• Motto

Meet the Woman in Charge of Protecting America’s Borders

9 minute read

Last month, the Border Patrol — the federal agency tasked with preventing terrorists and undocumented immigrants from entering the country — quietly elevated Carla Provost to deputy chief, making her the first woman to hold that role in the federal agency’s 92-year-history.

The Border Patrol has historically struggled to recruit female agents. The agency was created in 1924, but its first female agent didn’t join the force until 1975. Even today, the numbers are still low: they currently only have 1,026 women out of 23,000 total employees, a spokesperson told Motto. In 2014, the agency received a federal exemption and launched a year-long recruitment effort with the hopes of increasing the number of female agents within its ranks. That effort yielded 175 new female agents, the spokesperson said.

But now, a woman will command the mostly-male force. Motto spoke with Deputy Provost, who’s held a number of roles during her 20+ year tenure in the Patrol, about her new role, what it’s like to be a woman in the male-dominated agency and why she thinks the Border Patrol struggles to attract women.

How does it feel to be the first woman to hold the position of deputy chief in the Border Patrol’s 92-year-history?

I’m extremely honored. It’s not really something that I was looking to do or thinking about over my 22 years in the federal government. But that being said, I think it’s a great day for the women in the Patrol. I think it shows that you’re not limited by being a female in the agency. You can do anything that the male agents have done. Throughout my career — and throughout all of my promotions — I’ve really felt that way.

I’ve never looked at myself as anything other than as a Border Patrol agent — I haven’t separated it. But I think it’s a great thing, especially because we have so few women in the Border Patrol.

Can you talk a little bit about how you ended up in this post, since you said it wasn’t something you were actively seeking out?

I came into the Border Patrol not really knowing what I was getting into. I wanted to be in the federal government. I was a police officer back in Kansas, and I wanted my foot in the door. The Border Patrol was not something that I sought after — because I really didn’t know about it — but a U.S. Marshall told me they were hiring.

I got stationed in 1995 in Douglas, Arizona, which in the ‘90s, very quickly became the hotbed for illegal immigration and drug trafficking. One year in, I loved the Border Patrol, and I said, ‘I’m never leaving.’ That being said, I tried to make sure, in my career path, that I touched every position that I possibly could.

Did you ever feel like your gender posed any challenges to your work and moving up the ladder?

I don’t think so. I will say that I made a conscious effort to ensure that the positions I held were considered operational in nature versus administrative. I wanted to be involved in operations. That was something I chose personally. I didn’t want to get tagged as being good at administrative work. I wanted to have that credibility of being good as an operator. I had no issues getting those positions. The Patrol has been very, very good to me over the years.

But it was a conscious effort, on my part. I did turn down a number of administrative-type positions over the years.

Was that because you thought the administrative positions would be seen as more ‘female’ roles?

Yes. But that was my personal interpretation. As a woman, I thought it was important to show the men and women in the Patrol that I could handle all aspects of the job.

Why do you think so few women join the Border Patrol?

We’re competing against all of the law enforcement agencies out there for men and women. All of those agencies are really hiring, and it’s very competitive in nature. The Border Patrol is not like any other law enforcement agency — it’s not like being on a police force. You’re located in remote locations, mostly along the Southwest border. You’re asking people quite often to pick up and move their families. I moved from Kansas to Arizona — back when I was 25 years old. That was a big move.

Many of the female agents that we have are married, have children or are single mothers. And then you’re asking them to move their entire household. I don’t know that this is specific to women. I think it’s an issue for men as well.

You have to be someone who wants to be outdoors, who likes to work in rough conditions. I know we’ve really stepped up our recruiting of veterans, because we think, in that aspect, we may be able to get some people who have interest – both men and women. But it’s not your traditional police work. It’s not military work. The Border Patrol is really its own entity.

I know we’ve really stepped up our recruiting efforts on women. It’s my understanding that we intend to keep doing that. We’re looking for the best candidates — both men and women — who want to do this job. The Border Patrol is special, and those of us who are in it, love it. I think you’ll find both men and women that it clicks for. And for those that it doesn’t click for, they’ll move on.

You mentioned that many of the agents have families. What does the Border Patrol do to accommodate working parents?

That’s something we constantly look at. We have things like Family Leave Act and such, which applies to all federal employees. And the Border Patrol has been very, very good with that. I’ve seen improvements over the last decade in that area — looking at work-life balance, family situations. We have all different kinds of support programs. The efforts are there.

Logistically, though, we need men and women — quite often — in remote locations along the Southwest border, because that’s where our work is. And that’s not going to change. That being said, we are trying to recruit to people who understand that’s where they’re going to be located — and then we try to work with them to the best of our ability.

It just really comes down to the fact that we need applicants and candidates who understand where the mission is.

How have you personally navigated your work-life balance at the Border Patrol?

It’s one of those things I can always improve on. I always say: ‘If there’s work to be done, I’m going to stay here and do it.’ We have such a critical mission. We’re talking about the security of our nation. And if you talk to any Border Patrol agent, you’ll find that they have such pride in the important work that we do. That’s what drives us to do the job.

That being said, I always tell the men and women that I work with: ‘If the work’s here and we have to get it done, let’s get it done.’ But when it’s not — and this is one of those jobs where stuff can hit the fan at any time — you take advantage of it, you go home and you spend time with your family.

Another frequent concern for potential female Border Patrol agents is safety. Do you think it’s a safe job for women?

It’s an inherently dangerous job — whether you’re a man or a woman. It’s law enforcement, it’s national security and you’re out in remote locations. That being said, our ability to respond with back-up is much further along than it was 20 years ago. But it is dangerous work — all law enforcement work is.

To say it’s any more dangerous for a woman than a man, I don’t think that’s the case. I have seen some amazing female agents. You can even listen to some male agents say that they’d love to have her backing them up. I think it’s about the individual.

Why do you think it’s important to have women in the Border Patrol?

It’s important that we have a diverse workforce. We work in a diverse environment, and women bring a different perspective to the table. Being diverse in general makes us a better agency.

What’s your advice to women on how they can rise up the ranks in Border Patrol?

For anyone rising up in the ranks, whatever job you’re in right now, focus on doing the best job you can do. Don’t focus on what the next position is going to be. I’ve spent my career doing just that: focusing on the position I’m in and doing the best job in that position. And the promotions have come. I think that’s critical for all of our folks. We want to make sure we’re doing the best we can for the American public and the people we encounter.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

More Must-Reads from TIME

Write to Samantha Cooney at samantha.cooney@time.com