Many Border Patrol Recruits Live Far Away
RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
You no longer have to live near the border to see the Border Patrol. That's because the agency is in the midst of a massive recruiting campaign. The goal, first set by President Bush, is to have more than 18,000 Border Patrol agents by the end of the year. That's 6,000 new agents.
NPR's Ted Robbins reports on the growing pains within the agency.
TED ROBBINS: A steady stream of job seekers enter an air-conditioned ballroom at the Stevens Convention Center in suburban Chicago - a long way from the Mexican border.
Unidentified Man: Hello.
Unidentified Woman: Good morning.
Unidentified Man: I have already registered.
Unidentified Woman: You're already registered? Okay. Let me just get your information here.
ROBBINS: A couple of years ago, Theo Tillus(ph) wouldn't have made it into this Border Patrol recruiting event. At 39, he'd have been too old. But to meet the new hiring goals, the maximum age has been raised to 40. Now the burly former Army soldier is just with the Border Patrol wants - someone looking for a change who won't mind the heat of the desert Southwest.
Mr. THEO TILLUS (Border Patrol): After a year and a half in Saudi Arabia, so I don't know. I don't think it gets no hotter than that.
ROBBINS: This event is a first for Chicago, also for Buffalo, Detroit, Philadelphia, Boston, even Puerto Rico. The Border Patrol used to find applicants mostly in the southwest. It's also reaching out to women who currently make up just five percent of the force and ethnic groups beside the current 50 percent who are Hispanic.
Theo Tillus is African-American. He's working now as a hotel security guard. So he listens intently as recruiter Jerry Duran sells him on Border Patrol salaries.
Mr. TILLUS: Well, I say 50,000, that's just base pay, because that's not including your night differentials, your holiday pay, your Sunday pay, your overtime. So you can be clearing 50,000 in your second year.
(Soundbite of ad)
Unidentified Man: I've made my choice.
ROBBINS: The Border Patrol is also trying to recruit with online ads like this one, showing scenes of agents in helicopters, on ATVs, and busting into buildings. It's using newspapers, radio, TV, online job sites, going to schools, churches, military bases.
(Soundbite of ad)
Unidentified Man: Like I said, I made my choice - the United States Border Patrol.
(Soundbite of race)
ROBBINS: It even paid a million dollars for a 150 mile per hour ad, a NASCAR entry painted with the Border Patrol insignia and its green and white colors.
(Soundbite of race)
Unidentified Man: And we have had all kinds of action here at Lowe's Motor Speedway...
ROBBINS: Here's the reason for so much outreach. The Border Patrol says it needs 30 applicants just to get one agent. Do the math - that's 180,000 applicants for 6,000 new agents. That's because it's hard. There are physical requirements, a tough entrance exam, and four months at the Border Patrol Academy in Artesia, New Mexico.
(Soundbite of academy)
Unidentified Man: It goes click. Transition your handgun.
ROBBINS: The curriculum includes law enforcement training, immigration law and intensive Spanish classes.
Unidentified Group: La maleta.
Unidentified Man #1: (Spanish spoken)
Unidentified Group: La maleta.
ROBBINS: To speed things up, the Border Patrol says it will soon allow native Spanish speakers to bypass classes if they pass a language proficiency test.
Unidentified Man #2: What is la maleta?
Unidentified Man #3: Suitcase.
Unidentified Man #2: A suitcase.
ROBBINS: After the academy, new agents go to the border. At stations like Nogales, Arizona, they get more classes and field training.
Unidentified Man #4: (Spanish spoken)
ROBBINS: Hands on the head, orders new agent Christopher Myer(ph) to a group of illegal immigrants. The small, dark men sit on the ground against the Border Patrol vehicle while Myer and other rookies asked them questions and fill out paperwork. The light-haired red-faced 34-year-old stands in the blazing summer heat.
Mr. CHRISTOPHER MYER (Border Patrol Agent): I'm from Terre Haute, Indiana.
ROBBINS: Why did you join?
Mr. MYER: I joined because I wanted to be part of an exciting job.
ROBBINS: What did you do before?
Mr. MYER: Before this I was in the ministry. I served a church.
ROBBINS: Myer looks as uncomfortable as his charges, maybe because his every move is being watched by supervising agents. The rookies are repeatedly reminded to stand so the arrestees can't reach the agents' holstered gun.
Unidentified Man #5: Let's go gentlemen. Come on.
ROBBINS: The Border Patrol says this supervision is critical. In the first month of field training, two agents from this class were let go because they didn't meet standards. But a recent report by the Government Accountability Office says the rapid buildup of new agents is putting a strain on this critical oversight.
Richard Stana is head of the GAO's Homeland Security and Justice Division.
Mr. RICHARD STANA (Government Accountability Office): Well, what they'd like to have is a ratio of five new Border Patrol agents for every supervisor. That's the ideal. Right now along the Southwest border the ratios range from 7-1 to 11-1.
ROBBINS: Older agents are retiring and the Border Patrol is promoting younger agents all the time. But Stana says that means new supervisors have less and less experience.
Mr. STANA: So you're getting into a situation and this ramp-up is only going to exacerbate the situation, but you're getting into a situation where you're having rookies training rookies, and that's worrisome.
ROBBINS: Worrisome also because the border can breed corruption. The Border Patrol says incidents are relatively rare. But in the last two years there have been dozens of agents, National Guardsmen and Customs officers convicted of drug and human smuggling or bribery. More Border Patrol agents will mean more opportunities for smugglers to buy off agents. Richard Stana says he's seen reports that drug cartels are even trying to place moles inside the Border Patrol.
Mr. STANA: Any time we've had a ramp-up like this in the past the propensity to get a bad apple or two goes way up. And if we don't have supervisors to identify those bad apples, then they stay on board.
ROBBINS: As if all these challenges - recruiting, training and supervising - weren't enough, the Border Patrol also has to keep its agents; between eight and 12 percent quit every year. It may be partially because reality doesn't live up to the promise.
Here's what recruiter Jerry Durran(ph) promised to applicants in Chicago.
Mr. JERRY DURRAN (Recruiter): So many opportunities. You can become a pilot. There's a BORTAC unit, which is like the Border Patrol SWAT team. Well, it's a tactical unit where you go and you get to take down meth labs and arrest drug lords, and there's so many cool things that you can do.
ROBBINS: But the reality for almost all new agents? Ten-hour rotating day, night and swing shifts, sitting in vehicles for hours along the border or at checkpoints spotting illegal crossers and chasing them through the desert.
Put it all together and T.J. Bonner bets the Border Patrol won't reach its recruiting goal.
Mr. T.J. BONNER (National Border Patrol Council): At this point in time, I would have to classify that as mission impossible.
ROBBINS: Bonner is president of the National Border Patrol Council, the agents union.
Mr. BONNER: Certainly they can hire enough people to have 18,000 warm bodies in place, but not well-screened, well-trained, well-qualified people.
ROBBINS: The Border Patrol didn't set the target - 18,000 by the end of next year. It was mandated by the president and Congress. Critics suggest ramping up more slowly.
But that seems unlikely, given the fact that we're going into an election year and Border Patrol agents, boots on the ground, are the most visible evidence that Washington is acting on border security.
Ted Robbins, NPR News.
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