The last-minute addition to the sweeping Senate immigration reform bill of $38 billion in security spending on the U.S.-Mexican border has found an unlikely opponent -- Border Patrol agents.
Leaders of the union representing 17,000 nonsupervisory Border Patrol officers say they have serious concerns about how the Border Patrol can grow from 21,394 agents to 40,000 in only 10 years, as the bill requires, without sacrificing quality or efficiency.
The Border Patrol has doubled in size in the past eight years on earlier mandates from Congress supported by President George W. Bush. The government also nearly doubled the number of Customs agents who man ports of entry, which has raised concerns that poorly screened officers are being hired who may be more likely to be corrupt.
The bill would increase spending on the southern border by $46.3 billion in the first 10 years. About $38 billion of that was added in a last-minute amendment introduced by Sens. John Hoeven, R-N.D., and Bob Corker, R-Tenn., to attract more conservative support for the legislation, which also would legalize most of the 11 million unauthorized immigrants in the country. The amended bill passed with 14 Republican votes and the support of the entire Democratic caucus.
One might imagine that the union, which stands to double in membership because of the bill, would be enthusiastic about it. But the conservative-leaning union has instead raised concerns about its feasibility and has refused to endorse it.
"We're not your ordinary union," said Shawn Moran, the National Border Patrol Council's spokesman. "We really do appreciate the intent of Sens. Hoeven and Corker with the increase in manpower. We just think it can be done better and, frankly, cheaper."
Moran said he would prefer agents be allowed to work 10-hour days instead of the current eight-hour shifts, which would mean more man-hours on the border without the expense of hiring and training as many new officers. Agents receive a few more dollars per hour when they work more than eight hours.
"Don't get me wrong: Could we use 20,000 more agents? Yes. That'd be great," Chris Cabrera, the vice president of a chapter of the Border Patrol union in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas, said. "We're sitting on a porous border. Twenty thousand is a great number, but I don't see it as an achievable goal."
Moran said that "the last time they hired any large number of Border Patrol agents ... they were given a badge or a gun and put out on the field and then a red flag would come up by the time they finally did a background check,"
A hiring surge between 2006 and 2008 led to "hurried background checks and loosened hiring standards," according to a Los Angeles Times investigation published in 2011. Between October 2004 and 2011, 132 customs officials were indicted on corruption or corruption-related charges. Customs and Border Protection employees were arrested more than 2,000 times between 2004 and 2012.
One of Cabrera's primary concerns is that the Border Patrol may "cut corners" in its rush to train and deploy so many thousands of new agents. Training was already shortened during the last hiring surge from nearly six months to three months.
"What concerns me is are they not going to be as thorough as they need to be because the budget doesn't allow for it," Cabrera said.