Senior Patrol Agent Frank Quinones spent most of his 12 years in the U.S. Border Patrol trying to shut people out.
He's tracked illegal immigrants through Texas scrubland, busted drug traffickers trying to enter from Mexico, and patrolled the beaches of Florida searching for people trying to sneak into the United States on handmade boats called "rusticas."
"Most of my days were spent looking for people trying to make entry into the U.S.," Quinones said.
In his latest assignment, however, he's far more welcoming. Quinones and several other Border Patrol officials were in Baltimore yesterday hoping to recruit new agents to protect America's 8,000 miles of land and coastal border. The all-day event, held at the Marriott Inner Harbor, was part of a larger effort to increase the number of Border Patrol agents in the United States by 50 percent.
In 2006, amid concerns over illegal immigration and national security, President Bush called for the agency to hire 6,000 new agents by the end of this year. At the time, the number of agents was about 12,000.
Since then the agency has stepped up recruiting efforts. Four teams of agents now roam the country, holding eight to 10 job fairs each month. Last year, the Border Patrol hired about 3,000 new agents, according to agency officials.
"We have to go places where we didn't have a lot of Border Patrol presence before," said Joseph Abbott, the director of recruiting for U.S. Customs and Border Protection, the agency that oversees the Border Patrol. "We have to educate the public about the mission of the Border Patrol to keep this country safe."
At yesterday's event, recruiters showed attendees a promotional video and answered questions about the job and the application process. They distributed pamphlets explaining that starting salaries range from about $35,000 to $45,000 depending on location, but agents typically earn up to 25 percent more in overtime pay. The eligible age range for applicants used to be 18 to 37 years old, but the agency has recently raised the maximum age to 40 to attract more candidates.
William Crosby, 33, of Randallstown attended the event after seeing it advertised in the newspaper. "I keep up with the news, so I know what's going on with the illegal immigration situation right now," he said. "It's out of control."
The printing company he works for plans to move its base of operations to Pennsylvania next year, so he's started looking for different work. "I've worked a lot of dead-end jobs, but this offers security - it's a government job," he said of the Border Patrol.
Shennell Cooper, 22, of West Baltimore had never considered a job with the Border Patrol. "I didn't even know what it was," she said.
Cooper expects to graduate from Delaware State University this spring, and attended the job fair at the suggestion of her mother, who works for the U.S. Postal Inspection Service. Like border agents, her mother carries a firearm, so Cooper said the idea of working as a government law enforcement agent wasn't alien to her.
"I actually liked what I saw," she said. "And I used to run in school, so I could handle the physical part of it."
To work for the Border Patrol, applicants must pass physical tests that include push-ups, sit-ups and a cardiovascular step exercise. They must also pass a written test, which includes reasoning and language skills sections.
All new agents initially serve on the U.S. border with Mexico, and those who don't speak Spanish must go through an extra five weeks of training to learn the basics of the language.
Between October 2007 and February, Border Patrol agents apprehended more than 260,000 people trying to cross U.S. borders illegally and seized more than 714,000 pounds of marijuana and 4,600 ounces of cocaine.
Quinones said the job typically requires a 10-hour workday because it's hard to predict when someone will try to cross into the country illegally.
He offered his last day working on the Texas border before being transferred to Miami as an example of the unpredictable nature of the job. He was training a new agent when a Ford Crown Victoria pulled into a checkpoint. He asked the driver if he could show the trainee how to inspect a vehicle. The man was overly cooperative - a sign he might be hiding something.
"We looked in the trunk and saw a gun," Quinones recalled. "We looked inside a wooden box in the trunk and found about $60,000 worth of crystal meth. It was a training exercise, but it ended up being a pretty good apprehension."