Learning Spanish for Border Patrol: What you must know

Over 90 percent of undocumented non-citizens apprehended by the U.S. Border patrol each year only speak Spanish, making Spanish integral to the U.S. Border Patrol. Since its inception, the Border patrol has had a significant presence in the Southwest sector of the United States, but is it required to know the language before applying?

Is speaking Spanish a requirement when applying for the U.S. Border Patrol?

No prior knowledge of Spanish is required to apply. Trainees will be taught Spanish as a part of the U.S. Border Patrol Academy curriculum, which focuses on basics such as grammar, language retention, and language-specific to law enforcement, colloquialisms, and slang that is spoken by the majority of non-citizens coming over the border.

Having Spanish knowledge before you apply to the U.S. Border Patrol isn’t necessary, but it can make or break your application. Find out how to be better prepared and ace not only your Spanish test but the Border Patrol application and make your transition to guarding the U.S borders easier.

Learning Spanish for Border Patrol: What you must know

What is it like working for the Border Patrol?

Before you apply, understand that no day is the same when working for the U.S. Border Patrol. Considered law enforcement, the Border Patrol secures our international borders—water or land. As part of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, their goal is to stop illegal border crossings by criminals and terrorists.

They also work hand in hand with other federal law enforcement agencies, such as the Drug Enforcement Administration, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives, and the Coast Guard.

In just a “typical day”, as the Customs and Border Protection website calls it, U.S. Border Patrol agents across the country can conduct over a thousand apprehensions between all 328 U.S. ports of entry. On this typical day, they can also arrest about 40 wanted criminals.

As of March 2021, almost 20,000 Border Patrol agents are securing our borders, and that number is increasing.

But agents aren’t just expected to patrol on foot—there are many other types of units and patrols that agents can be a part of, such as Horse Patrol, Bike Patrol, the K-9 Unit, or Off-Road Vehicle Unit. The Border Patrol has other specialized units such as the Border Patrol Tactical Unit, known as BORTAC, which serves as a S.W.A.T. type unit in specialized situations.

Any of these special units could be deployed in a Spanish-speaking area, and right now, that is the Border Patrol’s main focus.

According to data from the U.S. Border Patrol, about 851,000 people were apprehended on our southwest border in 2019. Out of that number, over ninety percent of those apprehended came from Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, or El Salvador—all Spanish-speaking countries.

Brazil, Cuba, and Ecuador are also high on the list, which brings the number of Spanish-speaking non-citizens crossing the border even higher.

The Customs and Border Protection website goes into more detail about apprehensions; in March 2021, the majority of apprehensions came from Honduras, with Mexico and Guatemala following. Most border encounters are with single adults, and most are coming in through the Rio Grande Valley in Texas, Tucson, Arizona, and El Paso, Arizona.

In comparison with the Southwestern border, only 0.5 percent of apprehensions are made along our Northern border, making Spanish integral to communication with most of the illegal non-citizens you will meet as a U.S. Border Patrol agent.

Do I have to be fluent in Spanish to work in the Border Patrol?

Learning Spanish for Border Patrol: What you must know

The answer is no—and you don’t have to have any prior knowledge, to begin with. With the training being part of the U.S. Border Patrol course, no trainee is expected to be fluent in Spanish when they apply for the Academy.

While you don’t have to be fluent before you apply, many applicants are. The LA Times reported that in 1989, only 36 percent of the Border Patrol were Latino, but by 2016, Latinos make up more than 50 percent.

Even though the U.S. Border Patrol is one of the only law enforcement agencies that require their employees to learn and be proficient in the language, applicants will be taught.

Before you even get to that point, though, you must make it through the application process.

What should I expect when applying for the Border Patrol?

There is a difficult application process when applying for the Border Patrol. Applicants must first apply and then take the Border Patrol Agent Entrance Exam. Your resume will be reviewed for the appropriate qualifications, and you will be given an extensive background check, including vetting and a polygraph.

Medical exams, fitness tests, and an interview will be next, followed by an additional polygraph exam and a drug test.

Before applying, Border Patrol agents must meet certain eligibility requirements, including being a U.S. citizen and having a valid driver’s license. All agents must have lived in the United States for three of the last five years, be eligible to carry a firearm, and must be referred for selection before their 40th birthday, states the CBP website.

I’ve been accepted. Now what?

