By Daffodil Altan
New America Media
EL CAJON Just inside the El Cajon Border Patrol Station, where a thick gate opens to a concrete yard littered with tiny portable trailers, a group of handsome young Border Patrol agents stands at attention. Their leader, Gil Maza, a 40-something agent with a child’s face and a wide smile, says hello. It turns out these aren’t agents, but high school students who have come from around San Diego to learn what it takes to become a U.S. Border Patrol agent.
The El Cajon Border Patrol Explorers belong to a national cadre of teenagers who engage in an intense, four-month micro-version of the Border Patrol Academy. They aren’t real agents and don’t engage in real law enforcement, but they train the way real agents train. They practice simulated car searches, ride along the border with other agents, learn to shoot firearms, endure tough physical training and study the basics of immigration law.
Today, Maza and his “senior” Explorers will talk to a group of potential recruits. Maza is itching to show them the slide show he’s put together from last year’s program kids repelling off of an old dam, simulating arrests, marching in parades set to Jimi Hendrix and Pink Floyd.
One of those kids is Hector Gonzalez, whose mom signed up Hector and his brother for the program two years ago. His mother saw the program, he says, “as a way to live out of that small bubble that we lived in.” Hector’s head is shaved clean and he has a slight lisp. He says that some of his hometown friends are involved in gang banging, drive-by shootings and other “illegal stuff.” He still hangs out with them, but now “whenever I’m going to do something I think about it twice,” he says. “I think, if Agent Maza was here, would I be doing it?”
Part of Maza’s mission is to operate as something of a role model for the kids in the program, many of whom are Hispanic and Spanish speakers. These days, forty percent of the Border Patrol is Hispanic. Maza speaks Spanish easily to the kids’ parents, cracks old military jokes and says that if it weren’t for the Marines, he’d still be pumping gas in his tiny border hometown of Douglas, Ariz. Maza’s family is predominantly Mexican, but “I’m a mutt,” he says, and more importantly, “an American.”
The Explorer program is sponsored by the Boy Scouts of America. “Exploring,” as it’s known within the Boy Scouts, is part of a national program called Learning for Life, which exposes interested teenagers to a range of potential careers, from culinary and medical professions to law enforcement. Boy Scout offices nationwide provide training manuals, workshops and insurance for participating teens; it’s up to the individual agencies, stations or schools to run their own programs.
There are 1,058 law enforcement Exploring posts across the country, according to the Boy Scouts. The organization did not have data on the number of Border Patrol programs.
Border Patrol agents who run the weekly three-hour trainings, and the kids who participate, do so voluntarily. Six of the 10 Border Patrol stations in San Diego county run Explorer programs. The $100 or so that goes toward uniforms and travel is raised by the group. Ultimately, “the kids run these Explorer programs as if they were running their own station,” says Todd Fraser, Border Patrol spokesman and former Explorer Post volunteer.
Kimberly Barajas, a “Senior Explorer,” has returned for her third year of training. She’s been promoted to Assistant Patrol Explorer in Charge. She’s 16, beautiful and intimidating. “You’re gonna need to buy a belt with a black buckle and black boots,” she tells the group. “And for the females, your hair has to be pulled back nice and neat in a bun.” Her own bun is airtight. She’s liked the program, she says, “because it keeps me off the streets.” After high school she says she wants to join the Air Force, then pursue a criminal justice career and eventually attend the real Border Patrol Academy.
Maza explains to the group what is expected and required to join: a C-average in school, a background check, U.S. citizenship, community service hours and dedication to the 17-week program. “Through that process you’re going to undergo a lot of mental and physical challenges, and emotional, ‘cause you’ll be crying,” he tells them. These challenges “could make you earn what these senior Explorers are wearing today: that uniform, that badge, that name plate, and if you really want that pretty little insignia on their collars then you’re going to have to work twice as hard.” His tone is friendly, but firm.
Before finishing up, Maza reads the Border Patrol creed to the group. “...I recognize the duty of an Explorer is to learn the ethics of enforcement service. I will constantly strive to achieve these objectives and ideas, dedicate myself to God and my chosen future profession: law enforcement.” He reiterates to the group that the kids are not obligated to join law enforcement.
“We’re not recruiting for the Border Patrol or for law enforcement,” Maza says later. He says the stations that host Exploring programs instead use Border Patrol and law enforcement resources “to build leadership, responsibility, self confidence.”
After the meeting and the interviews, the kids seem indifferent, but many parents are convinced. Rocio Garcia decides to sign up her 14-year-old son and 16-year-old daughter. She’s not worried about the negative rap some of her family members in Mexico and the United States give the Border Patrol. Her brother-in-law is an agent, Garcia says, and she thinks the discipline will be good for her kids. “They get to see the process of an officer,” she says.
I wanna be a BP Agent I wanna work the border line I wanna live the life of danger Chasing terrorists all the time
It’s a cold Wednesday night, black outside except for the harsh halo of light hanging over the El Cajon High School football field. The new Explorer team, which is made up mostly of young women, has gathered here for the first night of physical training. Twelve in all march and then run in a tight formation around the track, singing a song Maza penned.
Running through hills and running through valleys Running through mountains and deserts too Got my badge got my 40 Got myself a paycheck too
The workout goes on for nearly two hours. The group does hundreds of push-ups, sings along, drops down and does more push-ups. Liliana Osorio, 17, a lithe Explorer with long reedy arms and a hidden, expansive smile that betrays her shyness, listens to Maza, who is screaming.
“Most of you are supposed to fail from this group because you’re not going to try hard enough. Another percentage is going to fail because you don’t believe in yourselves. That means, as far as the world is concerned, only one of you is going to survive this and succeed. Who’s that gonna be?”
“Oh, so you’re saying all of you are going to succeed?”
“So you’re saying the world is wrong?”
Liliana has returned for her third year, this time with her 14-year-old brother. “I learned to believe in myself,” she says of the program. “It pushes me and it’s good.” Liliana wants to be a social worker when she grows up. Her little brother, Alejandro, wants to be a Border Patrol agent.
It matters, says Liliana’s mother, Juana, that Maza is Latino. “Historically it was believed that everyone here was purely American, and now Latinos also hold high posts here,” she says. “They play an important role.”
Maza says he tries to be candid when kids ask tough questions about undocumented immigrants, or how he might address the recent and controversial shootings by the Border Patrol.
“We teach them that even though primarily now as a border patrol agency we’re dealing with terrorism, and we deal with immigration issues, we do it with honesty, with fairness, with compassion.” Kids are taught that it is the Border Patrol’s job to assess what’s happening on the border, and then to take the necessary steps depending on the situation, he says. He says he encourages the Explorers to seek out as much information as possible and to decide for themselves what they think.
The camaraderie back at the station after the first workout is palpable. Maza pats people on the back, smiles and jokes. The Senior Explorers reminisce. The military tenor has dropped a notch. Maza soon fills the room with an end-of-the-night address. “If we work hard, you’re going to be the ones in the pictures next year where everyone’s gonna look at you and say, ‘Wow, they did that...You’re gonna be the ones people are gonna wanna be like.”
Sean Picou sits slumped in a chair after his first night. The T-shirt he and the rest of the group were awarded tonight is draped across his chest. His name is stenciled across the front.
“Look around you,” Maza says. “This is your family for the next 17 weeks and after that.”
Kimberly looks into the group, smiles and then looks back at Maza.
“I don’t want you to be anybody’s problem when you grow up,” Maza says. The new kids don’t seem to know what he’s talking about. Kimberly nods as he speaks. She seems to know exactly what he means.