How to become a border patrol or ICE agent

If you're committed to protecting America from cross-border crime and illegal immigration, these jobs are right up your alley

By Police1 Staff

Founded in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the Department of Homeland Security stands today as the largest federal law enforcement organization in the country. With more than 60,000 officers serving in capacities ranging from securing the nation’s borders all the way to protecting the President, the agency offers a variety of attractive career options for those both new to law enforcement as well as veteran officers looking for a new challenge.

But with the unprecedented crisis at the U.S.-Mexico border as well as the rapidly devolving situation in Afghanistan just days before the 20th anniversary of that horrific attack, there are two branches within DHS that are receiving particular attention: Customs and Border Protection and Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

While both agencies are critical to fulfilling DHS’s mission of protecting the country from its various threats, law enforcement officers within each serve vastly different roles. That’s why we’ve put together the following guide to help potential officers find the right position within CPB and ICE for their particular strengths and interests.

Law enforcement jobs with CBP

Broadly speaking, Customs and Border Patrol is the agency responsible for enforcing customs and immigration law at and near the border. Per the agency’s website, “CBP is charged with keeping terrorists and their weapons out of the U.S. while facilitating lawful international travel and trade.”

Within CBP, there are two main roles for entry-level federal law enforcement professionals: border patrol agent and CBP officer.

How to become a border patrol agent

Border patrol agents are focused on securing the nation’s international borders between ports of entry. They primarily do this by detecting, preventing and apprehending undocumented noncitizens through a variety of techniques and technologies.

Border patrol agents also have the opportunity to join specialized units as their careers advance, including mounted patrol, bike patrol, the K-9 unit, off-road vehicle units, rapid response teams, peer support, chaplaincy and honor guard.

 The basic requirements for eligibility are:

  • Be a U.S. citizen.
  • Have a valid driver's license.
  • Have resided in the U.S. for at least three of the last five years (exception granted for those employed overseas with the federal government or military).
  • Eligible to carry a firearm.
  • Referred for selection prior to your 40th birthday. (This can be waived for veterans or those who have previously served in a federal civilian law enforcement position.)
  • Willing to travel.
  • Must have at least one year of qualifying work experience that demonstrates, among other qualities, sound judgment and decision-making skills. Previous roles could include personnel management (including training), doing compliance work, managing finances, conducting investigations, code enforcement, as well as experience in corrections, security, the military and emergency response. Graduate-level education is also counted as qualifying experience.  

From there, the employment process is:

  • Submit an application
  • Take an entrance exam. (Applicants who qualify at the GL-9 level, which requires a year of specialized law enforcement experience, can waive this requirement.)
  • Pass a background check.
  • Take a medical exam.
  • Take a basic physical fitness test. (CBP offers reciprocity to veterans who have recently completed a military medical or fitness test.)
  • Undergo a scenario-based panel interview.
  • Take a polygraph. (Per the National Defense Authorization Act, this can be waived if you’re a veteran who already has an active TS/SCI security clearance.)
  • Pass a random drug test.

The process can take anywhere from six to nine months, depending on the applicant. Common disqualifiers are the use of illegal drugs and criminal convictions.

Once hired, border patrol agents undergo rigorous academy training in Artesia, New Mexico, which includes 940 hours of instruction (117 training days) in U.S. law, border patrol operations, physical training, firearms instruction, driving, law enforcement and border patrol tactical training, and Spanish.

What about pay?

As of June 2021, entry-level border patrol agents (GL-7 grade) can expect to earn an average of $66,654 per year, which includes locality, overtime and premium pay in addition to base salary. Earning potential goes up significantly, however, with each grade level promotion: Border patrol agents at the highest grade (GS-12) earn an average yearly pay of $104,452.

You can find open positions and begin the application process here.

How to become a CBP officer

CBP officers police the 328 ports of entry into the U.S. to prevent the illegal trafficking of people, narcotics, weapons and other contraband. CBP officers likewise have the opportunity to join specialized units as their careers progress, including the K-9 unit, Special Response Team and the Anti-Terrorism Contraband Enforcement Team.

While the basic eligibility requirements are largely the same as those for border patrol agents, entry-level CBP officers are accepted at a lower grade (GS-5), which means a broader range of qualifying experience and/or education is accepted. Successful applicants will have completed at least three years of full-time general work experience (can also include unpaid volunteer work) that demonstrates both the ability to meet and interact with people as well as the ability to learn and apply a body of facts. A bachelor’s degree from an accredited college/university can be substituted for experience (or a combination of both).

The training process for new officers is also different – CBP officer trainees undergo an 89-day training program at the CBP Field Operations Academy in Glynco, Georgia. During their time at FOA, trainees learn the technical and legal requirements of the job, undergo 77 hours of weapons handling training, learn law enforcement driving techniques and receive tactical training. They’ll also put their newly acquired skills to the test with hundreds of practical exercises.

