Part 1, The Beginning
In May of 1996, I was sitting at home when a buddy of mine called. I was in the Air Force reserves with him out at Travis AFB and he knew I was looking for a job in Law Enforcement. When I picked up the phone, John tells me: “ Robert, call this number and apply for the job.” I asked what it was, and he told me it was for a Special Agent position with the Immigration and Naturalization Service. At the time I had no idea what that was or what they did so I asked him, “what the hell is that?” The second thought that went through my mind was, because I did not have a bachelor’s degree, there is no way I qualify for that. John was direct, “Just call and apply.”
I was working at the Marriott’s in Napa, in the banquet department. It was a good job and I enjoyed it and company, but it was not a career nor enough to live comfortably in California. I also had this desire to do something that helps other people. I called the number and answered a few automated questions and before I knew it, I received the test date.
Being in the military I had learned how to take government tests, but my method was a little different. Typically, the rule of thumb for multiple question tests, especially the questions you don’t know, is you can immediately decide to throw out the two most unlikely answers. Then you are only picking from two, so now you have a 50% chance of getting it right. My method however, which got me promoted to Staff Sergeant my first-time testing utilizing it, was that if I didn’t know the answer, I would pick the one I thought was correct and then fill in the other one. It does seem a little risky to take an important test that way, but it worked. My total score for this government test turned out to be 98 points, which included 5-points for being a military veteran. This was good enough to put me on the list.
I got a call for an interview in June of 1996. A Supervisor called and asked if I was available to interview that same day. He informed me that he could come by my house and conduct the interview there. I was a little surprised and told him that was okay, but it would take a little bit to get ready. I had been relaxing at the house with the kids and needed to get them set-up and dressed. He said not to worry about that and that he would be at my house in 15 minutes since he happened to be in the area. When I got off the phone, I had to rush around the house trying to straighten up a little before he got there. When you are just relaxing at home, playing with the kids, it gets more than a little messy. Not quite the environment that you want to conduct a job interview in. At the time I had two kids, a 6-year-old daughter and a 3-year-old son, who didn’t understand that they had to stop playing with daddy and clean up because someone was coming to the house for an interview.
The supervisor, Steven, showed up about 10 minutes after he called. I had the house looking okay, but the kids were still wound up and wanting to see what was going on. That is how it is as a parent, when the kids do not do what they are told, when something is going on and their energy level raises to nuclear. The times you have to raise your voice, talk sternly to them, threaten them with everything and anything they hold dear and close, and maybe they will listen after 30 minutes or an hour if you’re lucky, but more than likely will continue on until you have to pick them up and put them away, making the false promise of spanking them so hard that their great grandkids will cry. This was one of those times for me.
As Steve came into the house, my kids were going nuts with excitement. To them, there was someone new and interesting in the house and they had to know everything. So here I am, in the most important interview of my life, wearing the ugliest brown and yellow shorts ever made, t-shirt and flip flops trying to act in a professional manner while my 3-year-old was literally climbing on top of me and my 6-year-old pulling on my arm. To top it all off, I was nervous as hell about the interview. I had never even met a Special Agent, let alone a supervisor that was interviewing me for a job.
Steve was a good guy. He asked me a couple of questions related to my experience, which I answered with assistance from my kids. What struck me as odd though, and so different from any other interview I had before, was that there were not many questions. Steve was at my house for about 30 minutes, and most of that time we spent talking about the kids, the kids talking about the job I was applying for, asking all those wonderful questions that kids ask. Such as: have you shot someone before, how many bad guys have you arrested, do you have a gun, is my daddy going to have to shoot someone. When he left, my first thought was ‘I am never going to be hired for that position’. I could not be upset with the kids, after all their space was invaded by someone unknown and interesting, they just wanted to know. I do feel lucky that they did not say anything too embarrassing. I would have cringed if one of those comments would have come out. Who wants your future boss to know that you like farting in the shower while listening to Pink Floyd?
