Of all the tools needed to secure the border, the head of the Border Patrol says what tops her wish list is actually something that money cannot buy.
“I worry about the morale of my men and women. They are the most important part of this equation,” Chief Carla Provost told HSToday at the Government Technology & Services Coalition’s recent CBP Day in Arlington, Va. “I think we live in a world where people believe a headline – and headlines capture so little of what’s truly going on. So that’s my biggest concern.”
“We need to educate the general public because there are so many false narratives out there it is difficult for the public to decipher what is truly going on – educating them on what it is we’re up against, what we’re doing, and the fact that we do it with compassion,” she added. “Getting that truth out.”
Provost wants people to know that the Border Patrol rank-and-file are “heroes, rescuing 4,900 people this last year, and that doesn’t include all the people that we rescued out of tractor-trailer loads.”
“We had that tragedy in San Antonio with a tractor-trailer load – we pulled people out of one that was 123 degrees this year, that if we hadn’t stopped them we would have had the same kind of tragedy,” she said, referring to the deaths of 10 migrants out of dozens packed into a truck in Texas in 2018. “I want the public to know who the bad guys are. We are the good guys. I’ve got agents risking their lives every day to save migrants. We enforce the laws that are on the books of this country and we do it with compassion.”
A Kansas native, Provost began her law enforcement career at the Riley County Police Department and joined the Border Patrol in 1995. She rose through the ranks and was named acting chief in April 2017, with appointment to the permanent role in August 2018. She’s the first woman to lead the Border Patrol.
There have been “surprises every day” in leadership as “the border is so dynamic” and “the world is so dynamic.”
“I don’t think when I came in I would have ever expected the humanitarian crisis that we’ve dealt with here over the last 18 months. That is just one example, but surprises have been all along the way,” Provost said. “I was surprised that I stayed in the Border Patrol because when I joined, being a police officer in Kansas, I didn’t know anything about the Border Patrol and I thought, well, I’ll use it as a steppingstone for something else, but I got in and was on the ground from here. I swore I’d never leave, and it’s because of the men and women of the Border Patrol that I’m sitting in this position right now.”
The leadership role also carries distinct challenges in conveying the needs of law enforcement to policy-makers in Washington – “making sure that whoever, whether it’s the administration or it’s Congress, that they get an understanding of what it is my men and women need in order to do their jobs safely, efficiently and effectively.”
“I understand that across government there’s always limited resources; I think it’s just making sure that I am out on the Hill being the voice for my men and women and ensuring that they know priority-wise what I need. I’m always going to need more than we’re going to get funded for, but making sure that the administration and Congress are supporting what we need the most,” Provost said.
“For me, it’s being able to relay the experiences of a Border Patrol agent to somebody who hasn’t had those experiences. I want to ensure they understand what we’re asking for and why. Not only how it benefits the nation as a whole, but how also it helps my men and women do their job more safely.”
Like all law enforcement, the chief said, “we’ve seen our share of tragic accidents – the terrain that we work in adds to the dangers … we endure extreme heat and work in some of the most arduous terrain.”
“We also have incredibly ruthless criminal organizations operating along the border and we’ve had cases where agents have been murdered,” Provost noted. “Every Border Patrol agent that signs up knows that they’re putting their lives on the line to protect this country and they take an oath because they want to serve our nation.”
“I think some of that has been lost in the discussion the past couple of years in the public discourse about border security when it comes to what we’re here to do – trying to help and trying to protect the country. And it’s a dangerous job.”
Asked to name a current threat that, by nature of its scope and severity, would surprise most Americans, Provost spoke about the insidious drug epidemic that causes 192 deaths in the United States every day. “I hope that the opioid crisis and all of the hard narcotics seized by the Border Patrol would not surprise them,” the chief said.
“You see these tragedies day in and day out,” she continued. “The issue is so important because our young people are vulnerable and most affected. And when you look at the lure of whether it’s opioids, increases in cocaine, heroin, methamphetamine, these hard narcotics – it scares me. I’m a parent, so it concerns me when I think of our children not necessarily knowing the risks that come with these hard narcotics. The fact is, in this country, it’s obviously coming here for a reason because the demand and availability we see is worsening. The increases in usage, unfortunately, lead to increases in tragedies and deaths across the country.”
The Border Patrol’s goal to achieve operational control of the border is “a balance – it’s a mixture of impedance and denial, situational awareness and response and resolution.”
Provost likened the elements of operational control to the common problem of having a package swiped off a stoop. “A locked front door may stop a thief from entering my home, but that won’t stop them from stealing the package left on my porch,” she said. “With technology like a video doorbell system I can see that individual, but if no one is there to stop them, then they’re going to get away with it.”
The chief stated that field commanders across the country are identifying their needs for each element of operational control based on their unique locations and threats. On the northern border, “situational awareness is, by far, the most important,” Provost noted. “That balance is going to change wherever you go.”
Provost said the bollard fencing that’s been replacing aging and vulnerable barriers is already helping her allocate resources to other areas. “I’m seeing improvements … the new design gives agents better situational awareness of what’s approaching, and whether or not they’ve got a safety issue,” she said. “It slows the numbers; it stops large flows from coming through those areas. It’s never going to stop everybody, but it buys our agents the time they need to respond.”
Private industry helps fulfill the Border Patrol mission. “To industry I say, here’s my requirement – help me fulfill the requirements because you guys are the subject-matter experts,” Provost said. “You guys are spending the money, you are innovative. And I think the Border Patrol has come a long way because we used to try to say ‘I need this specific thing,’ and we’ve come a long way in learning we’re better off telling industry ‘here’s my requirement’ and letting you help us solve the problem.”