After taking the test and getting accepted into the Border Patrol, trainees will complete a 940-hour instruction course. It is in residence, which means all trainees live on-site, and includes subjects like U.S. law, operations, physical training, firearms instruction, driving, tactical training, and Spanish, states the U.S. Customs and Border Protection website.

Besides language instruction, there are several different courses that a trainee must complete with a passing grade: applied authorities, which covers law, authority, and procedure; physical techniques, which covers non-lethal arrests, defense, and conditioning; firearms training; tactical driving; tactics training, which teaches critical thinking and tactical awareness; and Spanish language training.

The Spanish Language Training portion of the academy takes up a fifth of training, stated the U.S. Customs website. The training is very specialized, focusing on law enforcement-specific language, colloquial phrases, and relevant idioms.

How can you prepare for the Spanish language portion of the job?

While some websites and apps like Duolingo or Babbel teach basic Spanish, this is not exclusively the type of Spanish you would be using on the job as a U.S. Border Patrol agent. Vocabulary and grammar will be quite different in comparison to basic high school Spanish, and you will be expected to know it quickly, efficiently, and effectively.

Border Patrol agents will be expected to conduct field interviews, acquire information, and deescalate situations. Depending on the nature of the apprehension, you may have to use your Spanish language skills to get someone to trust you; in other times, you may have to reduce conflict in a high-stress situation.

Learning Spanish for Border Patrol: What you must know

Because you’re going to be working with fluent speakers, you should also get confident in speaking with those colloquialisms and idioms, along with slang and curse words. They could mean the difference between de-escalating a situation and making it worse.

Learning Law Enforcement Spanish: How to get ahead

But how do you learn these colloquialisms or slang? There are many resources online for learning Spanish for Law Enforcement—whether it’s an online class or a class through a local college, classes of the type are increasing in demand.
In any of those classes, you’ll learn basics, such as numbers, pronouns, colors, verbs, and directions. The traditional greetings, including “what is your name” and “how are you” would be included in the basics.

Vocabulary that can be used to describe the appearance of objects, people, and vehicles is also integral to the U.S. Border Patrol. Knowing the correct translation of a firsthand report is critical when working a case or searching for illegal substances or criminals who have come across the border.

Just as important as the descriptive vocabulary is law enforcement-specific words and phrases, including terms for violations, any possible medical conditions, and commands, such as “stop running” or your professional identification.

In learning Spanish, also be aware of the shifts in dialects. Basic Spanish will get you through the conversation, but Mexican Spanish and Guatemalan Spanish can have vastly different phrasing and vocabulary.

In addition to the differences in dialect, many dialects also have different colloquialisms, idioms, and slang. Much like the regional dialects in the United States, having a basic understanding of what each slang term means according to the country those apprehended are coming from could shift your investigation and help save lives.

Other phrases that you should become familiar with include “where are you from?” and “do you speak English?” along with providing identification to those apprehended and requesting identification. 

In addition to the basics, you should also familiarize yourself with Spanish naming conventions—it will help when you’re trying to file reports. Frequently, those coming from Spanish speaking countries will have two surnames— the father’s first surname and the mother’s first surname. Making sure you understand that when taking down names for reports is crucial. 

With the increase of unaccompanied minors coming over the border, that’s something you should consider when brushing up or learning Spanish—how to talk to children. 

According to the Customs and Border Patrol website, in 2021 alone over 48,000 unaccompanied minors have crossed the Southwest border. In the entirety of 2020, that number was over 30,000, and in 2019, that total was 80,000. 

Many coming over will be confused, tired, and seeking help—your choice and knowledge of the language could make or break the child’s first encounters in the United States. 

Regardless of whether Spanish is your first language or you’re just learning, it’s possible to join the U.S. Border Patrol at any proficiency level. 

It could make or break a high stress situation and could save your life. 

More on border patrol HERE.

Related Questions

What would disqualify me from being a Border Patrol agent?

Common disqualifications for Border Patrol agent applications include any convictions, use or sale of illegal drugs, and harboring an illegal non-citizen. 

Do I have to go to college to work for Border Patrol?

You do not have to have a degree to become a Border Patrol agent. Experience in law enforcement is helpful, and any degree is accepted. The Border Patrol focuses on ability to make judgments and ability to reason, along with handling stressful situations. They also consider your ability to learn a foreign language.

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Please note: This blog post is for educational purposes only and does not constitute legal advice. Please consult a legal expert to address your specific needs.