A female Border Patrol agent explains why the agency needs more women

When Border Patrol Agent Nicole Ballistrea encounters female migrants traveling from Mexico into southern Arizona with a group of men, she asks the women if they’d prefer to be searched privately, away from the group.

“If I was a female migrant, I’d want privacy,” said Ballistrea who, after almost six years on the job, was plucked from the field for a temporary gig in the press office at the Border Patrol’s Tucson Sector.

Although Ballistrea’s method is ideal, it’s not always feasible. There aren’t nearly enough female agents to offer that kind of privacy to every female migrant apprehended along the southwest border. In fact, while the number of women caught entering the U.S. illegally through Mexico has increased 173 percent since 2011 — reaching 121,000 last year alone — the number of female agents within the U.S. Border Patrol has hovered around 5 percent.

But that’s about to change. Or, at least, the agency hopes it will.

Late last year, U.S. Customs and Border Protection received federal approval to embark on its first-ever exclusively female hiring spree, and the agency went to work developing an ad campaign geared toward women recruits.

The U.S. Border Patrol is trying to strengthen the female presence within its ranks. This image is from a recent hiring campaign targeted at women.
The U.S. Border Patrol is trying to strengthen the female presence within its ranks. This image is from a recent hiring campaign targeted at women.

That specific push lasted only the first two weeks of December 2014, but the mission to increase the female presence among the Border Patrol’s ranks is ongoing, with CBP continuing to use those tailor-made recruitment tactics even after reopening hiring to applicants of both genders.

“We’ve done several studies with our applicant pool, our pipeline and current female agents and found that, typically, the women that are interested in the Border Patrol agent position have a liking for the outdoors, are sports-oriented, into health and fitness, often interested in firearms,” Joe Battaglia, who runs the national recruitment effort for the CBP’s office of human resources, told Yahoo News.

Those are exactly the kinds of women Border Patrol is trying to find, marketing to organizations such as the National College Athletic Association, the American Council on Exercise, the Women’s Sports Foundation and USA Triathlon, in addition to veterans organizations that have proved to be fertile recruiting ground for aspiring Border Patrol agents of either gender.

It was at a job fair in Buffalo, N.Y., where Ballistrea first envisioned herself patrolling the cities, mountains and vast desert of the southwest border. As she listened to a recruiter’s pitch, she realized a career with the Border Patrol could be the perfect opportunity to combine the Spanish she studied in college with her interest in immigration law, while also working outside. Plus, she wanted a challenge.

And joining the Border Patrol is a challenge, particularly for women, who (except during those 10 days last December) are judged against their male counterparts at every stage — from the application process, which includes physical and written exams, to the 19-week training — before they’re even sent out into the field.

Equal expectations regardless of gender is one of the pillars of the hiring campaign, as emphasized in this video on the Customs and Border Protection website. The message to female applicants seems to be equal parts warning and reassurance that they will not be treated differently from their male counterparts.

“If there’s something I can’t do exactly as my male counterparts, I’ll figure out a way to do it,” Ballistrea said. “Just because I’m female doesn’t mean I can’t take on the same challenges as my male agents.”

Ballistrea insists she’s “never faced personally institutionalized gender discrimination,” though that’s “not to say men I’ve encountered automatically embrace women in the job.” But all agents, male or female, are required to complete the same 19-week training, work the same range of shifts and patrol the same areas — some of which are extremely remote.

Even so, Ballistrea recognizes why driving around in remote areas of the mountains or desert, sometimes at night and often alone, might not appeal to many women.

“Securing our nation’s borders can be really dangerous,” Ballistrea said. “Interdicting narcotics, apprehending individuals who are illegally entering the U.S. — we’re looking for women who are up to that challenge.”

But although some aspects of the job might seem more hazardous or disconcerting to women, when it comes to the exponential rise in female migrants, the Border Patrol is looking for stereotypically female characteristics to deal with the often-traumatized migrants they apprehend.

Migrating to U.S. through Mexico is very perilous, especially for women. There are no official statistics, but Amnesty International estimates that six in 10 women who make the journey are sexually assaulted along the way.

“We recognize that women are vulnerable to being victims of sexual assault, and having female agents would increase the likelihood of a woman coming forward to report that,” Ballistrea said.

Using a female agent to search a female migrant who has just been apprehended is, Ballistrea said, “something small we can do to help women to feel more comfortable.

“We need women with good people skills who are able to demonstrate compassion to the people we apprehend,” she continued. “We deal with sensitive but real-life situations involving people who may or may not understand what’s happening to them.”

CBP hasn’t decided whether it will go for another women-only hiring bid. But Battaglia said more than 5,500 women submitted applications during that 10-day period in December, and they continue to do so.

“That female-only announcement gave us the opportunity to put the message that we’re interested in hiring women in front of the right people, to spark their interest,” Battaglia said.

The search for more female agents is not only a response to the changing demographics of the migrant population, but also, as Ballistrea said, an effort to “better reflect the workforce of America.”