How the Border Patrol Recruits Latino Teens

For high schoolers who live near the border, immigration enforcement can seem like the only career option.

The shoulder of a Border Patrol agent is seen, with the institution's patch prominently displayed.
A Border Patrol agent stands at a highway checkpoint on Aug. 1, 2018, in West Enfield, Maine. Scott Eisen/Getty Images

Morley Musick is a journalist who moved to Ajo, Arizona, last year to cover the border. At a tiny local high school, he talked to kids, some of whom commute to the U.S. from Mexico, about how they interacted with Border Patrol. Being an agent actually sounds like a pretty good job, they told him.

That’s how he learned about the Border Patrol Explorers—think the Boys Scouts, but for immigration enforcement. He reported on the program for the Nation, charting how Border Patrol uses it to recruit young Latino students and indoctrinate the organization’s ideology. I spoke to Musick about the group on Tuesday’s episode of What Next. Our conversation has been edited and condensed below for clarity.

Mary Harris: How did this Explorers program start?

Morley Musick: It was started in Laredo, Texas, in 1984 by a Border Patrol agent and former Boy Scout named Gerald Tisdale. The idea was that there were other law enforcement exploring groups that helped build community relations in instances when people might be hostile to the police or sheriffs. He wanted to establish that for the Border Patrol for, I suspect, similar reasons of people being hostile to agents.

So what does it mean to be a Border Patrol Explorer?

That means joining a local troupe. Most of the border communities in Arizona and Texas have a troupe, and you learn how to do border enforcement work.

How old are these kids?

They’re usually 14 to 18. Most of the training scenarios that the Border Patrol Explorers do are about arresting immigrants who are trying to cross through the desert. So inevitably, the exercise requires some first-generation kids to role-play as immigrants and other first-generation kids to role-play as agents. They give them little plastic guns or pellet guns and they tell them to go off into the desert: “You guys go hide behind a bush, and you guys track their footprints down and go arrest them.” Or immigrants are trying to sneak by on the highway and you do a high-risk vehicle stop. And the immigrants are going to pull out a gun this time, or this time they’ll be compliant.

Did they ever do humanitarian work?

They do community work, like highway cleanups. Sometimes you’ll see that parts of highways are maintained by, for example, Border Patrol Explorer Post 251. They also learn first aid as well as the truism that the Border Patrol is the largest humanitarian organization working in the desert.

These scouts also compete in regular “tactical competitions.” You can find videos of these competitions online, with kids simulating raids and scaling climbing walls. These videos have a really intense rock ’n’ roll soundtrack. And a lot of times the kids are in almost riot gear—they have shields and things like that.

It’s all sort of reflective of the militarization of the police in the U.S. and the increasing ambiguity between fighting wars and doing standard border enforcement or police work at home.

These video trailers that advertise the competitions also include a bit of counterterrorism. There’s one video where there’s a bomb made out of Coca-Cola cans, and another where there’s an incoming phone call with the words written in Arabic. And all of it’s scored to a James Bond or Mission Impossible theme. The kids get to think they’re in a movie, but it’s really dangerous.

I was struck that a lot of the kids you talked to were Latinx. I wonder what that says to you.

Border Patrol itself has a really, really high percentage of Latinx agents. And I think the banal fact of it is that most of the people that live in border communities are Latinx, and Border Patrol does its recruiting and community relations there. If Latinx kids really want to affirm to themselves that they are American, this is a way of proving it. Or it’s about money, a way up into the middle class. There are very, very few other ways.

Why do they see joining the Explorers program as financially good for them?

Because it’s good training to become an agent. You can form connections with agents who will advocate for you when you do eventually go on to join the Border Patrol. But I think more often than that it’s seen as interchangeable with pre-military training. They want to join the Army later.

Did you feel like the picture these teenagers got of life in the Border Patrol was accurate?

It’s hard for me to say because I was never allowed to go on training missions with them, despite the fact that many local reporters had in previous years. I think my affiliation with the Nation probably really hurt me there. I will say that the kids actually got much more access to the uglier sides of Border Patrol work than I had suspected.

What do you mean by that?

The Idaho Explorers had actually been taken on a field trip to a detention facility, and they had had an idea: This is where we lock people up. You can see the doors are open. We’re feeding them. And then the officers take the Explorers on these things called ride-alongs, where they might get to see actual arrests of a big group of immigrants. I talked to one kid whose agent in charge had allowed him to pick up this 100-pound bundle of marijuana, like the kind migrants sometimes have to carry through the desert as a way of paying off their debts to the cartel. The kids had all gotten to try on the marijuana bundle and see that it’s really hard for the migrants: This is really heavy, and they have to walk 100 miles with it.

Did you get any reaction to your piece after it published? From people you were with in Idaho or anywhere else?

I asked about the Idaho reaction, and I was told by Gail, the woman I was staying with, that she didn’t know anyone who had read it, and she hadn’t read it. I got a big internet reaction with thousands of people commenting, “This is the new Hitler Youth.” My guess is people saw this funny, outrageous cover image that the Nation ran. And that’s about as far as they got in the article. So the reaction was people saying, This is really, really bad. And I still harbor some unease about being an outsider and exposing this to liberals in cities or whoever happens to be reading the Nation—

Because they’re going to see it a certain kind of way.

I stand by the fact that this program is outrageous and just bad. But you have to take into consideration the factors for why it exists. There are economic factors. These are ex-mining communities for the most part, and nothing has come in to replace that. If no one is proffering an alternative to these kids, and there’s so little money for youth programming and career programming in these communities, what are we going to do?

My cursory sense of the matter is that we need to offer explorer troops that provide similar camaraderie and leadership training, but that do things that are important and good, like conserving the desert and improving economic opportunities in Latin America. And my sense is if there were a government that actually offered Border Patrol agents and kids opportunities to do things that make the world better, that address the historical and socio-economic causes of immigration, the kids would jump at it like that. They’re normal people who want to do good, meaningful things. And as it happens, like they have very few options of good meaningful work to do. They have this option and they take it.

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