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  3. A Frontline Interview with Chief Jason Owens on the U.S. Border Patrol's 100th Anniversary
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A Frontline Interview with Chief Jason Owens on the U.S. Border Patrol's 100th Anniversary

Interviewed by: Kathleen Franklin

Interview with U.S. Border Patrol Chief Jason Owens


Can you tell me about your early years: where you grew up and your early life experiences? How did those experiences influence who you are today?

Border Patrol Chief Jason Owens.
U.S. Border Patrol Chief Jason Owens. CBP photo


I'm from a little town in Oklahoma called Tahlequah. Most people can't locate it, or even spell it, but it's the capital of the Cherokee Nation. I grew up as a member of the Cherokee tribe, and that's what I knew -- and all I knew pretty much up until high school. You know, I tell people that I didn't even know that there was such a thing as health care insurance until I was in junior high school and got my first job.

To me, it's just it was a different area. I was surrounded by the culture. It was a part of my life. The Cherokee Nation is its own entity there. So that was a very foundational element of my growing up. And when I left Oklahoma, I found out that that’s not the normal way of life, that the tribes aren't everywhere.

It was a little bit different for me. And so I stayed in my hometown. Of course, I was born as an Army brat on Fort Sill, but at a very early age I moved there. And that's really all I knew. And initially, like most people, probably not wanting to leave because that's your comfort zone.

But I found I had a calling. I loved being a first responder. And then I got into EMS as an EMT and later as a paramedic. I initially thought that I wanted to get into medical school until I actually got into the pre-med side and I was bored to death. And I realized very quickly that it wasn't the medical side that drew me; it was the lights and sirens and going to the accidents.

That’s when I started thinking maybe I like the idea of law enforcement. I like the idea of being a first responder, being the one that's helping others. But law enforcement is not an easy thing to get into, especially at the local level. It's very small. The opportunities are few and far between. Usually you have to know somebody. And so I had to start looking outside. A buddy of mine knew about the Border Patrol through a job fair. He showed me the brochure and again, I've said this before, what I saw was horses, motorcycles, snowmobiles; I’m in, 100 percent! And I went through the process; they called it an expedited hiring process back then.

This was in 1996. I went to Oklahoma City and I did the general knowledge test. At the time I did what they called an “artificial language test” because I didn't speak Spanish. And once you pass those, they set you up the next day for the medical screening, the drug test, and you start your background investigation so that everything was done except for the background investigation by the time you left.

And because I had never left my hometown and I was only 21 years old, my background check took about 10 minutes. So within just a couple of months, I got the job offer. And I remember thinking back to being from Oklahoma, thinking that I'd like to get Texas … but as long as I don't get California, because that's way out there, and it’s expensive, I’ll be okay.

Well, guess where they say I’m going: California. So it’s a decision point. And I decided, okay, this is something I want to try. And I went to the Academy and here I am today, and I have not looked back since.


What kinds of advice would you give someone contemplating a career in Border Patrol?


Jump in with both feet! There are several aspects that can be scary, not the least of which is that it's a dangerous job and often times we have to move to remote areas that are away from our support network. But it is absolutely worth it.

The analogy I use is for somebody that's ever gone rappelling for the first time. Whenever you're standing on the ledge and you're looking down at the drop, it's very scary and it can be petrifying until you get over the edge. And once you're over the edge, it's fine. You're having fun. It's that kind of an adventure. You just have to be willing to take the plunge and give it all you got and what you get in return is multiplied several times over.


You've been a Chief Patrol Agent of the Border Patrol Academy. What's your advice to the new recruits who have taken that important first step and who have jumped in with both feet?


Number one? It is one of the most difficult academies in law enforcement. So that means that, inevitably, you're going to find one or two things that challenge you. Your perseverance and your willingness to work as a team are what gets you through a situation like that.

Border Patrol trainees stand in formation at the Border Patrol Academy in New Mexico.
Border Patrol trainees stand in formation at the Border Patrol Academy in New Mexico. CBP photo

You'll have classmates that will lift you up whenever you need the help. You need to do the same for them. That teaches you a lesson early on in your career that you take with you throughout law enforcement. That is, it is not a solo job. We do things as a team. It's how we get home safe at the end of every shift. We are there to back each other up. We're there to do the job as a team because the adversary we face is very dangerous.

