Q&A with America’s top border cop, 1st woman to run the Border Patrol

Author: Anna Giaritelli, Washington Examiner - August 9, 2018 - Updated: August 23, 2018

U.S. Border Patrol then-acting Chief Carla Provost takes questions as the Senate Judiciary Committee holds a hearing on the Trump administration’s policies on immigration enforcement and family reunification efforts, on Capitol Hill July 31, 2018. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

Carla Provost on Thursday was named chief of the U.S. Border Patrol, the first woman to lead the force in its 94-year history.

It’s the largest division within the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. Provost supervises 20,000 agents who patrol nearly 6,000 miles of international borders with Mexico and Canada.

Actually, Provost has been running the agency since April 2017 as acting chief, aided by assistant chief Scott Luck, pending her permanent appointment.

But Provost wasn’t waiting for the green light or thinking about how to run the agency. She was already settled in and viewed herself as a “permanent” fixture at Border Patrol, as she explained in a sit-down interview with the Washington Examiner before her official appointment.

Washington Examiner: You started out in Kansas, as a police officer, a beat cop. What brought you into law enforcement and then to the border?

Provost: I was raised in a tiny town in Kansas of less than 1,000 people. A little town called Burlingame, Kansas, just southwest of Topeka, the capital. Nobody in the family was in law enforcement, but I was raised with those Midwest values of hard work, and a lot of pride in country and all of that. July Fourth was probably the biggest holiday in the town — just celebrating our independence. Just raised in that fashion.

I went to college initially as a business student because I didn’t know what I wanted to do. While at Kansas State University my freshman year, I found the criminal justice program and just fell in love with it, so I transferred majors to sociology/criminal justice. I became a police officer not long after I graduated from Kansas State right there locally at Riley County Police Department … I was barely scraping by. Salaries for local police were not very high…

I thought I wanted one of those — what I believed in my early 20s — that prestigious federal job. Now, that was not the Border Patrol. I didn’t even know about the Border Patrol. I thought, ‘I wanna get in FBI, DEA, one of those that young people hear about’ … I was going through the hiring process with the U.S. Marshals in the ’93, ’94 time frame — almost all the way through the process and they had a hiring freeze.

So that cut that option off and it was a friend of mine at the U.S. Marshals who I had met while I was going through that process who said to me, ‘Hey, the Border Patrol’s hiring. You should put in. Get your foot in the door and you can move on to bigger and better things.’ So I did. I applied, really having no idea what the Border Patrol did — got accepted and literally had a week to decide and leave my job at the police department and I entered on duty in Tucson and then they stick you on an old bus — this was the ’90s, our vehicles were junk, everything — and they drove us on back roads down to Douglas, Arizona…

I have to admit, I thought to myself a couple of times, “Technically, I’m on annual leave at the police department. I could go back.” But I stuck with it, went out to the academy in Georgia. Came back to Douglas and I just fell in love with the Border Patrol. Within one year of being in the Border Patrol, I swore I’d never leave.

In this 2016 photo, a Border Patrol agent walks near the secondary fence separating Tijuana, Mexico, background, and San Diego. (AP Photo/Gregory Bull, File)

Washington Examiner: Transitioning to the wall. There’s a debate that the National Border Patrol Council wants a physical wall because it means people. What’s your idea of a secure border?

Provost: My perfect secure border … has the wall, the impedance and denial. It has technology, which is our detection capability and our ability to improve situational awareness. It has more roads and access to get to the perimeter. And it has more men and women who have to respond and take action.

The reason I say that is from my own personal experience. When I got to Douglas, Ariz., in 1995, there was no fence, no wall … The amount of crime in the community — we couldn’t control anything because we had none of that. When we added cameras, when we added a wall — a fence, whatever you want to call it, a barrier — it made it easier, particularly in those border towns. It reduced crime in the town … Whenever we add the resources to the area that pushes the traffic because they go to the area of least resistance…

We had 654 miles of barrier, wall, fence, whatever you want to call it before President Trump came in. We’ve been building in the four administrations that I’ve worked under… It’s not new and we’ve known it’s worked…

The ports of entry are not closed. That’s where we want people coming and presenting themselves, coming into the country legally. That’s what makes a secure country … The more people that we have going between the ports of entry trying to enter illegally makes our job harder between the ports because we have to focus on those large groups of people that may not be a terrorist threat but is certainly manpower intensive.

Washington Examiner: There’s been reports recently of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen and the former secretary and now White House chief of staff, John Kelly, essentially laughing about the idea of Trump building a wall.

Provost: I have not heard anything about that. No, I really haven’t … I have briefed now-chief of staff Kelly on the wall. And he has been extremely supportive from the beginning. He’s an operator himself and he understands and wanted to know from us what it truly was that we needed. We told him this mixture is what we need. He’s been supporting us right from the get-go. So has Secretary Nielsen. My experiences with her, my briefings, she’s been highly supportive.

Washington Examiner: Do you identify with Obama or Trump’s policies?

Provost: I am nonpartisan. I’ve worked under four administrations now: Clinton, Bush, Obama, and now Trump. My job is to worry about the men and women of the Border Patrol — our mission and getting them what they need to do their job safely and securely … Our focus in the Border Patrol is to stay focused on the mission and ensure that we are doing our job to support the bigger DHS mission and Customs and Border Protection as well as between the ports of entry. So it’s not something I think of. It’s not something I think most agents think of on a day-to-day basis because we are career employees, not appointees.

