Border Patrol Struggles to Find Enough New Agents

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Recruiting and hiring thousands of additional federal Border Patrol agents is a key part of President Bush's plan to reduce illegal immigration. But tough entry requirements and low pay are making it difficult for the Border Patrol to find and retain enough new agents to meet that goal.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

President Bush says National Guard troops will be deployed to the southern border until 6,000 new civilian patrol agents are hired, trained, and in position.

Recruiting and retaining border patrol agents has been a difficult task for the federal agency. Agents and members of Congress are skeptical that that situation will change soon.

NPR's Carrie Kahn reports.

CARRIE KAHN reporting:

The U.S. border patrol is looking for a few good men and women. Well, actually, they need a few thousand. And they're hoping this new recruitment video strikes the right patriotic chord.

(Soundbite of border patrol recruiting video)

Unidentified Announcer: As Americans, we have a duty to serve our country. We all serve in different ways. The question is: How will you serve? I've made my choice.

KAHN: Once the recruit takes the border patrol plunge, the video shows him in a series of daring feats in rugged terrain. But TJ Bonner, president of the union representing border patrol agents says potential recruits are mislead into thinking they'll be repelling out of helicopters…

Mr. TJ BONNER (President, National Border Patrol Council): And riding horses and riding ATVs, and all kinds of things that look exciting; and then they get assigned to a station and they're told, your job is to sit here in this vehicle for ten hours a day and watch the border.

KAHN: The thinking is, Bonner says, that would-be crossers will be deterred once they see an agent in a car. But he says, instead, illegal immigrants just go around the cars and agents are bored stiff.

Even worse, Bonner says, starting pay for an agent is far less than what local police departments are paying. He says morale in the force is low.

Mr. BONNER: It's extremely low. I have been in the border patrol for 28 years, and can honestly say that I have never seen morale any lower than I have now.

KAHN: Historically, the border patrol loses ten percent of its agents every year, and with lackluster recruitment drives, the force currently stands at only 11,500. That's just a 15 percent increase since 9/11.

Agency officials concede recruitment is a challenge. This year, they raised the maximum entrance age to 40. Still, out of 300 applicants, only one will become an agent. That's if they complete the border patrol academy training and take the oath of office.

Unidentified Man: Raise your right hand and repeat after me. I, state your name…

(Soundbite of new border patrol agents taking oath of office)

Unidentified Man: …will support and defend the constitution of the United States...

KAHN: Not only do agents have to pass rigorous physical training tests, they also have to be proficient in Spanish and immigration law. Most academy dropouts cite the tough language and law requirements as reasons for quitting.

Democratic Congressman Silvestre Reyes, who used to be a border patrol chief in South Texas, says the president and Congress can ask for thousands of new agents, but finding them is not that easy.

Representative SILVESTRE REYES (Democrat, Texas): Even if Congress were to say we're funding 10,000 new agents, we're giving the border patrol the green light and we want you to hire them next year. It can't be done.

KAHN: Reyes says, for one thing, the academy is not set up to train that many agents. A border patrol spokesman says new classrooms, training facilities, and dorms are being built at the academy, and this year the graduating class is expected to top 1,500 agents.

That's still far short of the president's goal of 2,000 per year. At that pace, it's unclear just how long the National Guard will be required to stay at the border, leaving them possibly faced with another open-ended deployment.

Carrie Kahn, NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

MONTAGNE: This is NPR News.

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