That's every bit as important a lesson that the Academy teaches you as anything else you will learn while you're there.


Can you tell us a little bit about your first day at the academy?


Well, as I said, I was 21 years old, and had never left my hometown. And I'm on a bus with people that were prior military, prior law enforcement, you know, the “masters.” I had one guy in my class that was a lawyer. He’d passed the bar! I'm on this bus, pulling into the gates. At the time, it was in Charleston, South Carolina, and it was an old Navy base, pulling in late at night.

And I'm thinking, what am I doing here? And do I have what it takes to do this? And I think the first night our luggage didn't arrive until it got very late. And there's that thing where you don't really know anybody yet. It's a brand new situation. It's about as uncomfortable as a young person can be. But after a few days, you start to get to know people and the bonds start to form. It was good. But I’ll tell you, those first few days were probably the most difficult. And not the least of which, I didn't speak Spanish. And I had classmates that did.

My wife at the time was pregnant with our first son, and he was actually born while I was at the Academy. So I got to fly home on a weekend. They induced labor. I got to see my son be born, and then I flew out the next day. Believe it or not, that was probably one of the best things that could happen to me, because my motivation for passing the Academy and keeping this job just went way up. So I was the guy who had the 3x5 note cards and I was studying the words to memorize my vocabulary. I was learning how to conjugate the [Spanish] verbs. I was studying every aspect of the law. That actually helped me probably focus in and do well at the academy. And it was challenging.


You mentioned earlier that, of course, they sent you to California, specifically to Calexico, your first duty station. Can you share some recollections of that time when you started working your first assignment there?


So everybody, when they enter on duty, they first go to the Sector that they're going to be assigned. So flying from Oklahoma, I went through Los Angeles and that was a different experience for me back then because it's a huge airport. I then jumped on a little commuter plane or puddle jumper. And I remember flying down to the Imperial Valley and I'm looking down and it looked like I was landing on Mars. It was just completely different from anything I'd ever seen. And I got there in November and I remember calling back home to say that this isn't too bad, the weather's nice, it’s not freezing cold. And then I go to the Academy and I come back in April. And that's right when it started, really, you know, the Imperial Valley gets very hot.

Back then, in the mid-nineties it was extremely busy. San Diego had been busy for quite a while and the traffic started to push over into the El Centro sector and into Yuma and we weren't near the size that we are today. So the Calexico station I think had maybe 50 or 60 agents before we got there.

And so half of my class went to the Imperial Valley. We pretty much doubled the size of our musters. And so that was good for the Station. But it also meant that everything that we did, every bonehead thing we did as trainees, stood out. So we garnered a lot of attention from the journeymen because of that. But we were so very busy.

We were catching hundreds and hundreds of people every shift. But it was such a different dynamic. The processing effort didn't exist back then as it does today. And there was so much of the area that we couldn't cover because we were such a small station. We knew we were getting beat in areas every single day and to see what the agency has become from that point in time is just an amazing thing to see.

Border Patrol Chief Jason Owens salutes the fallen during CBP's 2024 Valor Memorial and Wreath Laying Ceremony.
Chief of the U.S. Border Patrol Jason Owens salutes after placing a flower in a wreath during the U.S. Customs and Border Protection Valor Memorial and Wreath Laying Ceremony in Washington, D.C., May 16, 2024. CBP photo by Glenn Fawcett


Looking back on those early years, what's the hardest thing you ever had to face as an agent?


It's leading people through a tragedy or through hardship. Having to see the look in your brothers’ and sisters’ eyes whenever they're in pain and anguish is something I'll never forget. I've had that happen several times in my career. And when you care about people and this, this has been nothing short of a family for me. I love the people that wear this uniform.

And when you see them going through something tough, you just want to wave a magic wand and make it okay. And you can't sometimes, and they are looking at you, and in some cases they're saying, okay, now what? What do we do? That is one of the toughest situations I believe that anybody can find themselves in because you feel helpless and you're hurting, too.

And you're wanting to do right by everybody that's involved. I think that's it's a lesson that that most law enforcement officers and agents learn at some point in their career and certainly as they move up into a leadership role.


