- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 25, 2007

The U.S. Border Patrol has let its on-the-job training of new field agents slip as it seeks to meet President Bush’s goal of recruiting, hiring and deploying 6,000 new agents by the time he leaves office in January 2009, according to the Government Accountability Office (GAO).

The GAO also said in a 32-page report that it will cost taxpayers $1.7 billion to reach the projected total of 18,000 agents along the nation’s borders, a top priority of Mr. Bush’s proposed immigration reform package pending in Congress.

According to the report, while the Border Patrol’s academy training program is “in line” with other federal law-enforcement agencies, serious questions remain on whether hiring “such an unprecedented number of new agents” would strain the agency’s ability to provide adequate supervision and training.

The report, sought by Rep. Mike D. Rogers of Alabama, ranking Republican on the Homeland Security subcommittee on management, investigations and oversight, said the assignment of the new agents on the southwest border and the planned transfer of experienced agents to the northern U.S. border could “further exacerbate the already higher than desired agent-to-supervisor ratio” in some southwest sectors.

“The field training new agents receive is not consistent from sector to sector, a fact that has implications for how well agents perform their duties,” the report said. “To ensure that these new agents become proficient in the safe, effective and ethical performance of their duties, it will be extremely important that new agents have the appropriate level of supervision and that the Border Patrol have a standardized field training program.”

U.S. Customs and Border Protection Commissioner W. Ralph Basham, who oversees the Border Patrol, described the proper training of its agents as a top CBP priority and that efforts are under way to maintain the experience level of first-line agents and also address shortfalls caused by faster hiring.

“We’ve got people out there with guns and the kind of authority that comes with being a law-enforcement officer, so it’s imperative that we have supervisors in the field who can work with the new agents to guide, mentor and instruct them,” Mr. Basham said yesterday in an interview at CBP headquarters in Washington.

Mr. Basham, who took over CBP in June 2006, said the agency had reduced the number of required academy training days from 92 to 55 without sacrificing quality. He said recruits who speak Spanish leave early for the field, while those who do not are “immersed” for the next five weeks in language training.

“The key here is making sure the training is not diminished by streamlining programs and being much smarter on how we reach our goals,” said Mr. Basham, who also served as director of the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center for four years and helped design many programs in use at the academy. “I am completely satisfied we now have a better delivery system and we will get the job done.”

To reach Mr. Bush’s goal of 6,000 new agents, the report said, the Border Patrol will need to recruit, hire and train 9,100 recruits to account for the additional manpower and attrition. While the White House has called for spending an additional $647.8 million in fiscal 2008 to hire another 3,000 agents, Mr. Basham said he is confident the agency will meet its goal of deploying all 6,000 by the deadline.

Mr. Rogers has asked GAO to review its finding to determine the exact costs for the additional manpower — estimated now by the Border Patrol at $187,000 per recruit. “I think that might be high and I have asked for more specific numbers,” Mr. Rogers said. The review is expected next month.

The GAO report noted that agency officials interviewed as part of its review were concerned about a sufficient number of experienced agents being available in the sectors to serve as field training officers and first-line supervisors, noting that CBP officials said a 5-to-1 agent-to-supervisor ratio was desirable. The report said that as of October 2006, the ratios in the southwest border sectors ranged from 7-to-1 to 11-to-1.

“Given the large numbers of new agents the Border Patrol plans to assign to the southwest border over the next 2 years, along with the planned reassignment of experienced agents from the southwest border to the northern border, it will be a challenge for the agency to achieve the desired 5-to-1 ratio for new agents in all work units in those sectors receiving the largest numbers of new agents,” the report said.

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