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By Antonio Olivo
The Chicago Tribune

JOLIET, Ill. - The engines were screaming adrenaline at last weekend's NASCAR race in Joliet, but a more unusual attraction was beckoning just outside the track.
There, tucked between the Jack Daniel's whiskey tent and a booth for Red Man smokeless tobacco on the Chicagoland Speedway grounds, the U.S. Border Patrol was taking the names of hundreds of revved-up job applicants.
The agency's presence -- complete with a white-and-green Border Patrol-sponsored stock car that competed in the race (it finished 28th) -- was part of an all-out effort mandated by Congress two years ago to nearly double the ranks to 20,000 officers by the end of 2009.
About 3,400 agents shy of that goal, the agency has been recruiting at unconventional venues such as NASCAR races and professional bull-riding contests, in addition to traditional job fairs across the country. In hopes of diversifying its ranks, agency officials also have been targeting African-Americans in the Southeast.
In Chicago and other blue-collar cities, the hiring effort has coincided with a struggling economy that has seen thousands of layoffs.
Lines have formed in front of Border Patrol booths for hours, with some would-be agents more excited over the prospect of health benefits and a $45,000 annual starting salary than protecting the country from terrorism, smuggled drugs and illegal immigration.
"These guys are just about the only ones who are hiring," said Dan Jones, 32, an unemployed real estate broker who attended a recent job fair in Milwaukee. "Last year, I was making six figures. Now, I'm down to this."
Nearly 293,000 people have applied for Border Patrol jobs since the hiring campaign was launched in June 2006, with about 1 in 30 applicants making the final cut, officials said.
But the turnout and the rush to hire new agents have sparked concerns about screening and a lack of experience on the southern border, where rookies would start.
In a June report, the Border Patrol's national union accused the agency of being too lax with background checks, citing two cases where new officers were later caught smuggling in guns and illegal immigrants. One of those agents turned out to be an illegal immigrant himself, the report said.
T.J. Bonner, the union president, said another worry is having too many inexperienced agents on the force. Coupled with the fact that nearly 1 in 4 new hires quits within two years, that could make the southern border more unstable than secure, he said.
"It doesn't really do you much good to have this giant push to hire people if they're just walking out the back door," Bonner said. "We could have a crisis on our hands."
Border Patrol officials acknowledged concern over the sudden influx of rookies.
But they disputed the union's other findings, saying the agency's requirements include drug screenings and background checks that go back 10 years. New hires must prove they are U.S. citizens who have lived in the country for at least three consecutive years, Customs and Border Protection spokeswoman Tara Dunlop said.
Anyone found with a felony on their record or a conviction for domestic abuse is immediately cut.
Moreover, the physical requirements of the job and the need to know conversational Spanish further weed out questionable candidates, Dunlop said.
Those who make the grade are then placed on probation for two years.
"This is the highest level of background investigation, and it is the investigation used as a basis for granting top secret clearance" for any federal employee, Dunlop said. "There are no exceptions to this requirement."
At the NASCAR race, many of the scores of sunburned men and women gripping sweating bottles of beer as they sauntered over to the Border Patrol booth seemed daunted by what it takes to wear an agency uniform.
Some were too old (the maximum age for new hires is 40), and others appeared as though they may struggle with the preliminary physical exam (a 5-minute step test, 25 sit-ups and 20 push-ups in less than a minute each).
But among them was the occasional clear-eyed agent-in-the-making, like Brian Juliano, 27.
Born and raised in Cicero, Juliano said he had planned to join the Navy but changed his mind when he saw the Border Patrol stock car at another NASCAR race.
Since then, he and his wife, Jamie, 25, have been preparing for life in the Southwest.
"I want to help stop all the drugs coming through," Juliano said. "I've got nothing against immigration, but it should be legal."
At the recruiting fair in Milwaukee, Jose Gomez, 26, had no such convictions.
A struggling shoe salesman, he was more caught up in the irony of his applying.
Gomez said his father had been an illegal immigrant before he was granted citizenship through the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986.
"It's him who's pushing me to do this," Gomez said. "He said, 'You have to get out there and better your life.'"

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