San Diego, California
Looking for Humanity at the Border Patrol
Regardless of the political winds, Vinny Pirro and Theron Francisco see their role in no uncertain terms
I met Vinny Pirro and Theron Francisco at 7 a.m. at a Starbucks, only a minute away from the Otay Mesa area of San Diego that acts as the constantly-patrolled border between the U.S. and Mexico. We drove the long stretch of it that runs along the edge of Tijuana. Despite a few off-limits topics, Vinny and Theron were open about their work, the activity that surrounds the area, and the dangers inherent in protecting our borders. Both deftly avoided saying too much about the sensitive political issues that surround their work.
I was interested in capturing what the job was like here at an active border. How does one end up in an occupation like this? How physical is border patrol work these days, with modern technologies and advancements that have turned the borderline into a well-lit concrete strip that extends into the Pacific Ocean? It turns out to be quite physical, with on-foot tracking and apprehensions still a major part of the gig. But there’s a less-discussed aspect of the job that entails a large amount of humanity. Perhaps a little too manly to discuss it openly, but the EMT training, desire to speak to immigrants in their native tongue, active participation in helping communities on both sides of the border with better water, community-building, parks and recreation, shopping, and managing crime, all signal a deeper human story here. The agents I spoke to have both feet firmly planted in the north, but their hearts were clearly less bordered.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Josh Rose: Can you tell me a little about your upbringing and what brought you to San Diego?
Vinny Pirro: I was born in New York. I lived there all my youth, since I was 18 years old. I got to San Diego from the military, I joined the military when I was 18 — the Navy. I was stationed on the USS Nimitz, CVN 68.
Theron Francisco: I was born in San Diego, was born and raised here. Growing up here I obviously spent time at the beach. Surfing, body boarding, body surfing, skateboarding a lot. Bikes, BMX, doing all that as a kid, so every summer, it was the beach almost every day. During school and stuff just being on bikes, skateboarding, ramp skate parks, stuff like that.
Did you have a dream, something you thought you wanted to be when you were young?
Theron: No, not really. Never really… when I was real young, somehow I was like, “Oh, I want to be a dentist.” My stepdad would always be like, “Hey, you should be in dentistry, everybody needs a dentist. They make great money.” So I kind of was like, “Okay, I’ll do that, and then as I was going through school,” I’m like, “That’s just too much school.”
The student loan, getting in debt, and all. I mean I love school, but that route was going to take way too long and I didn’t want to do that. My first major career was construction, I worked in the construction industry.
Vinny: I knew that the Navy would help me pay for college. I didn’t have the money for college, at that time. I knew I always wanted to be law enforcement. But, I didn’t know which branch, and everything. But, I wanted to go to the military first, just so I can have that experience.
Like when you’re seven and eight. You watch movies, you watch TV shows, and you see the cops get the bad guys.You’re like, “Oh, I wanna be like that. I want to help people when I get older.” That’s what you see, and it turns into a dream, and then it becomes a reality.
Tell me more about your military service, Vinny. When you hit the military, was it what you thought?
Vinny: Oh, it was completely new. I had no family that really went to the military, so it was all new to me.
I remember the first day that I got off the bus at bootcamp, I was like, “What did I just get myself into?” But, eventually, everything became teamwork. We learned a lot of teamwork. My uncle always used to tell me that, “The military will either make you a man, or it’ll make you a bum. If you were a bum before, it’s not gonna change you.”
I wanted to be something better and different.
When I was with my ex-wife, she was tired of me always leaving. I mean, I was gone almost three or four years at a time. Three or four years out to sea, just total sea time. It’s very hard. You’ll come in for two weeks, go out for two weeks. Come in for two weeks, go out for two weeks. Go out for six months, seven months, come in for six months. It was just one of those things where you’re always gone.
How did both of you come to work for the Border Patrol?
Theron: My first major career was construction, I worked in the construction industry. Started off with just general construction, and then I got into the commercial heating ventilation air conditioning, so HVAC.
And then I stayed in that for about eight, nine years.
Great work, great pay, but I always knew it wasn’t really for me long-term. I was good at it, took pride in my work, but it was just the up and down in the construction industry. Luckily I was busy, I was never in-between jobs. But I just knew really it wasn’t my long-term career, it was just a job.
I always liked law enforcement, but I just really couldn’t picture myself as a cop. Once I met my wife, her grandfather was a retired border patrol agent that came from Idaho to actually out here in San Diego. Just listened to his stories, he was still friends with a lot of prior agents, a lot of his old partners. They would meet up every week and just share war stories, good times. We’d be around visiting and just hearing that, and hearing some of the stuff they went through. It kind of really spiked my interest in the border patrol.
Vinny: You know, I had no idea I was gonna be a border patrol agent. I didn’t know, really, nothing about it. Coming from the east coast, there’s no border patrol there. Especially, I was a city boy, growing up. The Bronx.
