- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 23, 2010

The U.S. Border Patrol has quietly reduced its current force of available agents along the U.S.-Mexico border by cutting the overtime hours they can work even as the Obama administration is asking Congress for hundreds of millions of dollars to hire 1,000 new agents, and Congress and the public are clamoring for beefed-up border security.

Several rank-and-file and senior agents told The Washington Times that a new overtime directive issued at the agency’s Washington headquarters will limit their ability to get their jobs done, reduce coverage during peak smuggling periods and allow more criminals to avoid apprehension.

“By lowering the statutory overtime cap nearly 15 percent through the current administrative restrictions, top-level managers in the Border Patrol are depriving Americans of desperately needed coverage along the border at a time of national crisis,” said T.J. Bonner, a veteran agent who heads the National Border Patrol Council, which represents all 15,000 of the agency’s nonsupervisory agents.

Because of the nature of the job, most Border Patrol agents average at least two hours overtime a day and the agency, as part of its ongoing recruitment effort, has promised what it called an “excellent opportunity for overtime pay.” The overtime cutback comes at a time that violence against the agents, according to Department of Homeland Security records, is up 31 percent this fiscal year.

More than 200 Border Patrol agents have been assaulted since October, mostly with rocks. On June 8, one agent fatally shot a 15-year-old during a rock attack.

The administration’s request for “urgent and essential” new funding came in a letter Tuesday from President Obama to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. The White House wants $500 million in emergency spending for the border this year, including $297 million to hire 1,000 new agents.

While the Border Patrol is staffing up, an effort that could take several months, Mr. Obama has said he would post up to 1,200 National Guard troops in the Southwest to provide assistance, though he has not yet provided a plan for deployment to border-state governors.

The decision to limit overtime hours is outlined in an April 29 memo from acting Border Patrol Chief Ronald D. Vitiello to all chief patrol agents and division chiefs. It mandates that they “effectively monitor and manage their employees’ overtime levels” by cutting an existing overtime-salary cap.

Congress set the fiscal 2010 overtime cap for federal employees at $35,000, but the Vitiello memo, a copy of which was obtained by The Times, directs that “no employee will be authorized to exceed an overtime level of $30,000” without a specific waiver from the chief.

Rep. Ted Poe, Texas Republican and a member of both the House Judiciary and Foreign Affairs committees, said he was “very concerned” about the directive’s impact on the nation’s borders.

“This is an arbitrary bureaucratic decision that will hurt security at the border,” said Mr. Poe, who has steadfastly supported efforts at increasing both the funding and manpower for enhanced security efforts at the nation’s borders.

“The agents know best, and they’re not being allowed to work, even though they want to,” he said. “They already are outmanned, outgunned and outfinanced. If we want to cut funding, let’s cut those areas that do not involve national defense.”

Mr. Poe said he intended to bring the matter to the attention of other members of the House and then ask Chief Vitiello to reconsider the directive.

“Let’s not give our agents less help; let’s give them more help,” Mr. Poe said.

Mr. Bonner said that for the past decade, the amount of the overtime-salary cap has been raised every year in the appropriations process to $35,000. He said the pay was designed for law enforcement occupations where the actions of criminals are unpredictable.

“Outrageous assertions” is how Mr. Bonner described comments by the Border Patrol leadership that the change in premium pay policies would not have a major impact on border operations or the effectiveness of the agent work force, and that the changes were required to ensure there were not further staffing reductions taken in the agent work force that could have a negative impact on border enforcement capabilities.

“It is ironic that this is happening at the same time that an additional 1,200 National Guard troops are being sent to the border to support the Border Patrol’s operations,” he said. “It won’t take smugglers long to figure out the gaps in coverage created by these reductions and exploit them to the fullest.”

Lloyd M. Easterling, acting director of media relations for U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), which includes the Border Patrol, did not respond to questions concerning the overtime cap e-mailed to him over a two-week period.

In his directive, Chief Vitiello called the decision an effort to remain in compliance with congressional mandates and to address the fiscal realities of a tightened budget.

“While $35,000 may sound like a lot of money, it is easy to see how a large number of employees earn close to that amount every year, especially the more senior ones,” Mr. Bonner said. “It is important to note that waivers are available, but this administration is choosing not to exercise such authority in order to save money.”

Mr. Bonner said the National Border Patrol Council will be “working aggressively with members of Congress” to review the “potentially hazardous practices implemented by [the Border Patrol leadership] and the sectors in order to comply with this unilaterally implemented, artificial overtime cap.”

Several rank-and-file agents called the overtime pay an “equalizer,” noting that Border Patrol agents start at $36,600 a year, compared with at the FBI at $53,700 and the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration at $49,700, according to each agency’s respective website.

Annually, the Border Patrol makes more arrests and seizes more drugs that any other federal law enforcement agency.