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What it takes to patrol the border
Media General News Service


May 22, 2006

WASHINGTON - President Bush made it sound easy.

Send the National Guard to the Southwest border until 6,000 new Border Patrol agents are in place. A year or two, max.

But recruiting, hiring and training 6,000 Border Patrol agents in a couple of years is a tall order. In the 5 1/2 years since Bush took office, the patrol has grown by only 3,000 to about 12,000 agents.

Patrolling the border is tough, dangerous work in an inhospitable part of the world - and not just anybody can qualify.

Think you have what it takes to be a Border Patrol agent?

You'll need a college degree or a year's experience in such jobs as a claims adjuster, benefits specialist, teacher or journalist.

You'll need to read and speak Spanish. The feds will train you, but you have to pass a series of proficiency tests to keep your job.

You'll have to pass rigorous mental and physical fitness tests, have good eyesight and hearing, pass an oral interview and full background check.

The stringent application process typically takes five months. Only a fraction of applicants makes it through. To expand the pool, the Border Patrol recently raised the upper age limit for recruits to 40.

Training - 19 weeks, one of the longest in law enforcement - takes place in remote Artesia, N.M., pop 14,000. The nearest city is El Paso, Texas, 156 miles away. The Border Patrol discourages trainees from bringing cars or family.

That's so you won't be distracted from immigration and nationality law, criminal law and statutory authority, behavioral science, border patrol operations, care and use of firearms, physical training and, of course, intensive Spanish.

Starting base pay is in the mid 30s with loads of overtime. A typical workweek is 50 hours. Night, weekend and holiday work are part of the job. An agent can earn up to 25 percent of the base pay in overtime. Benefits are great - life insurance included - and promotions come quickly.

As for the job itself, being on the front line in the war on terrorism - and that's the Border Patrol's mission - is hazardous. Drug smugglers and criminals mix with the laborers seeking to enter the country. Assaults on Border Patrol agents doubled last year.

Try enforcing the federal "strategy of deterrence," which means sitting in a vehicle near the border for eight or 10 hours at a stretch, a sitting duck.

So it's not all adrenaline chases. T.J. Bonner, head of the National Border Patrol Council, the agents' union, says agent morale is low.

Agents live with the knowledge that despite their long hours, millions of people and tons of narcotics slip into the country every year.

Bonner is among those who say removing the employer magnet must be part of the plan to stem the flow of illegal immigration. But politicians back away from rocking the economic boat that relies on illegal workers. Instead, the pols talk about high-tech gizmos and building miles of fences.

And we pour National Guard and Border Patrol agents onto the Southern border. Most Border Patrol postings are in rural areas where the rugged terrain and hot climate are punishing. Speaking of desert, the Customs and Border Protection Web site gently counsels spouses they may find a lifestyle far different than any they've experienced:

"You may have to drive a long distance to get reasonable grocery prices and selection. You may live in an area where you and your children are a racial or ethnic minority. Exotic foods, different languages being spoken, signs on stores written in a language you don't understand can all make culture shock a possibility."

The government suggests that spouses study Spanish too. A job for a spouse may not be available, so "you may want to consider federal employment for yourself." Like a job in the Border Patrol.

Ironically, the hard, perilous, necessary work of patrolling the Southern border sounds like one of those jobs most Americans don't want even if they could qualify, and illegal immigrants gladly would take. But you have to be a U.S. citizen. Help wanted.


E-mail Marsha Mercer, Washington bureau chief for Media General News Service, at mmercer(AT)
Distributed to subscribers for publication by Scripps Howard News Service.

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