When Congress established the United States Border Patrol on May 28, 1924, the federal government agreed to supply the feed and shoes as long as patrolmen were willing to provide their own horse. While an agent providing his own mount may come as a surprise to the modern American citizen, on the eve of the Great Depression such a requirement was an implicit norm of the time.
The early job announcements of the U.S. Border Patrol are plump with now obsolete requirements like that of an agent providing his own horse, including restrictions on age, sex, height, weight, language, family size-even number of teeth. Yet amid such requirements, what remains clear of early Border Patrol announcements are the profound standards and expectations of each agent that have not altered to this day.
So then, what did it take to be an early Border Patrol agent?
The first Border Patrol announcement was issued October 8, 1924, with a salary of $1,680 a year for the position of Immigration Patrol Inspector. All United States citizens who met the requirements, both men and women, could apply, even though appointing officers were permitted to specify the sex of applicants. Hopeful candidates were required to have reached their twenty-third but not their forty-fifth birthday, measure at least 5'7" "without boots or shoes," and to speak and understand Spanish. However, instead of a formal Spanish test, a rating was assigned "based upon the statements of the persons whose names and addresses the applicant furnishes."
In June 1934, the qualifications for new Border Patrol appointees were revised. Then Chief Willard F. Kelly considered the present physical requirements to be "too lax," calling for a more stringent approach. He advocated new applicants be "not less than 23 nor more than 30 years of age; not less than 5'8" in height, nor less than 147 pounds, with good visual acuity without glasses and normal visual fields and color vision." Kelly further considered the high degree of activity and physical hardship that was required upon new agents, deeming it a distraction for applicants to have "large or sickly families" or "large number of dependents," which he considered to interfere with "the desired patrol mobility and efficiency."
The latter half of 1934 marked a significant point in Border Patrol history, the establishment of a Border Patrol training school at Camp Chigas, Texas, later renamed the Border Patrol Academy. In the years following, qualifications were judged more on physical ability than physical characteristics, and particular attention was given to training within the Academy. Early agents attended courses on immigration law, marksmanship, Spanish language proficiency, Morse Code, and horsemanship. Trainees were required to demonstrate a mastery of calisthenics, road work, and judo before graduating from the Academy.
By 1954, some physical characteristic requirements remained of Border Patrol applicants. Agents-to-be were still restricted to a height of at least 5'8", a minimum weight of 140 pounds, and the ability to "hear ordinary conversation at 30 feet and whispered conversation at 15 feet." There was even a dental requirement. Hopefuls needed to possess "fourteen natural teeth," and replace all missing ones with "suitable prosthetic devices."
Regardless of time norms, the men and women who make up the U.S. Border Patrol have always agreed to a "rough and ready" method of duty. Since 1924, agents have echoed a motto to which they live by-Honor First. Those who seek this paradigm join the Border Patrol with the understanding that they are the guardians of our nation's borders. The working conditions of agents are closely comparable to the duties of a soldier in actual field conditions. Their work is attended by extreme risk and personal danger serving at points along international boundary lines far removed from the centers of civilization.
Nearly half a century ago, under the direction of then Chief Harlon B. Carter, the application process may have been described best. "The prerequisites for the position are understandably high. The Border Patrol officer is often the yardstick by which the American people are judged."