Scouting has long been considered a path for young people to learn life skills, but a program along the United States-Mexico border goes a lot further than how to start a campfire or care for a park. It is run under the auspices of the U.S. Border Patrol, and it’s not so much camping in the wilderness but rather something much more intense, closer to bona fide basic military training. Working with the Reveal team from the Center for Investigative Reporting, photojournalist Sarah Blesener traveled to the border to capture images of the Border Patrol’s Explorer Program in action.

The Border Patrol Explorer Program has a partnership with Boy Scouts that allows boys to begin training as patrol agents at the age of 14. Girls can participate as well. The program is not new, according to Blesener, but it’s not very high profile.

“The whole concept was new to me, so a lot of things surprised me,” she says. “Ranging from firearm training to active attacker scenarios to high technology, like virtual reality training for kids in Kingsville, the kinds of scenarios they were experiencing were very adult-heavy for their age.”

But the most surprising thing, Blesener says, was how many of the youth participating in the program are Mexican-American. A few of the participants had family members who had come into the U.S. illegally, according to Blesener, and a few had immigrated illegally themselves and then later attained citizenship.

“They had experienced it all first-hand, and I think they are very, very aware of the issues with Border Patrol and everything that’s happening around them,” she says.

The program simplifies what’s happening, according to Blesener, in an effort to make it easier for kids to understand.

“They kind of heroicize the situation. So for them it’s simply, ‘Oh, well, we’re going to stop the bad ones, and law enforcement or legal aid can help the good ones,’” she says.

Blesener photographed the Border Patrol youth program for a larger project she is working on that focuses on patriotic education for young people in the U.S. She says the Border Patrol program differs from the other programs she’s photographed.

“This one stood out because of the intensity of what they are dealing with. I think because it is a direct career-path,” she says. “A lot of the kids who join other programs in the United States, maybe they do it for extracurricular activities, for a hobby, but in the Border Patrol it was very particular and intense.”

Most of the kids who are involved in the program end up going on to join the Border Patrol as agents or employees, according to Blesener. For one female participant in the program who Blesener met in Nogales, Arizona, the Border Patrol is the family business.  

“Her dad was in Border Patrol, so she grew up experiencing this lifestyle from a young age,” Blesener says. “Unlike other students, she didn’t necessarily want to join the Patrol after she graduated, and her dad kind of pushed her into doing it.”

Still, she plans to join the Border Patrol after attending college, according to Blesener.

“She’s very empathetic. She wanted to help people and not harm them. She had kind of a heroic view of what’s happening,” Blesener says.

For others, joining the Border Patrol is a means to attaining financial stability.

“That’s what a lot of the kids mentioned,” Blesener says. “It was a really good life choice for them.”

Blesener’s photos were published by the California Sunday Magazine.

 

Written by Kate Groetzinger.

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Sara Biesener

Sarah Blesener

Javier Velasquez (18) carries another student from the Border Patrol Explorer program during a 6 mile hike across the border wall, Nogales, AZ, 3 June 2017. The Border Patrol has 28 posts, primarily in Texas, Arizona, and California. The “Explorer” program offers 14-20 year olds the opportunity to work with law enforcement and experience what it is like to work as a border patrol agent.