CBP officers who are not proficient in Spanish and are assigned to the southern border, Miami and Puerto Rico must also undergo 6 weeks of language instruction.

What about pay?

As of June 2021, entry-level CBP officers (GS-5 grade) can expect to earn around $45,704 per year, which includes locality, overtime and night differential pay in addition to base salary. As with border patrol agents, pay increases exponentially with each grade level promotion: Officers at the GS-12 grade earn on average $108,699 per year.

You can find open positions and begin the application process here.

Law enforcement jobs with ICE

Similar to CBP, Immigration and Customs Enforcement is committed to combatting “the cross-border crime and illegal immigration that threaten national security and public safety,” but while CBP enforcement operations are largely restricted to the borders, ICE can also enforce immigration law within the rest of the U.S.

And like with CBP, there are two main roles for new federal law enforcement professionals to consider: deportation officer with the agency’s Enforcement and Removal Operations (ERO) and criminal investigator (also referred to as special agent) with the Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) division.

How to become an ICE deportation officer

ERO deportation officers “manage all aspects of the immigration enforcement process, including the identification and arrest, transportation, detention, case management and removal of undocumented individuals,” per the agency’s website.

The basic eligibility requirements are as follows:

  • U.S. citizenship
  • Have a valid driver's license.
  • Be eligible to carry a firearm.
  • Referred for selection prior to your 40th birthday. (Again, a waiver can be granted for veterans or those who have previously served in a federal civilian law enforcement position.)
  • For males born after December 31, 1959, Selective Service registration is also required.
  • For entry level positions (GS 5-7) there is not a requirement for previous law enforcement experience, though, similar to positions within CBP, applicants will have to demonstrate applicable work experience and/or education in line with the grade of the position to which they are applying.

The application process is as follows:

  • Submit an application.
  • Sit for a panel interview with ICE personnel who pose law enforcement scenarios to the applicant.
  • Pass a drug test.
  • Pass a three-part fitness test.
  • Pass a medical exam.
  • Pass a background check (which takes an average of three months to complete).
  • A polygraph exam may also be required if your background investigation finds information that suggests it’s merited.

Applicants should be prepared for a long application and hiring process. It can take up to 52 weeks (and sometimes longer) to be tentatively selected for employment within ICE.

And then, of course, comes the required training: Once hired, new deportation officers must complete a five-week Spanish language training program and the 16-week ERO Basic Immigration Law Enforcement Training Program in Georgia.

Find open positions and start the application process here.

How to become an HSI special agent

As members of DHS’s principle investigative arm focused on transnational crime, HSI special agents conduct a wide range of investigations targeting “the people, money and materials that support illegal organizations.”

This also means that special agents play a significant role within the national security and anti-terrorism space, with select agents being assigned to the FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Force and FBI field office counterintelligence elements.

Other investigations may involve drug smuggling, child exploitation, human trafficking, illegal arms export, commercial fraud and more.

While the basic eligibility requirements are largely the same as for ICE deportation officers, there is one notable difference: Applicants must be referred for selection by the day preceding their 37th birthday (though again, this restriction may not apply if you’re a preference-eligible veteran or have served in another federal civilian law enforcement position).

The most competitive applicants for these elite positions have also completed at least a bachelor’s degree in one of the agency’s desired disciplines, including criminal justice, finance, accounting, foreign languages and computer science. They generally have at least three years of progressively responsible experience in law enforcement and criminal investigations as well.

The application process is also more rigorous:

  • Submit a resumé during an open special agent vacancy announcement via the USA Jobs website.
  • Some applicants will also be required to complete an occupational questionnaire to determine whether his/her experience and education meets the minimum requirements.
  • Complete and pass two additional phases of assessments, which include a situational judgment exam and writing skills test, among others.

The rest of the process is similar to that of other ICE law enforcement positions, including an interview, drug test, medical exam, background check and polygraph exam for certain applicants.

Once hired, new special agents must complete a 22-week training program at the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center in Georgia. This includes the 12-week Criminal Investigator Training Program and the 15-week HSI Special Agent Training follow-on. HSISAT provides extensive training in criminal and immigration law, surveillance and undercover operations, firearms training, court case development and physical fitness.

How much do law enforcement professionals with ICE make?

As with CBP positions, ICE officers and special agents are offered base salaries that correspond to their qualifying grade level. They also receive locality and overtime pay (up to an additional 25%). While the ICE careers website does not break this down as thoroughly as CBP does (see above), the 2021 federal GS pay tables, available via the Office of Personnel Management website, can give you a better idea of specific figures.    

Entry-level ICE officers usually begin at the GS-5 level while HSI special agents are usually offered at GL-7-9. More about this can be found here.

Final note

No matter which position you choose within either agency, you can feel confident that your career will make a positive difference at a time our nation needs it most. Good luck!

This article, originally published August 11, 2017, has been updated.