Wall or no wall, Border Patrol plans big hiring in 2017

Help wanted: Border patrol agents
Help wanted: Border patrol agents

Jose Ramirez Jr. grew up with his eyes on a career in law enforcement.

But the 23-year-old Laredo, Texas, native's goal became even more important to achieve in 2012. One of his older brothers, Jeffrey, died while serving as an agent with U.S. Customs and Border Protection from a heat-related illness.

For the past two years, Ramirez anxiously waited to get accepted to that same agency, to continue his family's legacy.

"I want to be able to protect our homeland," said Ramirez, who has another older brother currently serving with CBP in south Texas. "I want to follow in my brother's footsteps, to honor him."

Two months ago, Ramirez began training at the Border Patrol Academy in Artesia, New Mexico, and is set to graduate in January. He'll join an agency tasked with patrolling 6,000 miles of the country's land border and more than 300 ports of entry including land, air and sea.

Jose Ramirez, U.S. Border Patrol Academy trainee
Karina Frayter | CNBC

CBP is aggressively hiring, attempting to bring on some 1,700 agents this year to meet its staffing goals of more than 21,000, according to U.S. Border Patrol Chief Mark Morgan.

Between 55,000 and 65,000 applications are received in any given year, although many don't make it past the initial screening process — about 1 in 175 applicants will become an agent. Despite the emphasis that President-elect Donald Trump placed on border safety and building a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border while campaigning, the agency declined to comment on what impact a Trump administration might mean for U.S. Customs and Border Patrol as a whole — but hiring plans remain in place. The Trump transition team did not respond to a request for comment on border hiring.

Retaining new hires can be a challenge, as many of the agency's positions are in remote areas that include difficult climates and terrain. Typically new agents have entry-level salaries of between $50,000 and $70,000, Morgan said.

CBP agent at a port of entry in El Paso, Texas.
Karina Frayter | CNBC

"We're looking for men and women who really have an innate set of core values — honesty, integrity, dedication and respect," Morgan said. "Some of the conditions that the United States Border Patrol agents are to work in — they're harsh. Mountainous terrain, waterways, and generally we're not in major metropolitan cities. ... But the mission we have and the great work the men and women of the agency do outweigh that."

U.S. border patrol agents ride ATVs near U.S. – Mexico border.
Karina Frayter | CNBC

Agents come from all different academic and professional backgrounds and train for just over four months at the academy, where they will learn to process the more than 1 million people who cross the border daily. They also focus on physical fitness and learn Spanish to become fluent by the time they graduate. Other training includes water safety, combat courses in light and dark, and off-road driving courses to prepare for the challenging terrain agents may face on the job.

CNBC’s Kate Rogers in off-road driving training at the U.S. Border Patrol Academy
Karina Frayter | CNBC

Dangers are ever-present on the nation's borders, where on a typical day 9,400 pounds of drugs are seized and 23 wanted criminals are apprehended, according to the agency.

"We want our men and women who go out there to get it right," said Dan Harris, chief patrol agent of the U.S. Border Patrol Academy. "When they have to make split-second decisions to save their lives, or someone else's life, or their partner's life, we want them to get it right."

To help recruit millennials for front-line positions, the agency has launched the CBP "Apply Now!" webpage, increased its digital marketing efforts on social media sites like Facebook and is conducting analysis on other law enforcement recruitment sites to improve the agency's visibility.

Hiring more women is also a priority for CBP, which is currently just 5 percent female. However in 2016, 19 percent of all Border Patrol agent hires were female, with the agency participating in more than 200 female recruiting events.

Mark Morgan in a transition meeting at the CBP Headquarters
Karina Frayter

Part of that minority group of women is Erika King, now 35 and a 13-year veteran of the agency, stationed in her hometown of El Paso, Texas. King is part of the agent cohort, patrolling part of the 2,000 border miles between the U.S. and Mexico from the air, by ATV, on horseback and on foot. Her duty is called "line watch," manning the fence between the two countries, meant to act as a deterrent for those crossing without documentation.

"You realize very quickly that a situation can go bad in a second," King said, acknowledging the dangers of the job. "But I have a sense of pride; I know I worked hard for this uniform and this badge. I know that I'm doing a service to my community."

Future agents in Spanish class at the U.S. Border Patrol academy
Karina Frayter | CNBC

Back at the training academy, Ramirez feels that same sense of pride in serving and remembering his brother's legacy.

"It feels good knowing that I am protecting America itself and honoring my brother," he said. "Every other law enforcement agent or officer in the field, we're always there for each other and we must know we have one thing to do, and that's protect our homeland."