EL CENTRO, Calif. - The U.S. Border Patrol's gleaming new regional headquarters building is just one sign of how the fast-growing agency is boosting the local economy.
Agents frequent the restaurants and gyms. A new indoor shooting range relies on Border Patrol employees. And dry cleaners do brisk business pressing green uniforms.
The Border Patrol's growth to more than 17,000 agents - from 12,000 two years ago and nearly double from eight years ago - has been a boon to towns and small cities along the 1,952-mile border with Mexico, many plagued by poverty and high unemployment.
"The Border Patrol had a very noticeable presence two or three years ago. Now it's overwhelming," said Ray Borane, former mayor of Douglas, Ariz., (population 17,000), where a half-dozen restaurants are packed with Border Patrol agents at lunch.
The new jobs are welcome even as residents grumble that heightened security has hampered business by creating longer waits to cross the border.
In many towns, the Border Patrol is one of the biggest employers, with some of the best-paying jobs. An agent starts at $36,658 a year, and after three years can be making about $70,000, counting overtime.
Evidence of the spillover effect is abundant. Jaime Rodriguez at homebuilder D.R. Horton Inc. said he sees at least one Border Patrol family a week at his sales office in McAllen, Texas, where a new Border Patrol station is under construction.
In Eagle Pass, Texas, (population 26,000), Border Patrol hiring in the past two years has pumped $15 million into the economy and contributed to a 15 percent increase in sales tax revenue from last year, said Sandra Martinez, executive director of the city's Chamber of Commerce.
In Yuma County, Ariz., hundreds of new agents have rented or bought homes since 2006, said Ken Rosevear, executive director of the county Chamber of Commerce.
The Border Patrol's El Centro sector in southeastern California has 1,050 agents - up from 707 in 2006 - and plans to reach 1,100 next year, solidifying its position as one of largest employers in a region with 160,000 people. This spring, the agency opened a $17 million headquarters building in Imperial.
El Centro Mayor Jon Edney said the Border Patrol is the biggest thing to hit the region since the state of California opened two prisons in the early 1990s.
"This is huge," said Edney, whose 18-year-old daughter cleared a background investigation to become a Border Patrol agent. Another daughter's boyfriend was hired this year.
Edney, who also runs a property management company, said he has rented houses or apartments to more than two dozen agents so far this year, compared with a half-dozen in all of last year.
After moving to El Centro in July for his first Border Patrol posting, Glen Ufland, 23, of Buffalo, N.Y., spent more than $2,000 for a bed and dining room set at a Big Lots furniture store. He bought a plasma television at Best Buy.
Stan Selby, 31, of Annapolis, Md., pays $700 a month for a one-bedroom apartment and eats at restaurants near the new shopping mall.
El Centro (population, 40,000) is the seat of Imperial County, an agricultural powerhouse whose malls cater to Mexicans crossing the border to buy electronics, clothing and household items. The county unemployment rate hit 25 percent in August. And the median household income was $33,674 in 2004, according to the most recent Census figures.
Kris Poirez, who was raised in Imperial Valley and joined the Border Patrol last year, said the region has few career choices.
"You're either law enforcement, a teacher, or you have a family-owned business," Poirez, 29, said as he patrolled a remote, dirt desert road. "That's how it works here in the Valley. That's how you get by."
Not everyone has benefited from the Border Patrol's largesse. Some complain that the influx of agents is driving up rents.
Larry Allen, who owns a Chevrolet dealership in El Centro, lost business when the Border Patrol decided two years ago to repair its own vehicle fleet. The agency also hired away three of his best mechanics.
"It's hard for me to compete when they can guarantee more than the open market will pay," Allen said. "They pay more than I can afford to, and they give all the government benefits."