By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
By Dennis Romero
By Simone Wilson
“It’s kind of nasty,” she grimaces. “They leave bras, pads, underwear.”
The good news is that with a bevy of brothers and sisters to help, it doesn’t take long to clean. “We’ll usually knock it out in about a half-hour,” she brags.
The human traffic that trickles through her yard at night frightens Helen. Frightens, and annoys: She recently lost a favorite tie-dyed T-shirt off the clothesline in her back yard — swiped by illegal immigrants passing through. “We have sensor lights all around our house,” she says, and they’re set off by more than prowling animals. “My bedroom is right outside the place we hang our clothes. They go off almost every night, and you just think: Not again.”
Indeed, Arizona bears the largest amount of illegal traffic of any state along the 2,000-mile U.S.-Mexico border. Last year alone, the Border Patrol made 1.2 million arrests, yet it is estimated that for every one arrest made, two or three border crossers managed to avoid detection.
Helen, who spends her spare time sewing a gown for a “Jane Austen ball” she is planning with her friends, says that on a normal day, she sees at least 10 Border Patrol vehicles on her way to town. It’s like living in a state of martial law. Yet despite being acclimated to their ubiquitous presence, Helen can’t help it: She still gawks when she sees the Border Patrol arresting someone by the side of the road.
“I’m like, is that someone I know?” she says, craning her neck. Oftentimes it is. (The border agent, of course.)
Helen did not join the Explorers because of an odd love for hunting illegal immigrants, or an unsettling fascination with tactical law enforcement. Rather, it was for pedagogical purposes. As part of their children’s homeschooling, her parents insist that each of them spend one semester learning about law.
Many other local teens join the Border Patrol Scouts looking for something to do. Courtney Roberts, a 17-year-old graduate of the program, complains that there are “not a whole lot” of activities for teens around Naco. For her part, Courtney is ecstatic about starting a waitress job at the local Chili’s in the near future.
“We have our mall, but it’s not too big. And we have miniature golf, but it’s really hot outside.” She cocks her head woefully. “It’s so small — everyone knows everyone else.”
Captain Ford says the program is about more than killing time amid the doldrums of desert life; it is also a great way to get a foot in the door with the Border Patrol or the military, two of the region’s largest employers. “It’s a really good thing to put on your résumé,” he says. Plus, “I think the idea of chasing people is fun, arresting the bad guy,” he adds, his neon sunglasses reflecting the florid desert.
In his 30s, Ford looks like a cop sent by Central Casting. Despite the terrible heat and cornea-clawing dust eddies indigenous to the border, he is well-dressed and well-pressed. Later, Ford says he never sits down in his uniform while in public. (“It makes me look lazy,” he explains.)
Cory Roddey, 17, another recent graduate of the Explorer program, says forget the fun. For him, the program is a career steppingstone. “I’m going to try to get into the Border Patrol with their accelerated program,” he says. He has the stocky frame and buzzed head of an officer-already-in-training.
“Ten years from now, when I’m 27, I’ll probably be in the Border Patrol stationed somewhere around here. And if I could pick a post, it would be right here,” he says, glancing at Captain Ford for reassurance. “Naco station.”
Like many Arizona border teens, Cory realizes that the Border Patrol is one of the best career options available to him. The median annual household income around Naco, Arizona, is $26,143 — that’s 30 percent lower than the Arizona average. A third of Naco’s residents live below the poverty line. Meanwhile, entry-level agents make a starting salary of around $35,000, with ample opportunity to bring home overtime pay. And President Bush has called for the training and hiring of 6,000 more Border Patrol agents by 2008.
Captain Ford says teens who have committed themselves to the Explorer program have a distinct advantage when applying for plum jobs. “If it comes down to one [job opening] and two individuals, and they have the same qualifications except one was an Explorer for three years — sure, the tendency is to lean towards him,” he says.
But Ford says the benefits of the Explorer program cut both ways, since he also gets a look at some of the most promising young talent — a sort of farm league for border enforcement. “It’s a big recruiting tool,” he says.
It would seem only natural for teens living so close to the border to develop a curiosity about all things Mexican. Yet ironically, for many American border teens it is quite the opposite: They develop an aversion. Many speak little or no Spanish, and have no intention of picking it up. Helen Brady says she would like to learn French, although she admits, “Spanish would be more practical.”
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