Unhealthy Growth of the Border Patrol

By Nick Braune

Back on July 4th, The Monitor of McAllen ran a surprising — surprising, in the sense that I was surprised they ran it — article: “Border Patrol uni*n criticizes agency’s hiring, training push.” The gist of the piece is that the national uni*n (the National Border Patrol Council, NBPC) has publicly criticized how the agency is using “shortcuts” in hiring and training to massively increase its ranks.

A Washington, D.C. agency spokesman denied the NBPC charges that the Border Patrol has lowered its standards, and he told The Monitor that the Border Patrol’s new recruits are actually better selected and better educated than ever before. Because this response (“better… than ever before”) sounded like a defensive exaggeration, and because I have watched some of the new batch of agents, I decided to read the uni*n’s report. It is on-line, 14 pages long, and seems credible to me.

In 1994 there were fewer than 4,000 agents, but all enforcement and detention ballooned during the Clinton years, so that there were 9,000 by the time Bush reached office. Increases were incremental until 2006. Then Bush suddenly announced another “immigration reform”: he would double (!) the number of Border Patrol agents by the time he left office. The NBPC report says, “In order to meet that overambitious goal, the Border Patrol was tasked with hiring and training approximately 10,000 agents in…two and a half years.”

How could an agency double its ranks so quickly? The Border Patrol lowered its standards, charges the NBPC. For instance, a high school diploma or GED requirement is not required of recruits. (The Border Patrol spokesman denied the charge that they had lowered their standards, according to The Monitor, insisting that the agency never did have a high school diploma or GED requirement. Hmm.)

The uni*n report, in my reading, reflects particular bitterness on one point: recruits who scored under the 85th percentile on the qualifying exam used to be turned down, but during the recent Bush push, any passing grade suffices. “Anecdotal and other evidence suggests that the reading comprehension and writing abilities of a small percentage of new-hires are no better than those of middle school students. In an occupation where poorly written documents can result in miscommunication of critical information and botched prosecution, this is completely unacceptable.” One unhappy Academy instructor said, “We definitely know when we get a class from the seventieth percentile.”

The training program for the recruits has been compressed to facilitate the greater numbers, and there is a scramble for trainers, according to the report. Verbal and written communication skills are being deemphasized, and even the Spanish language class, a longtime component of the training, has changed. The new Spanish program is no longer grammar-based, but is conversation-based with gimmicky pictures and storyboards.

“Instead of requiring students to speak in complete sentences in order to collect biographical data necessary to complete arrest reports,” trainees are “often taught single word questions.” Nombre? “There is a great deal of concern that agents who are taught this method will no longer be able to elicit enough information in Spanish to effectively do their jobs.”

And post-Academy field training is found inadequate. The report prefers “one-on-one instruction and mentoring,” but it is now common “to have one Field Training Officer to be assigned to instruct twelve or more trainees.” And interestingly, lax field evaluation makes it hard to screen out unsuitable newcomers. Several times the report implies there is less emphasis on weeding out potential “bad apples.”

The Academy training (except for the classes teaching Spanish) is now only 55 days, and the report says this is too quick for recruits to digest the material or for trainers to evaluate recruits carefully.

In the rush to recruit, one can even be admitted to the Academy before background screening is completed. The report mentions increased theft of personal and government property at the quickly reorganized (disorganized?) Academy. One fellow, Angel Avina, was already getting Academy enforcement training when it was discovered that he had been a gun smuggler the previous year.

Overall, it is a short, scathing report, evidencing morale problems in the agency and some embarrassment among older agents who perhaps dreamed of being in a premier law enforcement agency…which, of course, it was never intended to be.

Agents all know that most federal law enforcement agencies require at least a four-year college degree, while the Border Patrol doesn’t even require high school graduation. (An Introduction to Policing textbook I own says only 17% of America’s local (!) police agencies require less than a diploma or GED. The federal agency Border Patrol ranks lower than most all local police agencies in education standards.) But I suppose Homeland Security sees the beefed-up Border Patrol as a thug component in their “virtual wall.” And walls don’t need complete sentences.

***

The above article appeared in my weekly Mid-Valley Town Crier column in mid-July, 2008. A few further comments: First, I realize that a “police uni*n” like the NBPC is usually less than the best source to quote; police uni*ns are often prejudiced and busy covering for one faction or another. Still I think it is very significant that the NBPC report describes divisions in the ranks in regard to the massive doubling of Border Patrol officers ordered by Bush two years ago.

The BP has always been part of the hated La Migra, taking a central part in the vicious “Operation Wetback” (Ethnic Cleansing) in the early 1950s and always representing the side of oppressors. Still, it does seem to be getting worse, if one accepts the NBPC document.

The Spanish language training was criticized for being less rigorous, which the report indicated would make report-taking from immigrants more difficult and inaccurate, and the report seems to say there is less attention paid to weeding out “bad apples” early. That both of those complaints were raised lends credence to the report. This report is not just the griping of the old guard, concerned that new guys are coming in and taking valuable spots. The authors of the report might even be concerned that the credibility of the BP, traditionally low among Mexican Americans, is now being further undermined.

Secondly, to Valley residents it is obvious just how big the Border Patrol is getting. The BP is part of a big wall rising up along the border. (I visited with Jay Johnson-Castro recently, who estimated that of the nearly 20,000 agents nationally, less than two thousand are assigned to the Canadian border, which leaves a whopping number on the U.S.–Mexico line) As was mentioned in the article, Clinton doubled the ranks of the BP, and he doubled the INS budget in a four-year span. And now Bush is doubling the numbers again in two and half years.

The BP’s uniforms are green, which contributes to the sense of militarization in the Rio Grande Valley. Indeed one fourth of the Border Patrol are ex-military, and the percentage will increase because BP recruiting stations are set up now in military bases overseas. Want a good military-style job, a green uniform, and a gun? You can have it all and stay in the States, by joining the exciting BP. (With the reports of poor psychological screening of those leaving the military and with the hurry-up mentality of BP recruiting, we may see some loose cannon problems soon.)

The BP has opened this very month a new station for Brownsville, on 51 acres of land, in a facility with 54,000 square feet. Two years ago they completed a new station in Edinburg and there is a new giant o

ne expected in McAllen in six months. There are nine stations in the Rio Grande Valley sector.

Thirdly, incidental observation might also lead one to the conclusion that the fast growing BP is not trying hard to do public relations, but rather to harden its image. When assailed by rock throwers from the Mexican side of the border in December near San Diego, the BP fired powerful tear gas and pepper spray over the border, in complete disregard of Mexican family dwellings nearby the rock throwers. There were perhaps eight such incidents. (AP wire, Dec. 17) The BP has now put razor wire (concertina wire) on top of miles of border wall in California, supposedly to protect its ranks from attacks.

And here are three things I have mentioned recently in previous columns indicating a hardening of image:

  • The Border Patrol’s “Operation Streamline” is a provocative escalation, a machine-like street-level enforcement policy criminalizing the undocumented.

  • They have refused to discuss with community groups their plans during possible hurricane evacuation.

  • They bulldozed down the small Candelaria Bridge to Mexico, a bridge that had been a symbol of friendship for the Mexican American community for decades.

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