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Efforts to Boost U.S. Border Control Face Challenges


This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

The man in charge of Homeland Security says keeping America safe means coming up with a better plan for tightening the nation's Southern border. This morning, we'll hear Secretary Michael Chertoff explain how he hopes to do that. First, we'll examine the US Border Patrol. The agency is trying to hire thousands of new agents in part so it can carry out Chertoff's plans for tighter security, but hiring people has never been easy for the Border Patrol. NPR's Carrie Kahn went to the agency's training academy to find out why.

Unidentified Man #1: Academy!

Group: Hah!

CARRIE KAHN reporting:

Every morning just after dawn, dozens of uniformed cadets line up on the grounds of the Border Patrol's sprawling training academy in Artesia, New Mexico.

Unidentified Man #1: Color guard, prepare to post your color.

KAHN: It takes 20 weeks for a class to graduate. On most Mondays, there's at least one class ready to take the oath of office.

Unidentified Man #2: Raise your right hand and repeat after me. I--state your name...

Men: I, (stating their names)...

Unidentified Man #2: ...will support and defend the Constitution of the United States...

Men: ...will support and defend the Constitution of the United States...

KAHN: For Manuel Resa(ph) of Al Paso, Texas, it took more than three years to finally get a badge and a gun. He says he sent in his application shortly after the September 11th terror attacks. Resa says the process was long and the training was difficult.

Mr. MANUEL RESA: It's very, very challenging. It's absolutely not for the weak-hearted, but, I mean, if you come here and you're dedicated and you're devoted and you know what you want, I mean, you can get it.

KAHN: For Border Patrol recruiters, the hard part is getting enough people to apply. The list of requirements is long.

Mr. MIKE HANSFORD(ph) (Agent): You have to be 18 and 37 years of age.

Unidentified Man #3: OK.

Mr. HANSFORD: You have to be a US citizen.

Unidentified Man #3: OK.

Mr. HANSFORD: OK. You cannot have any felony convictions and no domestic violence convictions of any kind.

KAHN: Veteran agent Mike Hansford runs down the list for a prospective applicant. Hansford is manning the Border Patrol's recruitment booth at a job fair in San Diego's Convention Center. On either side of him are recruiters for a garbage collection company and a parking garage. He says for every 300 people who apply, only one will become a Border agent.

Mr. HANSFORD: So the guys that have the military background or, you know, have a good head on their shoulders will probably fare better than the people that are just, `Yeah, I'm just kind of looking for a job.'

KAHN: Congress has authorized the Border Patrol to boost its ranks above 10,000 agents, but the agency has had a hard time meeting those goals. In fact, it hit its target only once in the past seven years. That's on top of the fact that the agency loses nearly 7 percent of its work force every year. Sometimes it's for a better paying federal job or just a new opportunity like in 2002 when hundreds of agents jumped over to the newly formed air marshals. Ronald Vitiello, senior associate chief of the Border Patrol, says the agency is doing a better job now retaining agents. He says part of the new recruitment campaign is to make sure applicants know just what they're getting into.

Mr. RONALD VITIELLO (Chief, Border Patrol): ...that it is challenging, you are going to go to the Southern border, you may be assigned to a remote location, and it is not all, you know, flashy, glamorous kind of work.

KAHN: But T.J. Bonner, who heads the Border Patrol union, says agents do know what the job is all about. He says supervisors just don't let them do it.

Mr. T.J. BONNER (Border Patrol Union): What you have to do is just sit there at the border. If someone happens to come up to you, you can arrest them and then you will put them back to their country of origin and let them try and try and try again. I mean, personally I've caught the same group of people four times in one eight-hour shift. It gets pretty discouraging.

KAHN: Border Patrol officials say this year they received more than 45,000 applications. That's despite a glitch in the agency's highly touted online application process which broke down for several weeks this summer. Also recruiters' travel budgets were cut, limiting them to areas close to their border stations. Despite the hiring and retention setbacks, members of Congress, including Texas Senator John Cornyn, say more agents must be deployed along the Southwest border. He's introduced a bill to hire 10,000 new agents over the next five years.

Senator JOHN CORNYN (Republican, Texas): People have a right to be skeptical about the federal government's commitment to addressing this problem because we have not done a very good job in the past, but I do believe that after 9/11, we simply don't have any choice.

KAHN: Cornyn warns of terrorists exploiting the same routes now traveled by illegal immigrants, but the Republican senator faces opposition from other lawmakers who insist that any increase in border security funding be balanced with immigration reforms.

Unidentified Man #4: (Spanish spoken)

Men: (Spanish spoken)

KAHN: This year at the border academy, New Mexico instructors are pushing forward with their most ambitious training schedule complete with Spanish studies...

Unidentified Man #5: (Spanish spoken)

KAHN: ...lessons on immigration law...

Unidentified Man #6: OK. If you have a crime that is punishable by a year or more in prison, what kind of crime...

Men: ...(Unintelligible).

Unidentified Man #6: OK.

KAHN: ...and weapons training on the firing range.

Unidentified Man #7: One shot.

(Soundbite of firing)

KAHN: If all cadets who enter the academy this year graduate, 1,200 new agents will take up jobs in the Border Patrol. That would be the largest annual increase in the agency in almost a decade.

Carrie Kahn, NPR News.

Unidentified Man #7: Two shots.

(Soundbite of firing) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Carrie Kahn is NPR's International Correspondent based in Mexico City, Mexico. She covers Mexico, the Caribbean, and Central America. Kahn's reports can be heard on NPR's award-winning news programs including All Things Considered, Morning Edition and Weekend Edition, and on NPR.org.