Speaking of lessons, I was curious about who you’d say have been some of your mentors over the years and what sorts of things that they taught you?


So I don't know that I had a formal mentor, but I've had several folks that have served as an example to me, both good and bad. And I think sometimes you learn more from the bad examples than you do from the good ones because you learn how not to be. You go through something or somebody treats you bad, and you vow, “I'm never going to be like that. I'm not going to do that to somebody else.”

Over the course of my career, I've seen people that I that I wanted to emulate in certain aspects of how they work. David Aguilar comes to mind, the former chief of the Border Patrol and a former Acting Commissioner, and he's one of the most articulate and well-spoken individuals that I think has ever run the U.S. Border Patrol.

I like how thoughtful and cerebral Ron Vitiello is with his approach to everything. And then there are people that are coming up through the ranks. I saw how they thought that that position meant that everybody served them. And so they didn't give any thought to the compassion or the empathy or the humanity of the people that were on their team.

I had to go through some situations where I was treated badly and that made me say that, no matter what, I am never going to do that to somebody else. If I truly care about this organization, I’ve got to change that. And you know what? I think that's happened. I think that I'm not the only one that was in that boat. And I think a lot of us have resolved to not be like that. And we've changed this place for the better.

Border Patrol agents patrol a river near the U.S.- Canada border.

Border Patrol agents from the Colville, Wash. Border Patrol Station patrol the Columbia River near the U.S.- Canada border, August 16, 2023. CBP photo by Jerry Glaser


You have served on both the southern and the northern borders. Aside from the obvious geographical differences between the two, what are some of the less obvious things that distinguish them from each other?


So when you're on the southwest border and you walk into a room, usually you're the big agency on the block. The Border Patrol usually has more manpower in an area than most of its other partner agencies, and everybody works together really well. The tempo is really, really fast paced in most cases.

When you're up on the northern border, that's not the case. A lot of times you are not the largest agency and you simply cannot do your job without securing those partnerships and relying on the state and local authorities. A lot of times the places that you live on the northern border are very, very remote, in very extreme conditions.

The families had a situation not too long ago where the northern border agents had to be detailed down to the southern border and they were gone for a long time. And a lot of folks, I don't think, understood what that did to those agents and their families, because when you're in a place that has three feet of snow and you're not there, who's going to shovel their driveways? Who's going to chop firewood? Who's going to take care of the maintenance issues around the house, wherever you're gone? Those are things that are very real to somebody on the northern border that that might not be elsewhere.

So life is very different. The job is very different. The tempo is very different. You may not catch a thousand people a day up there, but generally whenever you do catch a criminal, it's significant.


Let's move a little bit into the technology arena. I know that you've probably seen tremendous change over the course of your career. What's been the most significant technology or technologies that has impacted the Border Patrol?


Two things. First, I go back to when I first started, we had just started getting the RVSS, or Remote Video Surveillance System cameras. These are the remote cameras that actually could keep surveillance on an area of the border. Those a were relatively new and still being deployed. Prior to that, we had ground sensors that were seismic, infrared, magnetic that generally would tell us something was there, something was moving, but we didn't know what we had. And before that it was just good old-fashioned binoculars and the sign-cut.

The cameras being deployed were a game changer because it actually got us into a space where we could keep surveillance and situational awareness on an area without having an agent physically having to be there at all times. Game changing. And we've only evolved from there for the better.

The second piece of technology that I'm going to say is the TAK gear, or tactical awareness kits, so everything being done on these cell phones. It enables our agents out in the field to know exactly where each other is when something is happening, including important landmarks. They can access systems and databases. So it brings technology in the world to the agent, no matter where they are in these remote locations, which not only helps them do their job better, it helps them be safe because they are able to more quickly know who's there in front of them, and who they're facing.

A Border Patrol agent prepares a drone to help recovery efforts in the wake of a natural disaster.
A U.S. Border Patrol agent from the Lake Charles Border Patrol Station tests a drone in the parking lot of the Border Patrol’s Baton Rouge station before heading out to work with cohorts to clear downed trees from residences in the wake of Hurricane Ida near Baton Rouge, Louisiana. CBP photo by Glenn Fawcett

They know where their backup is. It knows where they are. I think that piece was another hugely important piece of technology that really gave us more of an advantage than we've ever had before in the operational environment.


