More than 150 men and women — mostly Hispanic, and including a few couples — turned up Saturday at the Border Patrol’s headquarters in the Rio Grande Valley in South Texas, looking for a chance to help with the nation’s border security. They talked to recruiters and signed up on iPads, welcomed by pop-country music and two mustang patrol horses.
It was Job Fair day in the busiest Border Patrol sector in the United States.
The Border Patrol and its parent agency, Customs and Border Protection, have come in for widespread criticism for implementing some of President Donald Trump’s harshest immigration policies: curtailing the number of asylum-seekers processed each day at the border and, in 2018, separating families. But that is not the dominant local narrative.
Working in the Border Patrol has been a bedrock middle-class job for generations of Mexican-American families, much the way police departments served as a gateway to a respectable future for generations of immigrants in the Northeast.
“It’s basically the go-to job in the valley,” said Andrew Canales, 22, who was born and raised in the region.
“It pays well,” said his girlfriend, Savannah Reyna, 19.
Since taking office, Trump has sought to harden the southern border with more fencing and more law enforcement. The president signed an executive order calling for the hiring of 5,000 new Border Patrol agents, but the agency has had serious problems recruiting and retaining agents, especially on remote sections of the 1,900-mile border with Mexico.
The hiring process can take nearly a year, slowed by lengthy background checks and polygraph examinations that prompt many applicants to look elsewhere.
The Border Patrol has about 19,500 agents, some 1,800 fewer than Congress has provided funds for. Though the agency lost almost twice as many agents in recent years as it hired, it managed to achieve a net increase of 118 agents in the latest fiscal year.
Those figures are still far from Trump’s goals. So the Border Patrol has beefed up recruiting efforts across the country, and perhaps nowhere more than in South Texas, where it has been conducting a broad marketing campaign.
Hiring advertisements appear on Instagram and Twitter, and the agency has invested heavily in cultivating relationships. This past week, at a “Head of the Class” ceremony at a local performing arts center, the agency honored high school seniors who “demonstrate exemplary character and determination to succeed.” It was not a recruiting event, and many of the students were not planning to pursue law-enforcement careers. But the Border Patrol was signaling its role as a member of the larger valley community, much the way local grocery-store chains and banks do.
Earlier this year, the newly arrived sector chief for the Rio Grande Valley, Rodolfo Karisch, held a “State of the Border” presentation and meet-and-greet to update lawmakers and the public about the agency’s efforts.
The Rio Grande Valley remains at the leading edge of unauthorized border crossings in the United States, with more than 78,900 members of families and 42,300 single adults apprehended since Oct. 1.
In the valley, where the average household income is just $37,000, the federal border agency has become an important driver of an economy that also depends heavily on trade with Mexico, along with agriculture and tourism.
“If you have 3,000 Border Patrol agents here in South Texas, you’re going to have at least 2,500 homes purchased, and probably 5,000 vehicles,” said Rick Cavazos, a retired Border Patrol agent who is now the mayor of the border town of Los Indios, Texas. “Kids are in schools. Some of these government jobs are six-figure jobs. Economically, those are some of the things that I wish people would look at.”
The agency has been a source of opportunity for Mexican-Americans in particular. A little more than half of all Border Patrol agents are Hispanic, and in the Rio Grande Valley, the proportion is even higher, agency officials say.
More than 150 men and women visited the Border Patrol’s Valley headquarters in just five hours on Saturday. Not all applied for jobs, but many did — despite a week of upheaval in Washington, where the Department of Homeland Security, which oversees the Border Patrol, has lost its Cabinet secretary and several other top officials to firings and resignations.
One notable departure was Ronald Vitiello, who more than a decade ago was the chief patrol agent in the Rio Grande Valley sector. Trump withdrew Vitiello’s nomination to be director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which is responsible for immigration enforcement away from the border. Trump said he wanted to go in a “tougher” direction.
The robust turnout Saturday appeared to be a sign that the Border Patrol has stable support in the largely Democratic front-line communities most affected by a recent surge in migration from Central America, even though the agency’s stepped-up security response has drawn criticism around the country and in some quarters locally as well.
Tucked between a minor league basketball arena and a Buick-GMC car dealership, the agency’s headquarters saw a stream of applicants throughout the day.
Michael Giambra, a slight Venezuelan-born 19-year-old who lives in Edinburg, said he made $8 an hour running the drive-through window at Whataburger — or Whisky Bravo, as many agents call it. A veteran recruiter for the agency, Maria Guerrero, frequents the fast-food joint and had been chatting with Giambra for months. During her late-evening dinner run Friday, she invited him to the job fair, and to her surprise, he showed up the next morning.
“I know that Border Patrol before was a really high standard — it was a good job, people that secure our country,” Giambra said after submitting his application. “Now it’s been beaten up for the same reason. Because of politics.”
Guerrero, who apparently had recruited several of the people who applied Saturday, said that interest in joining the agency had heightened lately. But she said she was unsure whether the trend was a response to the polarizing politics surrounding the border and immigration.
Jason Castro, 19, said that his mother encouraged him to attend the job fair after she saw Guerrero’s recruitment post on Facebook. Castro, who works in retail at Old Navy, said many of his relatives have worked in law enforcement and that he wanted to do the same.
He might have found it uncomfortable to talk about joining the Border Patrol with some of his left-leaning friends in South Texas, a region that votes firmly for Democrats. “But everyone’s supportive, a couple friends texted me ‘good luck’ earlier, and that kind of stuff,” he said. “And not all my friends even like the Border Patrol.”
Guerrero helped guide Castro through his application, handing him the appropriate documents and introducing him to other agents. As he left, she hugged him and planted a kiss on his cheek, a common greeting in South Texas.
Morale across the agency has taken a nose-dive the past several months, agents have said, complaining about a lack of resources to handle large numbers of migrants and the instability of the agency’s leadership in Washington.
“A lot of guys feel they get beat up in the public,” said Christopher Cabrera, vice president of the local union of Border Patrol agents in the valley. “They worry about what’s being said about them. I think most guys, they just kind of brush it off. I think the families of our agents feel beaten up, because people are attacking their loved ones.”
Adrian Garza, a McAllen native who showed up at the job fair wearing a black suit, said he had served in the National Guard for the past four years and had always wanted to work in law enforcement.
“I wouldn’t want anything other than this,” Garza said.
The steps to receiving a badge and taking an oath can often take months, and sometimes nearly a year, including a long period at the Border Patrol Academy in New Mexico. Then there are exams and further training in the field along the border. Giambra said he believes he can pass — with the right studying.
Giambra admits that he does not understand the nuances of asylum law, as the Border Patrol’s workload changes from arresting and deporting people who enter the country illegally to dealing with the growing number of migrants arriving to seek protection from persecution in their homelands.
“I’m not 100 percent sure on that,” Giambra said when discussing the growing number of asylum cases. “I want to study the laws, but I don’t know right now.”
Of the post-academy tests, one recruiter said, the one that prospective agents often struggle with the most is the immigration law exam. But Giambra figures that he has time to master that, too. In any case, for a job with a future, he is ready to try.
“You’re working for the federal government,” he said. “You’re not working for, like, Whataburger.”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.