ST. CHARLES, Mo. -- Deon Morris spent a few years as a police officer in tiny Beverly Hills before quitting to focus on a football career that hasn't quite taken off.
Scott Cheever built minivans for 12 years but found himself without work in December when the Chrysler Fenton plant slowed production.
John Hopkins, an 18-year-old from Warrenton, said he's looking for a real job and some direction in his life.
So all of them were drawn to advertisements about a U.S. Border Patrol job fair Tuesday and Wednesday. Good pay. Good benefits. Quick advancement.
But for all the bluster locally and nationally about illegal immigration, Morris, Cheever and Hopkins and many who showed up admitted to knowing little about border life or the wider illegal immigration debate.
"I really had no idea what the Border Patrol was about," said Justin Keeney, a 20-year-old car wash supervisor from St. Charles. With immigration sure to be a key issue in the upcoming election season, the Border Patrol stands on the frontline of the debate. Most conservatives are demanding tighter border controls while many liberals are urging less strict laws for immigrants entering the United States.
The two-day recruiting event, held simultaneously with a conference for Border Patrol officials, was part of a large national push by the federal agency to meet the goal set in 2006 by President George W. Bush of adding 6,000 agents to the Mexican border by the end of this year. Border Patrol officials still have about 2,500 hires to go.
"We started hitting the heartland of America - people from Oklahoma or St. Louis," said Joe Battaglia, a national recruitment director for the Border Patrol. "They don't know about the Border Patrol unless they've seen us on the news."
Agents were on hand to talk about the agency to anyone who would listen. The Border Patrol is the largest federal law enforcement agency, they told would-be agents. More than 16,000 "men and women in green" work on foot, bikes, ATVs, boats, trucks and horses. Within a year of completing training, agents could be making $50,000 a year.
"Your career is what you make of it," said Damian White, an agent from Arizona.
Though no college degree is required, applicants must pass stringent physical and mental tests and go through months of training at an academy.
Only about one in three test-takers pass the written exam. In the end, Battaglia said, an estimated one in 30 actually is deployed in the field.
Battaglia said the agency's standards won't be lowered, but immigration policy experts believe meeting the president's mandate could put pressure on the agency to be less picky.
"The big challenge for the Border Patrol is to meet these very ambitious recruiting goals and still maintain the quality ... of people in the field that are actually working along the border," said Doris Meissner, former commissioner of the Immigration and Naturalization Service and a senior fellow at the Migration Policy Institute.
During the recruiting event, more than 100 people signed up for further information or scheduled a test.
Like many others, Morris, Cheever and Hopkins said they were motivated first and foremost by economic reasons. "Times are tough. Jobs come and go," Hopkins said.
Some also said they felt a sense of civic duty. A dramatic video that talked of war and a country at risk, finished with a sales pitch.
"Now more than ever, this border must be guarded," the announcer boomed. "Twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, we protect our freedom and our way of life."
Battaglia added: "I like to say it's a chance to protect America in America."
Those themes struck a particular chord for Josh Bowman, an Army Reservist, who attended the event with his fianc e. He admitted to knowing little about the Border Patrol before he came, but said he supports the president's mission.
"We need to keep people out if they're illegal," Bowman said. "It definitely needs to be cracked down on."
Battaglia said recruiters leave such politics out of the equation. But Joseph Burr, a 34-year-old Iraq war veteran who was already pursuing a job with the Border Patrol, said it's difficult to separate patriotism from the wider immigration debate.
But he then demurred, saying that such matters are "for smarter people than I."
"When you're a soldier and they say, 'Go to Iraq,' you do it," Burr said. "With the policy being that borders are closed, you need people to do that job."
STLtoday.com/current - Would you want to be a border guard? Talk about it in Current Affairs.
stltoday.com/multimedia - More about the Border Patrol's recruiting efforts and reaction for job seekers.