Published in TexasMonthly.com
Inside a classroom at Horizon High School in El Paso, fourteen miles from the Texas-Mexico border, a criminal justice club debates Donald Trump’s latest incendiary statement. It’s fall 2018, and thousands of Central American migrants are headed to the southern U.S. border in a caravan. Trump has just said he’s ready to close the border and that he’ll send the military to help. Sylvia Weaver, a criminal justice teacher and former police officer, asks the group of about eight students for their thoughts. She then splits them into two sides for a debate between those who agree with Trump and those who disagree.
“I’m for the military coming to the border because we’re going to be more protected, there’s going to be more safety,” a student named Oscar argues. One of his peers replies: “[The migrants] need help. If you were in their position, wouldn’t you like for people to help you?” As the debate continues, that same student becomes frustrated. Her voice rises slightly as she makes a fist, smashing it against her palm. She says she just can’t understand how her classmate, who lives in Juárez, can agree with the border’s increased militarization.
After class, club president Mason (identified as Kassy in the documentary, he has since come out as transgender) explains why he mostly stayed quiet during the debate. Mason hopes to become a police officer someday; he proudly wears a backpack and a sweater bearing the logo of the New York City Police Department. He’s all for law and order. But the way some of his peers spoke about the migrants was just too cruel, he says. “They weren’t discussing them as people. They were discussing them as … pests,” he says. “Some of them even have family that are immigrants and they still have these viewpoints,” he says of his classmates who sided with Trump. “It makes me upset, and I don’t exactly understand it.”
With emotionally charged scenes like these, At the Ready, a new documentary that premiered this week at the Sundance Film Festival, captures some of the nuances that come with living along the United States–Mexico border. Directed by Big Bend Sentinel editor in chief Maisie Crow, who produced the film alongside fellow Marfa residents Abbie Perrault and Hillary Pierce (The River and the Wall, Tower), the film follows the criminal justice club at Horizon High School, whose student population is 97 percent Hispanic, as it prepares for the annual Border Challenge competition against other high schools from the region. We watch the teens carry out active shooter drills, holding fake guns and wearing tactical gear; they also learn how to execute search warrants and collect evidence. The filmmakers focus on three club members—Cristina, Cesar, and Mason. They all want to work in law enforcement, which is, as a text slide in the film notes, “one of only three career fields in El Paso with wages comparable to national averages.”
Compared with the rest of Texas, El Paso’s median household income is around $14,000 less per year. The city’s poverty rate is also about 40 percent higher than in the rest of the state. And while Texas already has the highest percentage of uninsured residents in the country, El Paso is slightly worse off—22 percent of El Pasoans lacked health coverage in 2018. It’s little wonder that law enforcement jobs, some of which don’t require a college degree, are so appealing to the kids at Horizon (and the students at the University of Texas-El Paso, where criminal justice is one of the most popular majors). These jobs pay well, offering insurance and other benefits. Another plus for young people from this tight-knit community: especially in the case of Border Patrol, law enforcement careers don’t usually require moving far from home.
All those factors appeal to Cristina, a recent Horizon graduate who returns to the criminal justice club to mentor younger members. She wants to work for the Border Patrol. When she tells her father that the starting salary for agents in El Paso and nearby Columbus, New Mexico, is about $52,000, he looks proud and impressed. He tells her it wasn’t until two years ago that he made that much money as a truck driver. Cristina’s father likes that if his daughter becomes a Border Patrol agent, she’d be working to protect the country. Perhaps she can save lives as well. “That for me is good work,” he says in Spanish. He notes that many Border Patrol agents in El Paso are Latino (throughout the agency, more than 50 percent are) and that some fellow Latinos consider them to be racists. But he thinks that’s unfair—that, as with every other job, there are good and bad people working in the agency.
Cesar, a senior, is trying to decide between a career as a police officer or working for U.S. Customs and Border Protection, the Border Patrol’s parent agency. Maybe he’ll do both: first work for the police, then transition to customs. But until he decides, Cesar—whose father left for Juárez after serving prison time for smuggling drugs—has more responsibilities than the average teenager. Every day after school, while his mother works, he cooks and cleans. He does maintenance on the family car. Cesar also takes care of his younger brother, who looks up to him and who also wants to become a cop.
Then there’s Mason, also a senior. He wants to work for the police department, as a detective or in the narcotics division. Since his parents’ divorce, when he was in eighth grade, he’s been living with his father. Since his father is usually away with his girlfriend or working as a truck driver, Mason often eats breakfast and dinner alone. At the criminal justice club, he found a sense of belonging that was missing at home. “It gave me a way to be around people and not feel lonely anymore,” he says. More than Cristina and Cesar, Mason seems eager to leave El Paso.
These teens’ stories are poignant, and they show the increasing political and cultural strain in El Paso as the region has come into national attention during the last few years. Many people here were incensed by Trump’s anti-Mexican rhetoric, starting with his infamous 2015 comment that “they’re not sending their best,” suggesting that Mexican immigrants are drug dealers and rapists. Then Trump said he’d get rid of all the “bad hombres” and build a wall to keep them out. Some of these clips are interspersed throughout the documentary, and we hear a few of the club members and their parents denounce Trump and his ideas. Of course, many El Pasoans—approximately 32 percent of whom voted for Trump in November—feel differently.
Because El Paso is on the southern border and its population is about 82 percent Latino, the Trump administration’s words and policies had a direct impact on the region. Construction workers built parts of Trump’s wall just outside the city, even though much of the border in El Paso was already fenced. In June 2018, as part of Trump’s family separation policy, the government set up tents in Tornillo, in the southeast corner of El Paso County, to house children separated from their parents. And in 2019 (after At the Ready wrapped filming), the city reeled from a racially motivated mass shooting—the deadliest anti-Latino hate crime in U.S. history. You could understand how growing up amid all this might make a young person wary of guns and law enforcement—and some of the kids in the Horizon High club do express misgivings on camera. But they also just want a good job.
This is the tension that underlies the documentary—and the appeal of a law enforcement career in El Paso. The children of immigrants don’t want to disappoint their parents, who’ve struggled and sacrificed so much. In many immigrant communities, a major marker of success is achieving a career unlike the one your parents had, becoming something other than a construction worker or a truck driver. But Latino kids are also expected to stick around to take care of their parents. In El Paso, there is no simple solution to wanting a stable, well-paying career that doesn’t require leaving home. Searching for that draws you closer to working for the Border Patrol and other law enforcement agencies.
The documentary explores this complexity, as well as the challenges of living along the border in communities often underserved, if not outright ignored, by the rest of Texas and the nation. At the Ready shows what it’s like to live between two worlds connected by culture, family, and history—and how when the well-paying jobs come, whether in the Border Patrol or building walls, they threaten to change all that makes that place home.