Now Hiring Border Patrol Agents

With plans for a “virtual fence” stalled, the government is scrambling to get more bodies stationed along the border with Mexico. Careers in the Border Patrol offer great pay and benefits with a good chance for some Lone Ranger-style adventure. The U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency held an all-day recruiting event in Denver on Saturday.If you like the idea of galloping through the desert on horseback in pursuit of lawbreakers, with your cowboy hat firmly affixed and a gun on your hip, then the government wants you to consider a career as a Border Patrol agent.

“What we try and sell is the outdoors. That’s probably the biggest draw for people — to be able to be out in the open surrounded by beautiful country, doing work that they enjoy,” said Ray Sanchez, an agent stationed in El Paso. “It’s a pretty good deal.”

As part of a nationwide recruiting campaign to hire 6,000 additional Border Patrol agents by the end of the year, the U.S. Customs and Border Protection held a job fair in Denver Saturday, where interested applicants asked questions, took the pretest and applied for jobs online.

The hiring push comes in response to President Bush’s 2006 pledge to strengthen border security by increasing the size of the Border Patrol and building walls, both real and technological. It was a way to try and convince the most conservative of his fellow Republicans to support his plan for comprehensive immigration reform, which included a path to citizenship for some illegal immigrants.

But Bush’s reform plan died in the Senate last year, and last month, plans to quickly build a “virtual fence” of tower-mounted sensor and surveillance gear along the U.S.-Mexico border were delayed for at least three years because of problems with the 28-mile pilot project south of Tucson.

That makes the recruiting efforts of the Border Patrol all the more important.

The pay is good. Rookie agents start at nearly $37,000 and have the potential to earn up to $70,000 after three years. Federal benefits — including heath and life insurance, retirement and 25-percent additional overtime pay — make the Border Patrol an attractive option for law-enforcement agents looking for a change of pace without sacrificing the adventure.

“Unlike a local city law enforcement agency, where you have backup available in 10 minutes, in the Border Patrol, we are working in remote, desolate areas, and help can be as much as an hour away,” said Richard Barragan, a recruiter visiting Denver from his station in El Paso. “You have to have nerves of steel — that is why we stress conditioning, both mental and physical.”

But it’s not only former cops, soldiers and prison guards who gravitate toward a career in the Border Patrol. Salvador Bernal is a Mexican-born graphic designer who attended the recruiting event Saturday and completed an application.

Bernal, 35, will become a U.S. citizen later this month, making him eligible to join the Border Patrol. As a child growing up in Torreon, Mexico, with family in south Texas, Bernal has vivid memories of crossing the border and admiring the stoic agents with their dogs and firearms at the ready. Now he is keen on moving closer to his family in Mexico, and a secure, well-paying job in the Southwest seems like a great deal.

“It would be a big career change for me, but I already have the skill of being bilingual, and I love being outside in nature,” Bernal said.

After a few years’ experience, Border Patrol agents can apply to elite units and get access to the “toys” of the trade — Black Hawk helicopters, ATVs, sniffer dogs, horses, Hummers, bikes, etc. But the first few years probably won’t be that exciting. They’re likely to be parked in front of a bank of screens, monitoring miles of mounted surveillance cameras, or manning a checkpoint a hundred miles from the border, spending 10 hours a day stopping and searching cars.

Newly hired Border Patrol agents attend basic training camp in Artesia, N.M., where they study Spanish, work on physical fitness, receive weapon and off-road driving instruction and learn about relevant areas of law. All new agents are stationed along the southern border with the chance to move to the northern border after a few years.

The Border Patrol is a paramilitary organization, with a chain of command, uniform inspections and marching exercises. But it also appeals to people who would never consider joining the military.

Kelly Hammond, 22, came to the recruiting event Saturday, one of the few women who showed up to learn about jobs with the Border Patrol. Females make up only 5 percent of the ranks of the Border Patrol, and they are a target group, along with African-Americans, in this recruiting campaign.

“I’m not interested in signing up for the military,” Hammond said. “But this seems like a different way to help the country and keep people safe.”

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Kate Bernuth

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