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Recruits agents to boost force, fulfill mandate

US Border Patrol Agent Greg Lopez helped Eugene Farese fill out an online application for the agency in Quincy yesterday. (Wendy Maeda/Globe Staff)

By Rachana Rathi

Globe Staff / August 3, 2008

Amid news of layoffs and buyouts, the US Border Patrol is one of the rare employers offering jobs. By the thousands.

But it is finding recruiting difficult, especially in such areas as Boston, where the economy is relatively stable and there is little awareness of the agency.
"We have to convince someone from the Northeast to move to New Mexico," said Joseph Arata, assistant director of recruiting for US Customs and Border Protection, which falls under the Department of Homeland Security. "And we have to correct their misconceptions of Border Patrol - no, we don't just patrol the Southwest border; yes, there are issues other than illegal immigration."
Arata and about a dozen national recruiters were at the Marriott Hotel in Quincy yesterday, speaking to prospective hires about the benefits of guarding the nation's 102,000 miles of land border and shoreline, helping them fill out applications, and providing study sessions for the agency's rigorous exam.
A June 2006 presidential mandate ordered the Border Patrol to increase its 12,000-agent force to 18,000 by the end of 2008. Border Patrol now employs more than 16,800 agents, Arata said.
Although certain areas such as New England need more of a push, nationally, the agency's recruitment efforts have translated into 5,000 applications a week. Once people become aware of the Border Patrol's job openings, mission, and responsibility - and are prepared to move - Arata said, it is easy to sell the merits of the job.
Some of the 111 applicants who attended yesterday's recruiting event came from across the Commonwealth and from diverse backgrounds. They said the Border Patrol offered everything they were looking for: higher salaries, job security, and something unusual.
"It's an exciting job, keeps you on your toes. And it's a great opportunity for the future," said Orlando Payne, 30, of Lawrence, who works in software support for a start-up company. But more important for Payne, the job offers stability.
"I want to feel more secure," he said. "I'm looking for a government job instead of the uncertainty of a company filing for bankruptcy or laying off people without notice."
For the fluent Spanish speaker, the challenge will be persuading his wife and children to leave New England. All applicants who complete the four- to nine-month process of becoming an agent will begin working in either California, Arizona, New Mexico, or Texas. The application regimen includes a screening process, written exam, an interview, and Spanish proficiency, medical, and fitness tests.
Agents earn $36,000 to $46,000 the first year, plus another 25 percent in overtime pay; up to $70,000 in the third year of service; and federal health, life, and retirement benefits. They could possibly move from the Southwest in two years.
A separate Border Patrol team spent the day in Springfield, recruiting another 109 applicants. More than 400 people applied online this week as a result of advertising. It was the second national recruiting effort in the Boston area in as many years, because Arata thought the 59 test takers Border Patrol attracts from Boston each month were too few for a metropolitan area. Last year's event drew 150 applications. (About one in 36 applicants becomes an agent, Arata said.)
While it is successful in military recruiting - 25 percent of agents have a military background - the agency's diversity efforts haven't had great success. About 53 percent of agents are Hispanic, about 45 percent are white, and about 1 percent are African-American, officials said.
"There has been a very nominal change in the racial makeup," said Tara Dunlop, public affairs officer for the Border Patrol.
Arata said there has been an increase in the number of minority applications, but he doesn't know why that hasn't translated into significant changes in the racial makeup of the force.
Recruiting in New England will continue throughout the year locally. The next national event will be six to eight months from now.
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