Border Patrol casts wide net for recruits
By Maria Sacchetti
June 20, 2008
JACKSON, Tenn. – In a highway-side hotel crowded with enthusiasts attending the Miss Tennessee beauty pageant, the US Border Patrol is hunting for new agents to keep America safe.
(Audio– “Wanted: Border patrol agents”)
The first round of applicants did not look too promising. It included a former carnival worker, a pizza maker who said he was blind in one eye and deaf in one ear, and an unemployed hotel clerk whose eyes lit up when she asked about carrying weapons.
They sat in the cramped Old Hickory conference room glued to a television showing glamorous images of federal agents barking into two-way radios and swooping low across the desert Southwest in gleaming helicopters.
“Would you have to do all of that?” one attendee asked.
Welcome to the Border Patrol's unique recruitment drive, essentially a road trip across America and beyond, part of a presidential mandate to boost the force from 12,000 two years ago to 18,000 by December, the highest in the 84-year-old agency's history.
Agents say they are pulling out all the stops to find adventurous recruits willing to live along the 1,900-mile border with Mexico, where all new agents start. Teams of recruiters are hitting not only colleges, churches and career centers, but also NASCAR races – the patrol paid $2.6 million this year to sponsor a racecar – professional bull-riding events, US military bases overseas, and even declining former railroad cities like Jackson – nearly 1,000 miles from the Mexican border.
For the first time, the Border Patrol has also formed a “Minority Recruitment Strike Team” to attract more African-Americans, who now make up only 1 percent of the patrol. The 16,500-member patrol is 52 percent Latino and 45 percent white.
In Jackson – a city of 60,000 that also happens to be hosting the beauty pageant this week – a visit by members of the minority recruitment team showed how challenging it can be to find recruits of any background who are willing to move to the border.
Agents tout the opportunity to work outdoors and serve America without joining the military or risking their lives overseas. The Border Patrol's chief mission is to stop terrorists along the nation's northern and southern borders, but they also apprehend illegal immigrants and drug smugglers. Recruits can earn $70,000 a year after only three years on the job, a big draw in Tennessee, where the per capita income barely tops $22,000.
But there is a downside: Agents can be assigned to remote and dusty desert towns along the border, far from the gleaming green fields of Tennessee. Recruits must pass a physical fitness test that includes running 1.5 miles in 13 minutes or less, learn Spanish, and work odd hours, since the border is patrolled around the clock.