I was actually going to be NYPD, if my ex-wife didn’t want to move at the time. You know, I took the test, and passed everything. I was gonna go through the process, go through the academy. But then, I talked to my girl’s uncle. He was a retired border patrol agent — a supervisor border patrol agent. He started explaining the job to me. And, I was like, “Oh, wow. I didn’t know they did all that.” I just thought they were immigration. There’s so much more to it. There are different details you can do, like, the ATV units. I was like, “That sounds really cool.” And, that’s when I applied.
What is the application process?
Theron: So I just went on the website, and at the time it wasn’t open. That was like early 2008-ish, 2009. The hiring wasn’t open at that time, and so you just have to wait until it opens up — check it every couple weeks or month or so. It opened up, and you fill out a questionnaire. There are some couple questions you have to answer, and if you pass that or make it through that, you can schedule yourself for the preliminary test.
If you pass the test, you have to do an oral hiring interview between a panel of two agents and a supervisor, kind of a scenario-based interview. If you pass that, you go to the next step which is usually background.
What kind of background check do they run?
Theron: You fill out a pretty intense questionnaire, and then you have a background investigator come in and do an investigation, talk to neighbors, family, check all your records. Once that’s all cleared, you have a medical, physical, hearing and vision screening, and once that’s all done you’re good to go. Then you’re just on standby until you get a call from the hiring center.
Vinny: Eventually, when you do get that call, and you finish your background, you finish all your medical, and you’re done with the process, you’ll get sent off to wherever they need you. They’ll give you an option, you can pick this, this, and this, which one do you want to go to? Of course, I wanted San Diego.
What did you have to do there when you first start?
Theron: So once you get to your station, you got to go to the academy first.
About six months, and then once you graduate the academy then you are sent to your station. From there, once you arrive at the station you’re paired up with your classmates who came with you, with a few field training officers, FTOs. They pretty much teach you all the area you’re responsible for, start learning tracking, checkpoint ops, just more training from the academy, more one-on-one training from like a Journeyman level agent.
How long have you been doing border patrol, overall?
Vinny: About eight years. I started doing border patrol in 2011. I’m an EMT, right now, working as a public affairs officer. It’s a detail. After your two years probation, you can put into these temporary duty assignments, and to temporary details. And, during these details, you’ll have stuff like public affairs, you have ATV units that you can go on. You have our BORSTAR team, which is our border search trauma and rescue unit. I’m an EMT, when I’m in the field. So, there’s many different jobs and opportunities that you can do.
Are there border patrol agents who are better than others? Is there a skillset that just makes you really good at it, or does the training make you all fairly equally good?
Theron: It depends on each individual agent. There are so many little particular jobs that an agent can do, where you might have your people that are awesome sign cutters. They’re really talented, they just have that niche and they pick it up, and are extremely good at it.
What is that, sign cutter?
Theron: Sign cutting is just tracking. Like tracking footprints. Looking at the rocks, looking at the grass, looking at broken branches and twigs. Some people just get that. Some people are a little slower at that, but they might pick up checkpoint operations a lot quicker, or more intel-based operations. Everybody does have a decent background in checking, but then people find their niche. Whether they like highway ops, tracking, seeing people on the highway, driving patterns, or checkpoint operations. Everybody kind of finds where they excel.
Vinny: For the most part, a lot of guys come into this program, they don’t have tracking skills. You learn from the border patrol, you learn through on the job experience. One of the things they teach you is, looking for a sign. Well, whether that be “foot sign,” you’re looking for footprints, you’re looking for rocks that have been turned over. You’re looking for branches that were broken, that’s called “high sign.” You’re looking for any kind of linen, or lint, or some kind of material coming off their clothing, that will be stuck on the high sign.
We look for those things, and we follow. We keep looking for that sign as we’re going, because if we can’t look on the ground and find foot signs, we have to look in different areas… if the grass is pushed down in a certain area. That’s our bread and butter here, in the border patrol.
I didn’t know how to track, at first. We learned from senior agents that have been doing it for years. We have journeymen that teach us. We learned by doing it.
Are there any legends of border patrol, like people everyone knows about?
Theron: Each station kind of has their, like, the guys they know are the top sign cutters that they can cut out anything or track groups for hours. They’re just really good at it. And then the same station may have that guy who just kills it at the checkpoint, whether it’s luck or skill they’re always getting loads, good apprehensions. So each station, you know who the standouts are.
One part of the job that seems the most dangerous is when you have to apprehend people. How do you manage apprehending a person, or more than one person?
Vinny: That’s why we go through the defensive tactics training, and how we handle a group. That’s one of your biggest things when you first come onto the group. The way you look, the way you present yourself, if you are in physically good shape. The way you use your words, your verbal command. That’s how we get people, and we command a big group. We’re not always by ourselves, but when we are, it’s all about your officer presence.
Theron: Making good apprehensions at checkpoint, whether it’s three, four people in a trunk… that you knew something was up. Taking narcotics off the streets, finding bundles hidden in cars, hidden compartments. Those kind of just stand out, like apprehensions that make you feel good.
