Why the Border Patrol has launched an unprecedented recruitment effort for female agents

Border Patrol Agent Erica Sanchez was stalking immigrants on the banks of the Rio Grande, her long brown hair pulled back in a knot, her foundation and eyeliner intact despite the sweat running down her face in the 100-degree heat.

She picked her way down treacherous trails full of obstacles — downed trees, thorny branches, muddy holes. She watched for snakes too.

The well-worn dirt path was littered with remnants of the immigrants she tracks: men's and women's soggy underwear hanging from mesquite trees, diapers, toothbrushes, discarded Mexican bus tickets, torn yellow rafts and orange life preservers. Beneath the path lay a network of electronic sensors that alerts agents when migrants pass.

"You have to let them commit, come up, if you want to work it," Sanchez said. She pointed up the bank to where border crossers might find cover. "Where the tree line is at, there's houses right there. So you have to be fast."

Sanchez, 33, is a rarity in the Border Patrol. Just 5% of the agency's 21,000 agents nationwide are women, a smaller percentage than in other federal agencies, including the military, which is about 15% female.

The Border Patrol plans to hire 1,600 agents by the end of the fiscal year Sept. 30. Not all the slots must go to women, but U.S. Customs and Border Protection got a federal exemption to target women.

The unprecedented female recruitment effort comes after the Border Patrol was overwhelmed last summer by a surge of women and children on the southern border, mostly Central Americans coming through Texas' Rio Grande Valley where Sanchez works. There are fewer immigrants than last summer, but the number of families increased this month, and the region remains the border's busiest area for illegal immigration.

Salaries for starting agents range from $39,400 to $50,016, with potential promotions to $70,192, decent pay for high school graduates in the impoverished Rio Grande Valley. The Border Patrol is 54% minority, mostly Latinos.

Only 5% of agents in the Rio Grande Valley are female, 150 of 3,000.

Monique Grame, 39, a single mother from San Diego, joined the Border Patrol there almost 15 years ago during a recruitment drive, then shifted to an administrative job in Washington, D.C., until her son graduated from high school and she could return to the field here.

Now deputy patrol agent in charge of the Border Patrol station in McAllen, Grame said some of the biggest barriers to recruiting women have always been family-related. Agents often work overnight and other stressful shifts. They may be assigned to remote areas of the border without easy access to good public schools and day care.

The work is solitary, physically demanding and dangerous. Training includes an obstacle course with an 8-foot wooden wall, a considerable challenge to many women. Those who pass training and want to join specialized units such as mountain bike, boat or ATV patrols have to pass additional physical tests.

There are several practical advantages to adding female agents, Grame said. They are asked to question women migrants who were sexually assaulted. They may be asked to search female migrants (who often carry documents and other valuables in their bras) or to gather information about smugglers from female migrants by chatting them up.

"The women will tell them a lot through girl talk," Grame said.

When dealing with immigrant mothers and families, she said, "the perception is we're more natural, we put people at ease."

Like Grame, Sanchez was also a single mother. Raised in the Rio Grande Valley, she had her son as a teenager, graduating from Hidalgo High School and the nearby University of Texas-Pan American with a degree in criminal justice. She worked first as a pre-kindergarten teacher and cheerleading coach, then considered becoming a probation officer, but didn't want to get stuck behind a desk.

She had been a tomboy growing up, determined to prove herself to the gang of neighborhood boys she played with, and her approach to Border Patrol was the same.

"A lot of the guys see you as weak. Like, 'if something happens, she can't back me up.' So you have to work to get that trust, that respect from the guys so they can actually take you serious," she said as she patrolled the riverbank.

Before she applied to Border Patrol, Sanchez couldn't do a single pull-up. Now she can do six. She taught herself to tackle the 8-foot wall and shimmy across a rope obstacle to pass her initial training, then got a mountain bike to practice and pass the weeklong bike patrol test, the only female agent at her station to do so.

Agents can't use lights when they bike the river trails at night, which leads to falls and run-ins with low-hanging branches and prickly pear cactus.

"I have scars all over from working nights," Sanchez said. "It's challenging."

But she has held her own. Last week, several male agents were injured while chasing a group of 25 immigrants up from the river. A male agent had to get stitches. Her supervisor had to go to the hospital with a thorn in his knee. Sanchez was unscathed.

She once stopped a group of seven migrants who could have easily overpowered her and run, but when she told them to stay put, they obeyed, she said. She sometimes hears migrant men teasing each other after she has stopped them, saying, "Hey, the girl caught you!"

Her husband, a car salesman, supports her work. "He knows I can take care of myself. I beat him at shooting when we go to the range," she said.

There are a dozen other female agents based at her station in nearby Rio Grande City, and Sanchez ran into one of them on a bluff overlooking the river: Olga Torres, another Rio Grande Valley native.

Torres, 31, who stands 4 feet 11 inches, recalled how male trainees teased her about scaling the 8-foot wall in training seven years ago.

"I just jumped it like it was nothing," she said. "Some of the guys didn't make it."

The radios on their belts crackled. Agents downriver had spotted a group of migrants crossing. Sanchez drove back to a trailhead and set off on foot.

A Border Patrol helicopter passed overhead. Down on the trails, it was silent, and Sanchez tried to move as quietly as possible, avoiding the brittle brush that crunched underfoot. At times, she was close enough to neighboring houses to hear their televisions.

Sanchez could smell sewage as she descended into the wall of tall reeds that extended into the murky green river, parting the fronds and picking her way inside.

"They glide under this and we don't see them," she said.

Unable to flush the migrants out of the reeds, she hiked back up the bank and into the modest riverfront neighborhood, passing a white dog on a chain who sometimes alerts her that migrants have arrived, unless his owner sets out food to distract him.

Plenty of locals oppose the Border Patrol. But there are supporters, too, she said. A group of men on a porch waved in greeting.

Surrounding Starr County was ranked this year as the poorest of Texas' 254 counties. Sanchez's sister works for the Women, Infants and Children nutrition program.

Under a bridge downriver, Sanchez met up with agents facing a group of smuggling scouts, youths in swim trunks perched at the base of one of the bridge supports. They shouted catcalls at Sanchez.

"The way we study them, they study us," she said.

Smugglers often send multiple groups across different stretches of the river simultaneously, using the smaller groups as decoys to distract agents, often during afternoon shift changes.

After a brief search of the reeds, Sanchez made a show of leaving, loading up her green and white Border Patrol SUV while another agent secretly stayed behind, hidden beside the bridge to Mexico.

As she drove off, her radio crackled again. It was the agent she had left behind. As he watched, the first group of migrants emerged from the reeds, and two more attempted to cross the river. Sanchez was already planning aloud how to adjust her bike patrol the next day.

molly.hennessy-fiske@latimes.com

Twitter: @mollyhf

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