NACO, ARIZONA — Helen Brady’s harsh words ring with the unruffled authority of a Border Patrol agent. “Turn away from the sound of my voice, and put your hands in the air!” she shouts. “Lock your elbows and spread your fingers!” Her target listens carefully, making jazz hands and cowering as more orders are barked.
“Bend at the waist, and put your hands behind your back. Knuckles touching, thumbs up! Now DO NOT MOVE!” Helen marks her steps, approaching slowly. The spectators are frozen as she whips out a pair of handcuffs and slaps them on.
Another day, and what sounds like another arrest on the Arizona border. Naco is a city where “The Border” is no abstraction. It is the painfully real corrugated-steel barrier — rusted in spots, barbed in others — that slices the town neatly in two. One half for the United States, one half for Mexico. In Naco, the border is where illegal immigrants and the Border Patrol come to perform their intricate ballet of catch-and-release.
But Helen is no ordinary agent, and her prey is no real fence hopper. Helen wears a close-enough-to-be-real Border Patrol uniform and a severe expression on her otherwise impish face. Her wispy brown eyes are timid and hard to catch. She enunciates her words almost too carefully, aware of their precocious power. She is just 14 years old. While many other girls her age are filling the chatmosphere with gabby text messages, Helen is practicing arresting illegal immigrants. (Or, in this case, her friend Courtney.)
Helen, along with 20 other teens, is an officially certified Border Patrol Explorer Scout. The 90-day training program, started last year by the Boy Scouts, exposes teens, ages 14 through 17, to a career with the Border Patrol. “It gives you a cool feeling, like you’re a real agent or something,” says Helen.
Border Patrol Captain Terrence Ford started off with the basics of statutory and criminal law. But the fare quickly became more challenging — if not controversial. The teens learn to raid buildings. They learn to pull cars off the road. They learn to shoot guns. They even learn to track “illegal immigrants” — or advisers dressed as illegal immigrants — on moonless nights with night-vision goggles.
This is definitely not your father’s scouting program, but it’s still a huge hit with parents. Enrollment is swelling. On “family day,” proud parents come to swill lemonade and shoot home movies of their teens performing mock felony vehicle stops. The idea of teens acting as de facto Border Patrol apprentices may raise eyebrows in some parts of America. But in Southern Arizona — with 370 miles of shared border with Mexico — it’s not just practical. It’s practically inevitable. Call it the internship of the 21st century.
For teens on the American side of Naco, the border is a means of security — and even a potential career opportunity. But below the line, in Naco, Mexico, the border is the subject of hatred. For Mexican teens developing an identity and a sense of their place in the world, it represents a constant slap in the face — and, in their eyes, the ultimate double standard. It keeps friends and family on opposite sides of the fence from visiting each other, while ensuring that the Mexican half of Naco is forever abloom with border crossers and drug smugglers.
“There shouldn’t be a fence at all, because we’re all the same,” says 15-year-old Michelle Rascon, who lives on the Mexican side of Naco. Her eyes flash like fireworks. “[The Border Patrol] discriminates against Mexicans, and they make us feel less by putting that up. They ask everyone going into America for a passport — but why not do it the other way too? Why not require Americans to show a passport to come over here?”
HELEN BRADY HAS NEVER VENTURED south of the border, despite being able to see Mexico from her back yard. She lives on the San Pedro River — an idyllic belt of green trees in the otherwise sun-bleached Sonoran Desert. On the southern horizon, the Huachuca Mountains slice across the yawning Mexican sky like the serrated edges of a bone saw. It is a beautiful but lonely place to live.
The roads leading to Helen’s house are empty except for small herds of oversize pickup trucks, roaming like ghosts of the buffalo they replaced. Flower-bucket memorials pepper the roadside, a quick but poignant reminder of death at 70 mph.
Along with her parents and seven siblings, Helen lives a couple of miles north of Naco in Palominas, Arizona — population 1,200. Her father is a state prison chaplain in nearby Douglas, while her mother focuses on homeschooling her children. The Brady home is like a campus itself: flush with study-hall tables, computers, textbooks and musical instruments. Upstairs, there is a pulpit and a grove of gray folding chairs for church meetings.