A Guatemalan father and son who allegedly crossed the U.S.-Mexico border illegally are apprehended by a U.S. Border Patrol agent in San Diego on June 28, 2018 (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)

Washington Examiner: There was a congressional hearing earlier this spring and lawmakers talked about the $40,000 recruiting cost for an agent who’s going to get a $40,000 salary.

Provost: It’s tough to recruit for the Border Patrol, but I wouldn’t even just put it at that issue. It’s tough because of the locations we’re at: Small, border communities, not always the best health care, not always the best education systems. A lot of our Border Patrol agents are born and raised in the border region. Fifty-two percent of our personnel are Hispanic — raised in the community and knowing Border Patrol.

Recruitment for law enforcement in general is tough right now. We are competing with all these other agencies and the state and locals have upped their game from the time I came in and my salary was $26,000. My first year on the Border Patrol was at $45,000. What has happened over the years is the state and locals have made their salaries much more commensurate with the federal government so it’s made the competition harder for getting into the federal … We did not hire in 2014, so then you kind of get behind on the curve and have to catch back up.

Washington Examiner: You mentioned the majority Hispanic personnel. I would guess that’s not something that the average person knows.

Provost: The only thing that makes it into the news is anything that’s in a negative fashion. What doesn’t get out is all of the great, amazing things that our men and women do day in and day out. And I would tell you it doesn’t make it into the media generally because it’s not sexy.

We built, we stood up a BORSTAR Unit, Border Patrol Search Trauma And Rescue, specifically to save lives. We do thousands of rescues each year. I think we’re averaging around 4,000 rescues a year, and the majority of them along the Southwest border. People don’t realize those types of things. We want to take down smuggling rings because they treat people like cargo. You see all of these tractor trailer loads…

But at the same time, I have seen and I’ve done it myself. Border Patrol agents, they apprehend people (who are)  hungry and they’re thirsty. (Agents) go through a drive-thru on their way to take them in and they use their own money to buy them food and something to drink. I, many a time back in the day, ran through whether it was McDonald’s usually in Douglas because there wasn’t a lot of options, but agents do those things. They go home, they’ve brought diapers in, they’re brought hand-me-down clothing from their children.

Most people don’t know that at Central Processing Center that if kids are in custody over Christmas, Santa Claus comes and we bring gifts. Those are the things that the general public never sees. And they don’t do it because I’m making them do it. They do it because we all understand the humanitarian effort. When you see small children or families that are in need, they step up and do these things out of the kindness of their hearts.

What people don’t see is when a mother hands her baby off to a man in a group and then they get lost from each other, time and again, we had one here recently, when we catch an infant with no parent. They don’t see how diligently we work with the consulates to try to reunite a mother with her child.

In this Aug. 11, 2017, photo, immigrants suspected of crossing into the United States illegally along the Rio Grande near Granjeno, Texas, are held by U.S. Customs and Border Patrol agents. (AP Photo/Eric Gay, File)

Washington Examiner: Border Patrol is made up of 95 percent men. It’s been that way for 20 years. With more women moving into the workforce percentage-wise, how do women in a male-dominated industry like law enforcement, get their point across that they can handle the job?

Provost: I was brought up that I can do anything. And it wasn’t, ‘You’re a girl, you can’t do this. Only boys do that.’ So I never looked at myself when I joined the Border Patrol as a female Border Patrol agent, just a Border Patrol agent. And I approached everything in that manner…

What I tell young female agents now is, “A female on the Border Patrol — because there are so few of us — you do stand out. But you control your destiny in how you stand out. You’re either considered to be 10-8 or a slug.” It’s a hard thing to explain. 10-8 means you’re a hard worker, right, you’re 10-8, you’re a go-getter. As a female, if you work hard, you are recognized more, I will tell you, than a male, because there’s so few of us. At the same time, if you’re not working as hard, you stand out more than the men who are not…

Washington Examiner: What’s your vision for Border Patrol? What’s your message?

Provost: When you look internally, I would say it’s to get more of the resources to support my men and women so that they can do their job more safely, which of course, impacts the public as well … As a parent, I have a 12-year-old. I sleep better at night because I do know what the Border Patrol does out there and I do know the bad actors we’re preventing and the drugs that are apprehended and the risks that the men and women are putting their lives at. Last year, I lost two men and women…

My vision is to get that message out — of the great things the men and women do and get them the support behind them to do their national security mission … 99.9 percent are good, hardworking men and women. That’s another thing that gets broadcast: The bad apples are the only thing that gets broadcast in law enforcement in general. The hardworking men and women of the Border Patrol don’t want those bad apples. They want them sacked up the same as the public does and I think that’s the same for all law enforcement.

One bad doctor — people don’t look at all doctors and say, “Well they’re all bad.” But we know there are bad doctors out there. One bad cop or Border Patrol agent, and that general mindset of the public, of all Border Patrol agents are bad, or all law enforcement police officers are bad, is unfair to our men and women that enforce the laws.

Anna Giaritelli, Washington Examiner

Anna Giaritelli, Washington Examiner