- The Washington Times - Friday, September 27, 2002

SAN DIEGO The U.S. Border Patrol is facing a 15 percent attrition rate that threatens to increase to more than 20 percent by the end of the year.

The turnover, according to veteran agents here and all along the U.S.-Mexico border, threatens ongoing efforts to secure the nation's borders. Nowhere is the loss felt greater than along the 1,940-mile international border with Mexico, where U.S. Border Patrol agents are leaving in staggering numbers.

Dissatisfied with the pay, disenchanted with the job or in a hurry to "go home" after working in the hot, arid and often desolate border regions of the United States, agents are quitting at a record pace. An expected 23 percent attrition rate this year would be more than double that of a year ago and would be the highest among any federal law-enforcement agency.

There is also concern about where the Border Patrol will end up, as Congress debates a homeland-security package that would separate the agency from the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service. That move also would eliminate some of the protections given to civil service employees.

"The Border Patrol is in a state of flux," said Agent Joseph N. Dassaro, president of the National Border Patrol Council Local 1613 here, where the annual attrition rate already has reached 21.5 percent. "I'm not sure how we can continue to carry out our mission as we lose agents, including some of our most experienced people."

Many of the agents have gone to the Transportation Security Administration as air marshals, lured with a significant salary boost, a choice of duty stations and bonuses for some assignments. Air marshals average about $52,000 a year to start, but can get as much as $80,000, depending on their background and experience.

With a recently approved pay raise, Border Patrol agents will start at salaries ranging from $30,000 to $35,000, and have a 90 percent chance of being assigned to the U.S.-Mexico border, where they will arrest 1.2 million people including illegal immigrants, alien smugglers, drug dealers and an assortment of armed robbers, muggers, thieves and rapists more than any other law-enforcement agency in the country.

Each year, the average level of experience of the field agents declines. Along the Southwest border, the number of agents with two years or less experience climbed from 14 percent in 1994 to 44 percent in 2000. Many supervisors also have limited experience, and Agent Dassaro questioned the role they can be expected to play in making key decisions.

"In 1990, the average supervisor had 10 years' experience," he said. "Now, supervisors average less than four years' experience, and many of them have never been involved in a big drug bust or in the arrest of a large number of illegal aliens."

Many veteran agents who have left the Border Patrol said they were "unhappy" with the agency's new enforcement strategy, which puts them in front-line positions along the border where their visibility is designed to serve as a deterrence. They are not aggressively pursuing aliens as they once did, working instead from static positions where they can sit for up to 10 hours a day.

"Sitting at your post for eight to 10 hours can be difficult," said Willie Brown, a field operations supervisor at the Border Patrol's Douglas, Ariz., station. "But deterrence works. It's up to the field supervisors to make sure that the agents understand why."

Carlos X. Carrillo, assistant chief of the Border Patrol's Tucson, Ariz., sector, the busiest region along the U.S.-Mexico border in terms of illegal aliens, said attrition within the agency is not new. He said the Border Patrol historically has experienced high attrition levels for a variety of reasons.

"The agents are regarded as highly trained, hardworking, dedicated and highly motivated," he said, adding that they are "desirable recruits" because of their Border Patrol experience. "They deal with large numbers of people under often stressful situations, and have always been attractive candidates for other law-enforcement agencies."

Agent Dassaro said 195 Border Patrol agents left the San Diego sector in the first half of 2002 and, at that rate, the sector will lose more than 25 percent of its field agents by December. But, he said, the problem is "not recruiting new bodies to fill these positions, we can do that," but trying to retain the "necessary experience the Border Patrol needs to get the job done."

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