One aspect of technology that's getting a whole lot of buzz in the media, as you know, is artificial intelligence. What do you see? How will that intersect with Border Patrol?


So I think AI’s got an important use on several fronts. Number one, it needs to be looked at as a force multiplier, just like we look at technology, equipment, and infrastructure as force multipliers. Everything revolves around the agent on the ground. Without that agent, nothing else matters. Artificial intelligence is just another spoke in that wheel around the hub that is the agent.

So we have the camera technology I referred to earlier, in the past we had the RVSS cameras that have to be operated by one person looking at one screen, moving the camera around. But now, leveraging A.I., those cameras can maintain surveillance on an area on their own and they can actually learn to detect traffic. They know if the traffic is an animal, they know if it's a person, and they actually can alert an agent that's in the control room: “Hey, you need to check this out. You need to see this.” That affords us the ability to have less agents in front of a camera and more out on patrol. That's one way.

The other way you can think about AI involves the sheer quantities of intelligence that CBP as a front-line agency collects. I don't think there's any agency that comes close to that. To be able to analyze that intelligence and come up with good intelligence products to drive our operations – that’s a huge lift. It normally takes a massive amount of manpower. By leveraging AI, they can actually go through that collected data and come up with coherent products of analysis that help drive our operations and our direction. Those are game changers for us. Those are two good examples of how AI has been helping us so far.


You have completed training in both BORTAC and BORSTAR. Only about two dozen other agents have actually done training in both of those missions. How have those training experiences, which are very, very intense, informed your approach to leadership and your perspective about the mission?


There are two things that really stuck with me. Again, you know, coming into this relatively new, you know, I went to both because they excited me and there's things that I wanted to be a part of without really knowing what I was getting into. But I learned really quickly, it's not about a person's physical fortitude. That’s not what you look for. And it's not about just somebody's mental acuity alone. That's not enough. It's when the chips are down and a person is out of their comfort zone, is their character such that you can depend on them and rely on them? That's what those courses bring out in a person. That's what we're looking for because that's the kind of person that you want on your team.

Border Patrol agents deploy to Hawaii to assist in recovery efforts.
U.S. Border Patrol Tactical Unit, or BORTAC, agents work in a neighborhood destroyed by a wildfire in Lahaina, Hawaii. CBP photo by Glenn Fawcett

So, you look for somebody that's going to be that, they're going to be there for you no matter what. They're going to be loyal. They need to have good judgment. You know, they need to take care of themselves, you know, that's important, too. But the most important quality that those types of courses bring out in the person is whenever the chips are down and you’re uncomfortable and you’re suffering, are you still going to be there for your team?

That's a lesson that I'll probably keep with me no matter where I go. The other aspect of it is that when you're part of a team, you just recognize that you're playing a role, whatever that role is. Wearing this rank, I'm still part of a team. It's a role that I play, but it doesn't mean that one person is more valuable than the other because I can be a Chief, but if I don't have the agents on the ground doing the job, then what am I here for?

It's a role that everybody plays. And whenever you're on a team like BORSTAR or BORTAC, whoever has the expertise, whoever has the skill set for that specific mission – they’re calling the shots and that's what you want. You just fall in and you do what you can so that the team is successful in that mission. You put the ego aside and you recognize that you're moving toward that common goal and you get things done. And it goes back to that old saying, “it's amazing what we can accomplish when you don't care who gets credit.”


Speaking of wanting people to be there for you when you need them to be ... As you know, Border Patrol agents face more assaults than just about any other law enforcement personnel. What are your thoughts about how to protect agents more effectively in an era where we've seen bad actors and criminals that have superior firepower?


So there's two things that I think are very important in that regard. Number one is that we have to give them every tool and everything that they need to have an advantage in that situation so that it makes them less likely to be in danger in the first place. Secondly, knowing that there are bad actors out there, those bad actors and those criminals need to know that not only will there be a consequence for that action, but that consequence is going to be severe, dire, in fact.

They need to know that if they mess with one of our people, they're going to jail for a long time. They need to know that if they're going to try and harm one of our people, it's probably them who is going to get harmed, not our people. That makes them less likely to commit the act in the first place.

