense on the southern border.

Among the recruits that day were Joseph Sorrento, whose dream of entering law enforcement led him far from his home in Buffalo, N.Y.; Philip Marquez, who had been boxing curtains at a warehouse in Brownsville, Texas; and Katy Foscue, who along with her husband had given up a trucking job and moved to a town near Tucson.

The three entered at a crucial time in the agency's history. Washington has been consumed with debate over illegal immigration. Hundreds of thousands of migrants have marched to demand amnesty. President Bush and congressional hard-liners who vowed to block his guest worker program have so far agreed on only one thing: The nation needs more Border Patrol agents along the border with Mexico.

That has placed intense pressure on the academy, which graduated 1,122 trainees last year but will enroll 3,600 this year. Traditionally, Border Patrol recruits have come mostly from the Southwest and had law enforcement or military backgrounds. Now, the patrol is forced to entice more diverse candidates from other parts of the country. Earlier this year, a crop of trainees would enter the academy every few weeks. Classes now start weekly -- Class 642 arrived today -- and the academy is expanding. Modular classrooms and dormitories are mushrooming across its 2,500-acre campus.

The students enter an institution that's unlike any other law enforcement school -- part police academy, part law school, part language institute. They learn to shoot, drive off-road and speak Spanish. Seventeen percent of all trainees do not complete the training. Some fail, but most who leave are worn down by the rigors and isolation of the academy. Thirty-four members of Class 620 would make it.

The tone was set the moment the trainees stepped off their buses May 18. The instructors ordered them to get their ID badges from the security building outside the gate fast, double-time.

After the buses pulled inside the academy and the trainees filled out the requisite paperwork, the instructors barked another command. They had seven minutes to unload their belongings and place them in their rooms. The students dashed into the squat, motel-like buildings where they would live for the next 20 weeks and found that their shared rooms contained just enough space for a bunk bed and one desk.

Foscue wasn't fazed. She'd expected the rough treatment. It was the next order that was most intimidating: Empty your biggest bag. You'll need it to carry your textbooks.


Finding a Career Path

After seven years of seeing the country while driving their own truck, Katy and Matt Foscue decided they wanted to live in the Arizona desert. They bought a house outside Tucson, where illegal immigration was as much a part of the scenery as towering saguaro cactuses. Migrants routinely traveled through a wash at the edge of the Foscues' property.

The two called the Border Patrol once, when they saw a white van abandoned along the route. But they were never alarmed about their own safety. "They're here to work," Katy, 35, said of illegal immigrants. "They don't want to get caught or do something stupid."

It wasn't the migrants that got the couple into the patrol. It was a haircut.

Matt was getting a trim one day last year when his barber began chatting with others in the shop about Border Patrol agents and how they never complain about their jobs.

Matt was intrigued, and quizzed the barber, who had several agents as customers. He introduced some to the Foscues. The more they heard, the more they liked: Every day is a different challenge. The benefits and pay are good -- after four years, agents can make about $65,000 with overtime. And there's a pension after 20 years.

The Foscues decided to fill out applications. They began running and doing push-ups to condition the "trucker bodies" they'd acquired. They accepted the randomness of the bureaucracy -- although they'd applied at the same time, Matt, 37, was scheduled to start the academy in Class 624, one month later than his wife. They would not be allowed to share a dorm room, and they would have to rent a room at a bed and breakfast to see each other on weekends.

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