I finally heard back from the INS about a month later. When I got the call, I first heard what I was expecting after the interview. I had applied to the INS under what was just a normal announcement. This is the most common method, you apply, take a test and get a qualifying score, and thanks to my prior military service and being a veteran, I received those 5-points extra on my score which boosted it to a 98. When they called though, the first thing I heard was that they were sorry that I did not qualify for the 5-point boost for military service. That dropped my score to a 93 and didn’t meet the point threshold for making the list, so they could not offer me the position. When I heard this, I wasn’t surprised or even very disappointed. I didn’t think I would get it anyways. Now what I heard next was not only surprising, but also showed a lot about our government, and the hiring process, does not always make sense. The woman on the other end of the line continued that even though they could not hire me under that job announcement, and because the interviewer liked me so much, that they wanted to hire me under a Veteran’s Readjustment Appointment. My first question was, ‘what is that?’ The second was ‘why don’t I get the 5 veteran points?’ And the third was ‘how can I get hired as a Veteran if I do not qualify for Veteran points?’ Of course, not only being a true government employee and a human resource officer, her answer didn’t answer my questions or make sense. Having spent 10 years in the military, the nonsensical methods were not a shock to me.
When I received the letter a couple weeks later, I was again surprised when I opened it up. The first thing I see is a rejection letter. As I read that they were sorry they could not offer me a position at that time and encouraged me to reapply at a future date. My heart sank. After the phone call I thought I had the position. I had told all my family and friends that I was going to be a Special Agent and even told my current employer. As the wave of disappointment rushed over me, I flipped to the second page, figuring that it was just a continuation. It wasn’t a page two, it was a second letter. This one read that I have been accepted for the position and that my reporting date was September 29, 1996. While reading this letter I started laughing, how many people have been rejected and accepted for the exact same job, not only on the same day, but in the same notification.
For the next few weeks I prepared to start my new career. It was a different feeling, knowing that I would not have to look for a better job anymore. I was going into a position that would be a true career, which I realized later was much more than that. I was going to have to be away from my family for six months while I was at the Federal Law Enforcement Academy in a month, so I had to prepare everything. Being so far away, my wife would have to take care of everything and with two little kids it can be overwhelming. This also would be the longest period I would be away from my children, which was tough for me, my family was everything. I also had to prepare to leave my position at the Marriott Hotel as I did not want to leave with any loose ends hanging around. I had been there for a little over a year, and after the banquet manager left another supervisor and myself were running the department. Leaving there was very bittersweet. I knew I was going to a much better future, but I really enjoyed the place and the people. My last day there was very difficult, they had a little going away thing for me. The appreciation, care, and happiness made it much harder to leave.
Before going to the academy, I reported to the office to get set-up and start with my paperwork and beginnings of this new job. I was so nervous on my first day, but that quickly went away when reporting to the Human Resource office. As I am completing form after form, the resource officer gave me the position description. I sat there and looked at it, I was expecting it to read Special Agent/Criminal Investigation, which is job series 1811, but what I saw was Immigration Agent, job series 1801. Both are Law Enforcement positions, but the pay and work are very different. As an Immigration Agent, besides not being special, you are only processing people for removal proceedings instead of conducting actual criminal investigations. I told the human resource officer that it wasn’t the correct position, that I was hired to be a Special Agent. She told me, no that I was not and that there really was not any choice. I showed her my job offer letter, which did read what I thought was correct. Unfortunately, there was not really anything I could do at that point. She asked me if I still wanted the Immigration Agent position, and I almost said no. Having no time to really think about it I told her that was fine. What choice did I have at that point anyways? A few years later I did find out what happened. An Agent that started just before me was hired for the Immigration Agent position. But when he started, he threw a tantrum and actually went to the District Director, who allowed him to slide into my spot. Honestly, in the end it really didn’t make a difference.
After in-processing I was given a tour of the office and introduced to my Supervisor, Earl. He was a heavy-set older man and had that hardened appearance that one would except from someone that has been in Law Enforcement for years. I felt a little intimidated meeting him and all the other agents in the office. These are guys that are doing it, there was no bullshitting here. In my opinion, they were out there, the cream of the crop, putting bad guys in jail.