So first thing is prevention. Give our agents, our men and women out there, the tools and the training and expertise they need to have the advantage which makes their being in danger less likely. If that fails, that consequence has to be in place. It's going to deter that individual from wanting to commit the act against our agents.


I'm going to roll out a few stats here that I'm sure you're very familiar with. At the southern border, we've recorded 2.5 million encounters with migrants in Fiscal Year 2023, which is a new historic high and certainly a far cry from the numbers 100 years ago, which were 50,000, 100,000. The numbers arriving at our ports of entry more than doubled from 2022 to 2023. How does the U.S. Border Patrol adapt to these changing trends when the numbers are just growing so exponentially?


I don't think that there's any agency out there that is better at adapting to dynamic situations than the United States Border Patrol. Go back to what I was talking about earlier. When I first started, we were exceptionally busy, but the way we processed migrants was entirely different. We didn't have all these complex pathways because for the most part, the people that we were catching, the demographic that was coming across, were single adult males from Mexico who were just coming across for economic reasons and sending remittance payments back home.

A Border Patrol agent and K-9 conduct operations in Arizona.
A Tucson Sector Border Patrol agent and K-9 conduct operations at the Highway 86 checkpoint near Tucson, Arizona. CBP photo by Jerry Glaser

Now, fast forward to last year, I think it was 177 countries, different countries that we caught people making illegal entries from into the United States. And now these folks are coming in as family units, they’re coming as single adults, they're coming as unaccompanied children. Depending on what country they come from, there are different requirements.

Some of them are claiming asylum, some of them are criminals. Some of them are part of smuggling loads. Some of them are just coming across for economic reasons. Every single one of those conditions requires a different way of being treated, a different pathway, and it makes the job so much more complex.

So you can imagine the fact that we were able to successfully manage over 2.5 million entries in one year alone. It's a shame that we had to, but it also makes you proud because these agents, no matter what the what the challenge is, they rise to it and they overcome.

The other thing I'll say is we cannot forget that the mission, the reason why they exist, is the border security mission. They're supposed to be out there catching bad actors, narcotics, and weapons coming across that pose a danger to our communities. When they're faced with this migrant influx, of course they're going to try and do everything they can to help people. They don't want to see people suffer. So that's why you see literally thousands of rescues that our men and women do every single year. There's no agency out there that saves more migrant lives than the United States Border Patrol.

That said, it would be so much better if the migrants went to the port of entry. And that trend that you talked about continues. It continues to rise. Make a lawful entry. Don't put yourself in the hands of the smugglers. It's safer for the migrants. It's safer for my brothers and sisters that are out there. It's safer for the country because now we can go out on patrol and catch the bad actors that are trying to exploit the situation.


What would you say is the most important aspect about Border Patrol that the media and the general public tend to overlook in all of the debates and discussions we have about border security now? What is the one message that you think that is getting lost in the noise?


We are the first piece of the system, but we are not the only piece of the system. So you'll see a lot of people that are frustrated. And one of the things that I see when I read social media posts or even in the media, you know, is that we're not doing our job or not following lawful orders, or that we’re betraying our oath. I’ve heard some terrible things that are being said about our men and women. Our job is law enforcement, which means we are not judge, jury, and executioner. Our job is to arrest people when they break the law. It's then up to the attorneys, the U.S. attorneys and the district attorneys, to present those cases, those charges. And it's up to the judge to decide if they are guilty or not.

That is not our job. You don't want a law enforcement agency that is trying to be judge, jury, and executioner. You want us to do our job the way that it's supposed to be done. If we tried to send everybody back and deny them their due process, that would be a violation of their rights. And you don't want a law enforcement organization to do that.

At the same time, you don't want somebody wearing a uniform like this that would sit there and watch women and children and families being swept away by the river to die. At the end of the day, you can be frustrated with the situation, but recognize that the Border Patrol is staying true to its mission and staying true to what it owes the American people.

And that is, we will arrest people that break the law. We will hand them off to the U.S. attorneys and the courts to decide if they're guilty or not. And that's our role.


What would you say is the most pressing challenge facing the Border Patrol today? In other words, what keeps you up at night?


