Crossing Guards in Training

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.

In Buffalo, Sorrento had been tending bar at an Irish pub and trying to figure out what to do after college. He longed for a career in law enforcement, and was about to take a job in the New York state prison system. But he dreaded working indoors in a harsh environment.

Sorrento poured out his worries one night to a friend at the pub who suggested the Border Patrol.

The friend, a former agent who’d moved back to Buffalo for personal reasons, warned Sorrento about the academy. You’ll be in physical training for what seems like hours, but when you look at the clock, only 15 minutes will have passed. The instructors will douse you with pepper spray and sic other trainees on you to hone your self-defense techniques.

That night, Sorrento went home, logged on to the Border Patrol’s website and e-mailed in his application. He started running four times a week.

Sorrento had only one worry — leaving the city where he had spent his entire life. All academy graduates are assigned to the busier southern border. (Only veterans can apply to transfer to the northern border.)

“It’s tough leaving your friends and family,” said Sorrento, 24.

In Brownsville, Marquez was bouncing from job to job.

A member of the Army reserves, Marquez was pulled out of college in 2002 to go to Afghanistan. When he returned to Brownsville the following year, he got married. But steady work eluded him. Marquez sold cars. He taught as a substitute teacher, and labored in a warehouse. He had always thought that he’d join the patrol someday; the agency had long been the only reliable employer on the border. Marquez sent in his application, and eventually was accepted.

Marquez’s parents are legal Mexican immigrants and he has many relatives across the border, but he saw no contradiction to starting a career stopping people from crossing illegally.

“They’re coming over here to get jobs, and I’m doing the same thing,” said Marquez, 26. “I’m just doing a job.”


Language Barrier

Lying on his back in a sweltering room one of his first days at the academy, Marquez had to admit that he was out of shape.

Instructors demanded that the class do 200 abdominal crunches, and after a few dozen, Marquez was unable to move. He lagged at the back of the class during runs at the high desert’s 3,300--foot elevation. Instructors who followed the runners in a golf cart to pick up the injured yelled at him to climb aboard.

“No, sir!” Marquez shouted, and dashed to catch up with the rest of the class.

Sorrento was in the lead. He had conditioned himself so well that he was the top runner in his group and given the privilege of carrying the class flag during runs and marches. He mastered the shooting and physical-fitness tests.

But only a fraction of each day is spent on the shooting range or in physical training. Most of the time, the recruits are inside, studying law enforcement procedures, immigration law and radio codes they will use in the field. They also spend two hours a day in Spanish class. About half of all trainees are native speakers; for the rest, Spanish is usually the most treacherous course.

In 18 weeks, Sorrento went from speaking no Spanish to being able to ask questions and give orders in the language. He passed all his weekly exams and his final. But he didn’t always feel comfortable using the language.

That’s what tripped him up during a role-playing session designed to mimic incidents on the border. Sorrento had to interview a Spanish speaker of questionable citizenship (played by an actor) and forward the information to a dispatcher — something he would do daily once he started his job.

The actor tried to make Sorrento uncomfortable, muttering under his breath and mocking the trainee’s Spanish. Sorrento got the character’s name wrong, and had to be corrected. Increasingly flustered, Sorrento misheard the response from the dispatcher that the suspect had three convictions for immigrant smuggling.

Sorrento did hear the dispatcher give him the suspect’s birthplace: Tecate, Baja California. He hesitated, then said: “Esta arrestado.”

Instructor Gabriel Espino halted the action. “Why are you arresting him?”

Sorrento and Marquez, his partner in the exercise, began to search for reasons: We can detain him and get more information. He has prior convictions. Espino eyed them skeptically.

Exasperated, Sorrento asked: “Is there a Baja California in the United States?”

Espino stared. “No,” he said. “Where are you from?”

Sorrento threw up his hands, and the stress of having to interrogate in a foreign language vanished from his face. “Buffalo,” he said. All three men burst into laughter.


Rookie Mistakes

T.J. Bonner remembers his first days in the field after graduating from the academy 15 years ago. He and a journeyman officer had watched a group of illegal immigrants flee through brush outside San Diego. The veteran said to let them go, but Bonner wanted to give chase.

