A mandate to hire 6,000 new border agents by the end of 2008 has lowered qualification tests, concentrated four months of training into 10 weeks and is raising concerns that recruits won't get the proper training they need to protect the borders.
Richard Pierce, executive vice president of the National Border Patrol Council, a union that represents 11,000 rank-and-file agents, said the guidelines don't allow time for proper training of new agents.
“The field training program is largely computer-based ... it’s not the hands-on approach this job requires,” Pierce said. “When they get in field, they don’t have the basic information required.”
In May 2006, President Bush outlined a plan to increase the border protection force by 50 percent, from 12,000 agents to 18,000. In an effort to speed up the training process, the Border Patrol academy has condensed 88 days of basic training into 55, which would get boots on the ground at a much greater pace.
By October 1, half of all Border Patrol agents will have less than two years of experience, says Pierce. “So essentially, what we have is trainee agents teaching trainees out in the field.”
Pierce said that along with the youth factor, the agency could be taking on an aging force as well. “The Border Patrol has raised its entry-level age from 37 to 40,” he says, which would make for a retirement age of close to 60 for agents in the field. “This is not a job for a 60-year old, I can assure you,” he says.
According to the Border Patrol's website, the academy no longer requires a high school diploma or GED for entrance, and passing test grades have been lowered from 85 percent to 70.
Background checks are another concern. Pierce said the Border Patrol is farming the work out to private contractors and no longer using the FBI, which is more thorough but also more time-consuming.
“The Border Patrol is using contract employees right now to do background investigations, where it used to use FBI agents," Pierce said. "The contract program isn’t even finished before the employee is hired. We have employees in the academy who have not completed background checks.”
Deputy Chief of Border Patrol Ronald Colburn disagrees. “We’re doing a great job of both quality training of the personnel that we deploy and of checking on their backgrounds,” he argues. “That said, does one or can one slip through the cracks, as they say? Yes.”
Colburn concedes the plan presents some problems, such as an increased youth force. “When I surveyed the field ... and talked to the top leadership, what concerned them most, it really was the youthfulness and the inexperience that we were deploying into the field.”
But he said that the increased number of agents will ultimately mean safer and better protected borders.
Not so, said Pierce. As pressure on the border continues and as worries mount that some new recruits aren’t suited for the job, Pierce is clear in his appraisal: “The Border Patrol is going to pay a price for this in the long run.”