Not being able to get to the border security mission and facing the migrant influx and knowing that our adversaries – our true adversaries, which are the criminals and the cartels – are exploiting that. Knowing that we have people that are knowingly evading capture on purpose. We don’t know who they are. We don’t know what they’re bringing into the country. And we know that that represents a threat to the people of this country and our communities.

When we see the seizures that we make anyway at the checkpoints – the fentanyl and the hard narcotics – when we see that we’re arresting known gang members and convicted felons with violent criminal pasts, despite the fact that we’re facing this influx right now, just imagine what we’re not able to get to. You ask any Border Patrol agent and that’s probably what keeps them up at night.


What do we need to do about that? What kinds of resources do we need that we don’t have right now?


Well, this is another misconception I think a lot of folks have about the border in general. The border is a very vast, vast, remote place. Think about this, almost 2,000 miles of border with Mexico, over 5,000 miles with Canada, about 95,000 miles of coast, including Alaska. It’s a huge area, so remote, so vast. When I say we have nearly 20,000 agents, that initially might sound like a lot but when you’re talking about trying to control and dominate an area like our border, 24/7/365, that number shrinks really fast.

To truly say that we can have border security, we have to have force multipliers. Those force multipliers make sure that we have awareness of what the threat is, what’s coming at us, and what they’re doing. It also helps keep those folks out on patrol. It improves the certainty of arrest.

We need more surveillance technology. We need state of the art equipment. We need top notch training. We need infrastructure that affords our men and women the ability to respond to the traffic in these remote areas. Physical barriers, that’s one of the tools that we talk about, it’s not the panacea that solves all our problems. But used in the right way as a tool, it’s absolutely invaluable. Our agents need all of those things coming together to give them the advantage in the operational environment to make sure that they’re able to secure the border and get home safely after every shift.


Looking back at the past century of the Border Patrol, it is a remarkable anniversary. How would you say that the history of the Border Patrol will guide it in its next hundred years?


Our motto is “Honor First.” You know, when I was at the Academy, I had this talk with every new class that came in. More than just a motto, Honor First has to be our guiding principle. And what I mean by that is that it’s the way that we live, whether we’re on or off duty. It guides our actions, our decisions, our judgment.

It becomes who we are. That happens because wearing this uniform, this patch, is a tremendous source of pride for us. A main source of pride. It’s something that matters, it is something that we want to cherish and hang on to. That's why we call ourselves a family. There’s not that many people out there who can relate to the job that we do or what we go through, as family, but those of us that also wear this uniform.

That has been ingrained in all of us. And when we look back at those who paved the way and formed that legacy, you can't help but feel like you owe something to them to carry this forward and take care and nurture and cherish this. And I'll tell you, when every one of us retires and we step off the train and we watch the next generation take over, we want to always be able to look back with that same sense of pride and know that this family is in good hands.

That past 100 years has ingrained those values in us and is going to make sure that we carry forward in this same way, staying true to the mission and staying true to this organization that has meant so much to all of us.


As we look ahead to the next 100 years, what do you see on the horizon for the Border Patrol?


I think a few things are going to change in our operational environment. I think with innovations in technology and equipment, with things like AI, we're going to eventually achieve the decisive advantage in the traditional operational domain. And I think that's going to mean that the enemy, the adversary, shifts to the nontraditional. And what I mean by that, I think they're going to start looking at more of the remote coastal areas, the areas on the Canadian border, and the cyber realm.

I think border security is going to take on an entirely different meaning, because eventually we're going to win. We're going to overcome and have the advantage against this adversary just by a war of attrition. The more cameras we deploy, the more sensors we have out there, the more roadways we've got, the more difficult it is for that adversary to bring things into our country and do it harm. They're not going to quit. They're going to look for other ways to do it. That's going to be the change that happens over the next hundred years.

U.S. Border Patrol Pipes and Drums perform in a ceremony in Texas.

The U.S. Border Patrol hosted a ceremony in El Paso, Texas, to commemorate 100 years of securing the U.S. border, May 24, 2024. U.S. Department of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro N. Mayorkas, U.S. Customs and Border Protection Senior Official Performing the Duties of the Commissioner Troy A. Miller, and Chief of the U.S. Border Patrol Jason Owens attended and delivered remarks. CBP photo

Last Modified: May 28, 2024