“We can follow their footprints,” Bonner recalled saying. “So, he humors me. And we follow their footprints — right into a Safeway parking lot. And he looks at me and says, ‘Let’s go back, kid.’ ”

Bonner, now president of the union that represents Border Patrol agents, said the academy still turns out graduates who are too gung-ho.

The rookie in Marquez showed itself during a class on high-risk traffic stops. The trainees and instructors wore protective gear and were armed with paintball guns to demonstrate the split-second judgment required of agents during vehicle stops.

In the simulation, Marquez and his partner pulled up to two drug smugglers. One, played by instructor Erik Cansino, ran into a field, taunting Marquez’s partner, who followed him at a distance of several yards.

Marquez roughly cuffed the other instructor, turned, and charged at Cansino.

The instructor peppered Marquez with simulated bullets. Marquez dropped, his face-shield and bodysuit covered in pink splotches. As Cansino walked past his prone body, Marquez stuck out his leg to trip the instructor, rationalizing that he was supposed to fight to the end.

Marquez got up and ran back to the debriefing wearing a big grin. The lead instructor, Carlos Hernandez, wasn’t amused.

“You’re here in a controlled environment — he painted you up, you got a little dirty,” Hernandez said. “In the real world … “

“You’d be dead,” a classmate chimed in.

“Do you really want someone going to your home, telling your wife you didn’t make it?” Hernandez asked Marquez. The correct move was to let the guy wander off and call for backup, then track him.

Marquez smiled sheepishly and sat down.


When to Use a Weapon

Instructors privately marveled at Katy Foscue’s conditioning. She was far smaller than most recruits — 5-foot-1 and weighing barely more than 100 pounds. But she was able to handle the most demanding workouts.

Foscue was one of only seven women in Class 620. Four of them dropped out, and one flunked her physical fitness exam. “You definitely know you’re going into a man’s work,” she said with a laugh.

In one exercise, Foscue dressed in a bodysuit and held a padded baton while three of her classmates — also wearing protective suits — came at her from all directions. She hit the first in the knee, and the instructor told him to fall onto the mat.

The other two were tougher. One danced out of Foscue’s reach as the other grabbed her and began wrestling her to the ground. Foscue’s classmates, lining the walls of the workout room, began to shout advice: “Escalate force!” “Stack!” “Weapon, use your weapon!”

Hemmed in by the two men, Foscue wriggled, jabbing at them with her elbows and knees. Her training kicked in. She reached for her holstered plastic gun just as the instructor yelled that the simulation was over.

The lesson for Foscue was clear. In certain situations she’d have to use weapons — baton, pepper spray, or her gun — sooner.

“They say it’s not unusual to encounter groups of 50 by yourself,” she said. “That’s intimidating.”


To Their Stations

After months of being crammed in tiny dorm rooms, eating the same food in the mess hall and spending up to 10 hours a day training in the classroom or in the blazing sun, it was over.

On Sept. 26, graduation day, Class 620 gathered outside the academy auditorium. Foscue handed out cards and photos to her classmates.

The trainees knew where they were headed. Foscue was going back to southern Arizona to work at the Tucson station. (Her husband was assigned to a neighboring station.) Sorrento was also headed to Tucson. Marquez was going to Boulevard, a station in the hills east of San Diego. He was worried about the cost of living — he and his wife had rented a studio apartment for $990 a month.

Graduation was a relatively rapid affair. Michael T. McCall, a wry Georgian, was selected to give the class speech. “When I came here I could barely speak Spanish,” he said. “Well, now I’m happy to say I can still barely speak Spanish.”

After a comic review of the difficulties of the curriculum, McCall became serious. “Every member of Class 620 struggled with some part of the academics. It may have been immigration law, Spanish or physical techniques,” McCall said. “Every member you see here today held on and didn’t give up.”

The 34 graduates walked across the auditorium one by one, and accepted their credentials and badges. They stood and swore the oath of office. Then they marched out, hugged their families, introduced them to classmates and an instructor or two, and fled the campus. After five months, they were eager to get to the border.