U.S. Customs and Border Protection — a giant federal police agency whose duties range from immigration to antiterrorism — is hiring for jobs in the Philadelphia area.

That’s rare. CBP positions come with good government benefits and pay that in three years can top $94,000.

But these days, an application to CBP can carry something at least as hefty: an ethical decision for those who want to protect the homeland, yet under the Trump administration’s tough immigration policies must weigh whether to join an enforcement arm that makes life-changing decisions on who can enter, who can stay, and who must leave.

Not to mention the daily pressures of a job now under heightened scrutiny from every quarter, including Congress and the news media.

“It would cross everybody’s mind when applying or looking at a job like this,” said new CBP Officer Mark Schilthuis, 29, born and raised in Lancaster and currently assigned to post-academy training at Dulles International Airport, near Washington. “I understand people have different feelings looking at me in my uniform. I treat everybody with dignity and respect. I just do my job, do it to the fullest, treat everybody equally.”

A couple of months into his job, Schilthuis has found his daily work as an officer to be anything but predictable. He might be interviewing international passengers, checking their visas and their stories. He has welcomed first-time immigrants into the United States — and assisted in a deportation. The man shook his hand, Schilthuis said, when he was put on a plane to Singapore.

CBP ranks among the world’s largest law enforcement organizations, with more than 60,000 employees responsible for keeping dangerous people and materials out of the country while facilitating international travel and trade. On a typical day in 2018, CBP screened 81,000 truck, rail, and sea cargo containers, seized 4,657 pounds of narcotics, turned away 764 people it deemed inadmissible, and arrested 75 wanted criminals at ports of entry.

In one famous act, its agents stopped the Millennial Bomber, who planned to blow up Los Angeles International Airport in 1999. They’re at every Super Bowl. And they frequently augment local police during big events, such as when Pope Francis came to Philadelphia in 2015.

Customs and Border Patrol bags and pens sit on a desk at a job fair at the Philadelphia International Airport. The agency is looking to hire people to fill openings in the Philadelphia area.
HEATHER KHALIFA / Staff Photographer
Customs and Border Patrol bags and pens sit on a desk at a job fair at the Philadelphia International Airport. The agency is looking to hire people to fill openings in the Philadelphia area.

Every person or product coming into the United States is subject to laws enforced by CBP, whose officers operate at 328 ports of entry across the United States and in 52 foreign countries. The people who apply to the agency run the gamut — college graduates, government workers, police officers.

Its three major enforcement components are Air and Marine Operations, the Office of Field Operations — the blue-shirted officers commonly seen at airports — and the Border Patrol, much in the news over the treatment of migrant children and families in the Southwest.

Camron Irizarry, a 19-year-old Magnolia, Camden County, man who works in maintenance at an apartment complex, recently attended a CBP hiring event at Philadelphia International Airport, where potential applicants got a comprehensive overview of the agency.

He liked what he heard. And he said he would have no qualms about enforcing the law against those deemed to be breaking it.

“It seems like something I’ll do,” he said.

That would mean joining an agency now being both cheered and condemned.

In June, CBP officials helped lead a record cocaine bust at the Port of Philadelphia — nearly 20 tons, worth $1.3 billion, found on a Liberian-flagged container vessel after it arrived at Packer Marine Terminal. This year, local agents also seized 314 fake Bryce Harper Phillies jerseys from Hong Kong and nearly 4,000 car tires from China that failed to comply with national safety standards.

Last week, though, the acting secretary of Homeland Security, Kevin McAleenan, ordered an investigation into offensive social-media posts after ProPublica reported that a closed Facebook group for current and former Border Patrol agents featured racist comments, crude illustrations, and jokes about migrant deaths.

On Friday, CBP officials said they were investigating a second potential secret Facebook group.

A congressional delegation that visited two border facilities in Texas decried what they called deplorable conditions, and a DHS inspector general’s report cited “dangerous” overcrowding and the prolonged detention of small children.

CBP Deputy Commissioner Robert Perez said in a Fox & Friends TV interview that agency facilities were never designed to hold so many migrants for so long. Having 4,000 people in custody would constitute a crisis, he said, and today the number has soared beyond 11,000 amid a surge at the Southwest border.

“It’s hard to judge someone who needs a job, who pursues a job like this with the perks and benefits of employment,” said Alyshia Gálvez, an anthropology professor at Lehman College, part of the City University of New York, and the author of Eating NAFTA: Trade, Food Policies, and the Destruction of Mexico. “But there are complications. …”

The CBP ethos: We are the guardians of our nation’s borders. We are America’s frontline. …

Like officers in other law enforcement agencies with strict chains of command, “they might be confronted with specific instances in which they’re asked to carry out tasks to which they morally object,” said Mark Wilson, an assistant professor who teaches ethics at Villanova University. “With immigration, in particular, it’s complicated by the fact that one might believe the horizon for these policies has an expiration date, of two years, or six years,” whenever Trump leaves office.

CBP recruiter Kayla Etheridge talks to a potential applicant at a job fair at Philadelphia International Airport.
HEATHER KHALIFA / Staff Photographer
CBP recruiter Kayla Etheridge talks to a potential applicant at a job fair at Philadelphia International Airport.

The agency adjusts staffing according to demand, adding officers to busier ports and places as the flow of people and commerce shifts.

It takes about 50 applicants to produce one hire. Because the process is long and intense, taking eight or nine months and including background checks and a polygraph test, many would-be officers drop out along the way.

Jeff Lankford, an 18-year-old Gloucester City man who works at a Lowe’s home-improvement store, attended the recent job event at the airport. He is interested in police work, he said, and he would be fully comfortable enforcing government laws as part of CBP.

That’s a common sentiment among the people who attend the job presentations. More Philadelphia-area job fairs are coming up, as listed on the CBP website.

“They’ve weeded themselves out, for the most part,” said Kayla Etheridge, CBP Mid-Atlantic recruiter in charge. “They understand when you’re coming into a law enforcement capacity, you’re enforcing the law.”