of a decent salary that doesn’t require going into debt for college. It’s a serious dose of insight, captured at the height of the Trump administration and when headlines about family separations at the border dominated the news. With a class dominated by Latino students, many of them with immigrant parents and relatives, this documentary follows a group of children confronted with the realities of work that go beyond just practicing arrest and training active shooters.
“At the Ready” opens at the beginning of the school year, complete with the awkward first day of class introductions and amused smiles. At Horizon High School, one of about 900 schools in Texas that offer law enforcement classes, students can pursue a career path that will prepare them for jobs in the police force or Border Patrol, big draws for border cities like El Paso. In addition to in-class training, students can also sign up for extracurricular clubs to compete with other schools to revive law enforcement scenarios. The youths learn how to fire a gun, practice paramilitary techniques, and receive narcotics training. While their classmates enjoy soccer games and endure the humiliation of school functions, law enforcement classes practice their training as security guards at these events.
Three distinct voices stand out in the film Crow. The first belongs to Cristina, a recent graduate from Horizon High School who is a member of the Border Patrol. As the documentary progresses, he comes face to face with some of the more cruel duties of his job, especially when young children arrive separated from their families. Her heart was in the right place—she said repeatedly that she wanted to help her community and help her parents—but the demands of the job forced her to question the organization’s mission.
Then there’s Mason (who went with Kassy in high school), an independent trans student who’s mostly on his own because his dad is away at work. Where once he found a much-needed sense of community in his law enforcement class, he began to question whether he felt part of it or not, knowing that some law enforcement teachers looked down on LGBTQ people.
Cesar is another kind and caring student who steps up to take care of his brother and help his mother around the house. He questions whether law enforcement classes will really help him or his family because his father has had past problems with the law.
Crow’s camera captures the nuances these teens face and how law enforcement instructors and recruiters sell children for the idea of following in their footsteps. The program, which has been ongoing since 2009, includes a recruitment video promoting the fraternity of its graduates who are now in law enforcement. An instructor followed up the presentation with a promise that his students would never be alone because of this network. Other instructors appeal to children’s sense of loyalty to their families and communities. Students carry backpacks and hand-decorated notebooks to celebrate police or Border Patrol.
“At the Ready” looks at other background details, such as what these children miss by not being part of the general student population or the Thin Blue Line flags hanging over their classrooms, to explain the environment in which these classes take place. Salary is discussed both at home and in class. For many students with immigrant parents, a career path to a steady job with a steady income is part of the American Dream. It is a matter of pride for their parents, and it becomes a means to help care for their family after high school. But for some students dealing with guilt, insecurity and doubt, this intensive course becomes a nightmare. The instructors clearly tell the camera that they keep some of the unpleasant things from their work away from the children, such as more frightening life-threatening situations or the personal burdens a law enforcement career can take, but they encourage their students to pursue careers that are challenging. This is difficult because that’s how they move forward in life. It’s a cyclical pattern that has spread in the years since the documentary was filmed.
El Paso is located just across the border from Ciudad Juárez. Many of the film’s main subjects go to the other side to see their families. For them, issues of immigration and militarization are very touching near home, even when recruiters make them an asset to whatever branch of law enforcement they join. “At the Ready” explores those tensions through a sympathetic lens, discussing the many reasons that will convince a young, concerned student to learn how to catch and subdue the perceived bad guy and how the previous generation of law enforcement recruits to replenish his ranks. It’s a pipeline no different than the military or gangs, starting with engaging children’s interests, before they’re old enough to vote or drink, with the promise of work and decent pay.