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Mr. Cornyn described the Obama administration’s actions regarding the Border Patrol as “nothing short of a calculated, willful neglect of what should be a president’s top priority: protecting the homeland and keeping Americans safe. The fact that the administration would needlessly jeopardize the safety of American citizens as part of a continued misinformation campaign surrounding the effects of sequestration is outrageous and reprehensible.”

Concerns about the furloughs and overtime cuts come at a time that top Homeland Security officials have acknowledged to Congress that they don’t have a way to effectively measure border security — a revelation that lawmakers have said could doom the chances for passing any meaningful immigration reform legislation this year. The admission stunned lawmakers on both sides of the aisle, who said that without a way to measure border security, they may not be able to convince voters to accept a new legalization plan.

In 2007, the last time the Senate debated immigration, the bill failed because voters didn’t believe the government was serious enough about gaining control of the border. And now, six years later, no one can tell Congress how successful the government has been in its multimillion-dollar effort to upgrade manpower and technology to better secure the border.

10-hour workdays

Border Patrol agents normally work 10-hour days, part of a program known as “administratively uncontrolled overtime”. It is how the agents were hired, most of whom signed on as part of a recruitment drive that promised an “excellent opportunity for overtime pay.”

Uncontrolled overtime covers employees in positions that require substantial amounts of irregular, unscheduled overtime work that cannot be controlled administratively, with the employee generally being responsible for recognizing, without supervision, circumstances that require him to remain on duty.

Under sequestration, the elimination of overtime pay could cost field agents an average of $7,000 a year and spark what some say could be an exodus of veteran agents to other agencies.The Border Patrol is a popular place for other, better-paying federal agencies to look for experienced law enforcement officers who can be laterally transferred. Border Patrol agents start at $36,658 a year compared to $49,347 for the FBI and $49,746 for the Drug Enforcement Administration. The cut significantly affects those agents who have two-hour drives to remote duty stations.

CBP will continue to make every effort to minimize the sequester’s impact on public safety and national security,” the agency said in a statement.CBP also acknowledged that 12 Border Patrol agents-in-charge quietly received pay raises just days before the furloughs and overtime cuts were announced, but said they had nothing to do with sequestration. In a statement, the agency said the raises were part of a “long-term initiative, begun by U.S. Customs and Border Protection in 2008, to ensure that job responsibilities and pay are appropriately aligned.”

Brunt of cuts

Ms. Napolitano acknowledged during a White House briefing in February that sequestration would have an impact on national security. She said the department would not be able to maintain the same level of security at all places around the country and that the furloughs and loss of overtime pay would decrease the number of hours Border Patrol has to operate between the nation’s ports of entry by as many as 5,000 agents.

“I don’t think we can maintain the same level of security,” Ms. Napolitano said. “If you have 5,000 fewer Border Patrol agents, you have 5,000 fewer Border Patrol agents.”

The loss of those agents also concerns Carmen Mercer, a longtime businesswoman and resident of Tombstone, Ariz., who thinks the furloughs and overtime cuts bode poorly for long-suffering border residents.

“It means one thing: We going to be overrun again,” she told The Times. “When we got to 20,000 agents, it did make a difference.”

Ms. Mercer, a native of Germany who is a naturalized U.S. citizen, is no stranger to the problem of illegal immigration.

She helped organize more than 4,500 Minuteman volunteers who participated in the first 30-day vigil along the Arizona border in March 2005 to protest what they considered lax U.S. immigration policies. They manned observation posts along the border and were credited with forcing thousands of illegal immigrants to find other areas to cross into the U.S. — proving that more personnel on the border was a deterrent.

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