Hiring concerns border agents

ARTESIA, N.M. – The U.S. Border Patrol’s push to expand the number of agents on the lookout for illegal crossings has some current and former agents worried that the pressure will lead to corner cutting and will jeopardize public safety.

Raising the Border Patrol’s numbers from about 12,000 to 18,000 by the end of 2008 is a key element of President Bush’s plan to improve security along the border, crossed by tens of thousands of illegal immigrants each year.

The sprawling Border Patrol Academy in southeastern New Mexico recently started launching two 50-student classes each week, compared with one class every two or three weeks before the expansion plan was announced nearly a year ago.

Some critics worry that pressure to meet the hiring goal will lead the agency to admit recruits with integrity problems.

“That’s a very real fear that a lot of agents have, that they will lower the standards,” said T.J. Bonner, president of a union representing agents. “They have done it before.”

Nearly 5,000 new agents were added in a five-year period that began in 1996. That expansion was criticized for poor screening that let in some agents who were later accused of wrongdoing.

Jim Dorcy, a retired Border Patrol agent who investigated corruption cases as an internal investigator and is a leader in a group of former agents, said he expects more ethical problems to emerge during the latest expansion because the numbers are higher and the deadline is tighter.

“When you’re hiring a lot of people, you can’t properly vet them,” Dorcy said. He also predicted that the agency wouldn’t have enough veteran agents to act as mentors for incoming rookies.

In the six months since the latest expansion began in earnest, no evidence has surfaced of lowered qualifications or of agents with ethical problems, but Bonner said the agency has already taken shortcuts in its training that could affect the quality of agents.

He cited the decision to cut the length of academy training from about 19 weeks to 17 weeks.

Even some supporters of boosting Border Patrol staffing say the agency is trying to hire too many people in too short a time and is at risk of repeating mistakes made during the last big expansion.

Rep. Silvestre Reyes, D-Texas, whose 26-year career at the Border Patrol included stints as an academy instructor and as a chief agent, said new candidates might not get the same level of scrutiny as they would in years with more realistic hiring goals.

“Instead of maybe asking additional questions that would tell you whether or not there is a good potential for a trainee agent to make it through the academy, you are going to let more through,” said Reyes.

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