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Border Patrol trainees prepare to enter one of the country’s fiercest political battles

Recruits often stumble into the academy by accident. But many end up seeing it as a steady job that provides decent benefits and a chance to perform a public service.

Jacob Montagnani, 22, takes part in a practice scenario at the United States Border Patrol Academy in Artesia, N.M.
Jacob Montagnani, 22, takes part in a practice scenario at the United States Border Patrol Academy in Artesia, N.M.Read moreMatt McClain / Washington Post

ARTESIA, N.M. – Erin Herrgott, a 20-year-old from small-town Michigan, was working at the county probation office and dreaming of becoming a federal law enforcement officer when she stumbled across a job listing for the U.S. Border Patrol.

She worried she was unqualified: Herrgott didn't speak Spanish. She had never been to the Southwest. And she wasn't "jacked" the way she expected border agents need to be to face off with drug smugglers in inhospitable desert terrain.

A few days after she submitted her application, an email arrived notifying her that she was to begin the vetting process. Now she is one of the newest recruits at the U.S. Border Patrol Academy, where a six-month training program funnels new cadets directly onto the front lines of one of America's fiercest political battles.

President Donald Trump has made a crackdown on illegal immigration a policy priority, pressing Congress to fund a border wall, 5,000 additional Border Patrol agents and 10,000 Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers. He deployed thousands of troops to the southern U.S. border to stop a caravan of Central American migrants, some of whom began arriving in the Mexican border city of Tijuana this month. Border agents needed backup, Trump said.

Hundreds of miles away, here in the desert flatlands of New Mexico, the men and women who stand next in line to become the nation's border enforcers are training to take on the mission.

The Border Patrol has long struggled with recruitment, currently lagging 2,000 agents short of its quota – not including the 5,000 agents that Trump wants to add. The agency loosened admission requirements after 9/11 to try to expand the force, decisions that critics now blame for a rash of corruption cases and allegations of misconduct.

Most of the 46 cadets in Herrgott's class, which arrived at the academy in late August, are in their 20s, with no prior law enforcement experience or college degrees. Many previously worked in non-professional jobs, as cashiers and security guards, manual laborers and sales people. Roughly half are Hispanic.

And many, like Herrgott, stumbled across a career in the Border Patrol by accident.

Trevor Osman, a 23-year-old who most recently worked as an aircraft fueler, found the agency while looking for a job with police departments near his home in Littleton, Colorado.

"Most or all of the departments require at least a two-year degree, and that's something I don't have yet," Osman said. "I saw Border Patrol, and I saw that they didn't require a degree. So I wanted to throw my hat in the ring and just see where it went. . . . And here I am."

For many of the recruits, the Border Patrol simply offers a steady job with good benefits, an opportunity to provide for one's family while performing a public service. Among Hergott's 45 classmates are those hoping to pay off student loans, experience adventure and find purpose in life.

They'll learn how to be border agents under an extended curriculum – lengthened from three months to six – that the academy introduced last year to strengthen training.

Over the past decade, agents have faced allegations of ties to drug cartels, cross-border shootings, abuse of immigrant detainees and illicit drug use.

The new curriculum seeks to produce better agents who are well-versed in the law, less likely to accept bribes from a drug cartel, and less likely to kill or be killed. And as the debate over the Border Patrol's role has intensified, the academy wants to produce agents who can maintain their composure in the face of adversity.

"If someone challenges them and puts that camera in their face and says, 'You're a scumbag. I can't believe you would do this. I can't believe you would do those kind of things,' we're going to have them react as a top-notch professional," academy chief Dan Harris said.

During its nearly 95-year existence, the Border Patrol has operated on the literal periphery of the country's more celebrated and visible law enforcement agencies. It is outranked in the popular imagination by the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Drug Enforcement Administration, and it is off the radar for many Americans who live far from the border.

The starting salary for a Border Patrol agent with no prior military or law enforcement experience is $41,187 – comparable, Harris says, with the other federal agencies with which Border Patrol competes for recruits.

But the requirements are less stringent – a successful applicant needs neither a college degree nor relevant work experience – and the job usually requires agents to live on the hot, desert border, where schools and services are often lacking.

Charged with preventing drugs and people from illegally entering the United States, Border Patrol agents are stationed between the country's ports of entry, often in remote stretches of mountains, deserts and forests, and in areas that can be reached only on foot or horseback.

To recruit, the Border Patrol goes to military bases, college campuses and career fairs. Recruiters also speak at special events.

"You'd be surprised how many applicants we get from the PBR," the Professional Bull Riders rodeos, Harris said. Such events are attractive to people who grew up on ranches and have a strong sense of "obligation to serve their country," he said.

Not all make it in. The most common disqualifier for applicants to the Border Patrol Academy is drug use or lying about drug use on the mandatory polygraph test. And attrition is common. About one in four leave before graduation day. Some drop out because of injuries or other personal issues. Others fail – the immigration law class tends to be the hardest.

Then there are those who finish the program and embark on their mission but leave the agency after a few years for more desirable jobs with other federal agencies.

"This will be the first year our hiring will outpace our attrition," Harris said.