MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
Now an update on another of President Trump's campaign promises, securing the southern border. To that end, Trump wants to beef up the Border Patrol, add 5,000 new agents. Now, that would expand the agency by a quarter. NPR's John Burnett reports on a recruitment surge, trying to get more young people to pull on the green uniform.
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JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: In years past, the Border Patrol has set up recruitment booths at NASCAR races and bull riding competitions. This year, the agency is partnering with the Spartan Races, a popular series of obstacle races staged around the country.
UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: The Dodger Stadium Spartan footrace - our starting line area, as you see, is down along the third base line on the field.
BURNETT: This one is at LA's Dodger Stadium. The Border Patrol's parent agency, Customs and Border Protection, has set up there between stalls for dairy-free milk and a personal training service. Recruiter Alejandro Brito has honed his pitch for the young target audience.
ALEJANDRO BRITO: I tell them that if they like the outdoors, sign up for it. And if they like to play with toys as far as ATVs, boats, Jet Skis, bicycles, we have all that.
BURNETT: Never mind that the great majority of agents work from their green and white vehicles. On this warm August day, quite a few men and women are stopping by for free water bottles and day packs and a pep talk. A recruiter in a dark blue uniform visits with an athlete in a Spartan T-shirt.
UNIDENTIFIED RECRUITER: Our main push right now is veterans. So if you go to cbp.gov...
BURNETT: On the receiving end is a 31-year-old EMT and National Guardsman named Rafael Cervantes.
RAFAEL CERVANTES: What appeals to me is that, you know, they're securing, you know, the borders on all sides. I always wanted to be, you know, part of that, where I can protect, you know, the country that I live in.
BURNETT: CBP needs gung-ho applicants. The agency's recruitment effort has been in a world of trouble in recent years. After the 9/11 attacks, the agency doubled in size, hired too quickly, and dozens of corrupt officers ended up in prison. Then the pendulum swung the other way. The patrol raised hiring standards. Tougher polygraphs about drug use and criminal activity eliminated two out of three applicants. Last October, the Homeland Security inspector general slammed the department for its, quote, "inability to hire people in a timely manner." Today, with the president's aggressive mandate, the hiring effort has ramped up again. Congress has tried to help by loosening rules for military veterans and law enforcement officers who want to be border agents. The agency has struggled to hire more women. And CBP spokesman John Mennell says they face generational barriers as well.
JOHN MENNELL: There are problems with hiring and recruiting across all of law enforcement right now. The millennials now don't look at law enforcement as a desirable profession.
BURNETT: Moreover, Border Patrol finds itself in direct competition with its sister agency Immigration and Customs Enforcement. ICE is under a presidential order to hire 10,000 new agents. The Border Patrol enforces immigration laws along the nation's fringe in remote stretches of blistering desert and tangled thorn brush. ICE does interior enforcement. Their agents are stationed in cities with Walmarts, hospitals and cafes. Jack Warford spent nearly a dozen years on the border. His wife grew unhappy, and he jumped to ICE where he's now a supervisory agent in Dallas. He's driving down a busy freeway.
JACK WARFORD: We lived in a small town in Arizona that didn't have great schools, that didn't have a whole lot of opportunities for my children there.
BURNETT: Yuma, Ariz.
WARFORD: Correct. And so we decided we wanted to move somewhere closer to a family - that had more opportunity. And the opportunity came available to come to ICE.
BURNETT: In spite of the drawbacks, the Border Patrol's National Frontline Recruiting Command (ph) reports encouraging signs. Applications are up a hundred percent. Time from application to hiring is down. The attrition rate has dipped. And because of President Trump's continued emphasis on border security, they say morale is higher than ever.
John Burnett, NPR News, Los Angeles.
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