The illegal aliens we deal with, they’re not all criminal aliens by any means, but when you do catch one with a prior criminal history… it happens a lot, so you have prior rapists, domestic violence, child molestation. When you take that person and you deport them back, it makes you feel good.
How do you deal with maintaining sort of an objectivity about that? There’s also good people who just want to start a new life. How do you personally deal with that or think about that?
Theron: Well, we really don’t know who we’re arresting or tracking until we make that apprehension, and then get them back to the station and roll their fingerprints and put them through our processing systems. You can’t get complacent, you can’t get lazy. Because you don’t know if that person is coming across just looking for a job or to provide for their family, or if that person got deported because he or she raped a minor or tried to murder somebody. You really don’t know, so you can’t get lazy. You have to be on your toes and not treat everybody like they’re a criminal, but just do your job. Just be aware of everything around you.
Whether they were trying to look for a job, I mean, I understand that we do have a great economy here. A lot of people out of jobs, they make a lot more money here. But again, there’s a right way and a wrong way to come in. You can try to obtain a visa, a work visa, that’s the way you should go about things. You know?
Do you feel like this aligns with what you want to do?
Vinny: Yeah. We’re America’s frontline, we’re protecting the United States. We don’t know everybody that’s coming into this country. So, we’re the first layer of defense. Of course, the port of entry is there. But, anything that gets past that, we are the first layer of defense. I feel like we’re protecting the United States. We are protecting the United States, and I’m very proud of what I do.
It’s my dream job.
Are there ever laws that you just don’t agree with, that are coming up but you don’t have the power to do anything about it?
Theron: For the most part, immigration law really hasn’t changed in years. We’re enforcing the same laws that have been around for years and years.
So, no. Our job is to enforce the immigration laws. We don’t make the laws, we just enforce them. If you don’t agree with the laws, it’s probably not the right job to be in.
Vinny: In the border patrol, the job has been the same. So, enforcing the laws on the borders, doing immigration laws, that has never changed. We are always here to stop people from illegally entering, or smuggling things into our country, for national security, and to prevent any kind of terrorism to the United States. It’s always been that way, and it still is.
The current administration seems to put a special emphasis on what goes on at the border. Does that affect you, in any way, professionally or personally?
Theron: Personally, no. I’m not political at all. Just referring to earlier, immigration law really hasn’t changed from administration to administration. We had some policy changes here and there, but like I said, we just enforce the laws that are already there. I don’t let that get to me at all.
Vinny: We still do our job, it’s the same thing. It doesn’t matter which administration we’re working for, we’re still gonna do our job as border patrol agents.
Like I said, the job hasn’t changed. One of the main things, we’re stopping people entering this country illegally, or smuggling drugs and narcotics, and national security, terrorism.
We’re reading all the time about children getting separated from their families. Is that still the same as it has always been? Or, is that a weird, new twist on it?
Vinny: Separating family? We don’t… Right now we’re not speaking about that. That’s usually our higher ups.
I’ll say, no comment.
Do you ever have to confront Americans who are hostile towards you and your job?
Theron: We do get a lot of phone calls, people yelling, complaining, screaming at us for whatever reason. Maybe a story they saw on the news, but a lot of times the information presented to them isn’t correct. So if I’m able to talk to them or get a word in, I’ll try to educate them on what is really going on. Just because the media reported it doesn’t mean it’s necessarily true.
So I’ll just try to present the facts to them, and if they want to hear it, fine. If not, I can’t help them. Yeah, we do get that, but I just try and give them the truth.
Have there been times when you felt in grave danger? Or, feared for your life, or anything like that?
Vinny: Definitely. It’s a dangerous job, when you’re working a group of drug packers. And, they have… some of them are armed. You don’t know if they’re armed, and they’re not compliant with you. It can be very dangerous. Especially if you’re the first guy on scene. You don’t know how they’re gonna respond to you. Definitely. Your heart is racing.
When I first started, my Spanish was okay. If you notice, I got an accent, now. So, it’s even, for me, hard to speak English. But, my Spanish, I learned a lot on the job. But, it’s dangerous, if you don’t know how to speak Spanish, you know, it’s an officer safety situation, then.
You need to command a whole group of people. And, if they only speak Spanish, how are you gonna do that? I mean, you can point all day, but you need to have the firmness in your voice.
Where does it go from here for you? What’s life holding for you in the next 10, 20 years?
Vinny: Well, hopefully in the next 20 years, I’ll be retired as a border patrol agent. But, eventually, you want to move up to some kinda leadership position, go higher in the border patrol. Just learn as many different aspects of this job that I can, because there are a lot of different things that I haven’t experienced yet. I mean, I’m only on one major detail, which is a public affairs officer. But, eventually, down the line, there’s a lot of different things. Maybe, be on a specialty unit, like the BORSTAR (Border Patrol Search, Trauma, and Rescue) unit, where they go out, and they help, they rescue people, things like that. I would love to do that.