Tuesday, February 13, 2007

The National Football League refused to run a recruitment ad for the U.S. Border Patrol in last week’s Super Bowl program, saying it was “controversial” because it mentioned duties such as fighting terrorism and stopping drugs and illegal aliens at the border.

“The ad that the department submitted was specific to Border Patrol, and it mentioned terrorism. We were not comfortable with that,” said Greg Aiello, a spokesman for the NFL. “The borders, the immigration debate is a very controversial issue, and we were sensitive to any perception we were injecting ourselves into that.”

The NFL’s rejection didn’t sit well with Border Patrol agents, who called it a snub of their role in homeland security and said it was “more than a little puzzling.”

“The NFL missed a golden opportunity to reach countless patriotic citizens who want to answer the call to help prevent another terrorist attack on American soil,” said T.J. Bonner, president of the National Border Patrol Council, the union that represents the agency’s nonsupervisory personnel.

Border Patrol agents are assigned to protect the country’s borders with Mexico and Canada between the ports of entry. The agency is trying to boost its force to 18,000, a goal President Bush outlined last year in a prime-time Oval Office address to the nation.

Other major leagues have had no problems running the ad, a Border Patrol spokesman said. It has been accepted to run in programs for the upcoming NBA All Star Game and the NCAA Final Four, as well as in Pro BullRider magazine, the spokesman said.

The NFL’s snub came to light last week during Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff’s testimony before a congressional panel. Mr. Chertoff said the ad was rejected, “much to my chagrin.”

Mr. Aiello said that the NFL offered the department a chance to run a generic recruiting ad, similar to ads the U.S. military runs, but that the league never heard back from it.

“We proposed a more generic recruiting ad for the department that didn’t highlight the borders, which brings up the immigration issue and the immigration debate. That’s controversial,” he said.

That position stands in stark contrast to the ongoing debate in Congress, where among all the thorny issues related to immigration, the one that wins near-unanimous agreement is the need for more boots on the ground.

“Since almost every American favors securing our borders and the overwhelming majority of legislators on both sides of the immigration debate support significant increases in the number of Border Patrol agents, it is extremely difficult to imagine how those issues could be perceived as controversial,” Mr. Bonner said.

He said the NFL’s decision appeared to be an attempt to try to avoid upsetting the emerging market of football fans in Latin America.

The Super Bowl program is produced by the NFL, which printed about 200,000 copies this year, Mr. Aiello said.

The Border Patrol ad asks for “the right men and women to help protect America’s southwest borders.” It lists duties as preventing “the entry of terrorists and their weapons,” blocking “unlawful entry of undocumented aliens” and “stopping drug smuggling.”

The ad does not mention the ongoing immigration debate in Washington or touch on contentious subjects such as amnesty, a guest-worker program or legalization.

Mr. Bush has promised to double the size of the Border Patrol, which stood at 9,000 when he took office. His budget proposal calls for funding for 3,000 new agents in fiscal 2008 alone.

Customs and Border Protection Commissioner W. Ralph Basham, who oversees the Border Patrol, told The Washington Times last year that an aggressive recruiting effort by the agency had resulted in “no want for applicants.”

Mr. Basham said the ongoing attrition rate for the Border Patrol of about 4 percent was significantly down from previous years and meant that 6,800 new agents would have to be hired and trained to fill the 6,000 slots sought to boost the agency’s numbers to 18,000 and to make up for losses from attrition.

To meet the president’s goal, Mr. Basham — who once led the federal law-enforcement training center — said the agency had reduced the total number of days trainees attend the academy, “but not the training they receive.” He said the overall training schedule was reduced in October from 92 to 81 days.

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