ARTESIA, N.M. (Reuters) - At a training facility in the middle of a desert in New Mexico, aspiring border patrol agent Stevany Shakare sprinted laps in 103-degree Fahrenheit weather as her instructors shouted at her to run faster.
Shakare, a 23-year-old from Iraq, is one of three women in a class of 20 at the U.S. Border Patrol Academy in Artesia, New Mexico. They are powering through an intensive 112-day training program, in which agents must master firearms, high-speed, off-road vehicle chases, immigration law, conversational Spanish and grueling physical tests.
They are preparing to track, apprehend and arrest immigrants and drug traffickers attempting to enter the United States illegally.
“I am obviously very short and tiny,” said the petite Shakare, surrounded by men who appeared twice her size. “But I‘m trying and giving it my all - that’s all that matters.”
In 2004, at the age of 10, she fled her home after the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Her family settled in Michigan where she graduated from Wayne State University with a degree in criminal justice.
“Had I stayed in Iraq, I probably wouldn’t have ended up to where I am today,” said Shakare, who said she learned English watching “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit,” on television.
“Probably wouldn’t have gone to college, wouldn’t have gotten a degree. I feel like I owe my life to this country,” she said.
U.S. President Donald Trump has pledged to crackdown on illegal immigration and strengthen security along U.S. borders, particularly with Mexico. The Department of Homeland Security in February announced plans to add more than 5,000 border enforcement agents to the current force.
Chief Patrol Agent Dan Harris, who runs the academy, said a major increase in violent crime along the southern border in the past year encouraged many to become border patrol agents.
“When I talk to people, I say: ‘All of us know someone whose life has been destroyed by drugs - a family member, a friend, a neighbor,'” Harris said. “Every day, men and women want to get out there.”
Shakare said she now has the full support of her parents, both of whom plan to watch her graduate in November.
“They weren’t OK with it at first. It was the dangers of the job and being away from home. But eventually they realized this is what I wanted to do,” Shakare said.
“My mom tells all of her friends, ‘This is what my daughter is doing!’ She’s excited about it.”
(For a related photo essay, click: reut.rs/2rMJtX9)
Reporting by Ben Gruber in New Mexico, additional reporting by Lucy Nicholson in New Mexico; writing by Melissa Fares, editing by G Crosse