When I walked into Earl’s office, it was like taking a step back in time. It was a large office with one of those old-style military desks in the middle of the room. It was stacked with papers, as were all the tables and bookshelves that lined the office. I remember thinking, ‘wow that is a lot of paperwork’. Earl was a nice guy, but he was very blunt and straight forward. His demeanor was a little intimidating, and made you feel like you were barely worthy of talking to. Of course, I ended up realizing that he was a nice guy, just had that gruff mannerism that one acquires after of years of Law enforcement work. He told me what I would be doing for the next few weeks, which was nothing but record checks for the Agents. Then he showed me where I would be sitting. It was a room that had 10 of those same old-style desks, and all of them were pretty much just stacked with papers and boxes of papers next to them. It reminded me of one of those old 70’s cop shows. I was not expecting the offices to look like this. I had figured that it is the Federal Government, the offices would be all shiny and modern with the best equipment available. How wrong I was. I loved it though, it felt so cool, while at the same time it all intimidated the hell out of me.
For the next few weeks, I sat at my new desk and did the records checks. I was assigned a Field Training Officer, Dan, who would assign me work. In the beginning the only interaction with him would be him stacking the work on my desk, telling me what needed to be done. That was it. The group that I was in was called a worksite group. These were the guys that were looking at companies and making sure all their employees were legal to work in the U.S. They really did not talk to me much, I just figured since I had not been to the academy, I hadn’t proven myself yet and that was the reason why. Other than Dan, the only other person I remember is a guy named Dante. Now this guy was a scary old-timer, seriously scary. He would get mad at something, start yelling at no one in general, and even threw his computer across the room once. The guys in the unit were not in the office much, they would be out doing raids on businesses, or rounding up people that were in the country illegally. When they returned, I enjoyed listening to them talk about the operation and arrests they had made, knowing one day that I would also be doing that.
During this time was also my first experience with some of the darker side associated with the job. I must tell you, that I am not comfortable with what I am going to write. I also must tell you that it is not like this today there. Listening to these guys talk, and how the referred to the people they arrested, I realized how cold and callous some of these guys really were. The first time I heard the word “tonk” was during this time. The guys were talking about the “tonks” or “wets” they had just arrested. I asked, ‘what is a tonk?’ After looking at me like I was stupid, I was told that it was ‘the sound a flashlight makes when it hits their head’. I remember my response was, ‘really??’ This was a very eye-opening moment for me, I never even thought about this type thing before hearing it. Now this attitude was not wholesale throughout the agency, maybe 25% of the agents spoke this way, and it did not make a difference what the agent’s race was either. I heard agents that were black and Hispanic also speaking in this manner. At the time, I didn’t really view it as a racism type thing, and don’t believe it was. It just seemed like a total disregard for people that were here illegally and especially those that were farm laborers, almost like they were sub-human. The reason I do not believe it was racist was that the agents would refer to everyone that was illegal like this, no matter where they were from or what color they were. I didn’t realize it back then, but do now, that this was towards the end of the use of terms that are racist. The agency worked hard to eliminate this, to the point where it is now. Now you will be disciplined if you use those terms.
As my time came close to leaving for the academy, I was raring to go. I knew it would be difficult and a huge risk. If I didn’t pass, I would be out of a job. Even though I was nervous I was confident that I could easily make it through and graduate. My family and I prepared as much as possible, we even made plans for them to come down and visit me during Christmas and New Year’s. Even though you make all the plans, nothing can really prepare you to be away from your family for six months.
The day to leave came, and it was difficult. I was excited to be going, but at the same time I was incredibly sad. I remember driving to the airport; I kept a strong front for my kids. I did not want them seeing how sad I was to be away from them for so long. It was going to be tough and I did not want to make it worse. After checking in and getting my boarding pass, we walked to the security check point. I waited there with them as long as possible, just talking and playing with them, tossing my son in the air, trying to be as happy with them as possible. When it came time, I gave them big hugs, told them I was going to miss them and that I would call as often as I could. I tried to smile as much as I could, but my eyes had tears in them. As I walked through security, I looked back and waved, lingering and smiling the very best that I could for my children. I had to walk into the terminal though. Wrestling with my emotions and holding them in for as long as I could, I ultimately found myself a nice quiet place and allowed myself to break down in tears before gathering myself to board the plane.