Staffing Shortage Hits Border Patrol

William Finn Bennett, North County Times, Sep. 7

Two years ago, the Border Patrol checkpoint on Interstate 15 was in operation more than three-fourths of the time. By January of this year, that number had fallen to 60 percent, and last month, there were agents stopping drivers just 21.9 percent of the time, documents obtained by The Californian show.

A local Border Patrol union official said recently that the drop-off is symptomatic of a manpower shortage hurting the ability of agents to do their jobs in the region even as public pressure on the agency mounts.

That is compounded in Southwest County, local agents and union officials said, by Temecula station supervisors who have prohibited agents from conducting other types of operations, such as chasing fleeing suspects or questioning suspected illegal immigrants at local day-laborer gathering spots.

The restrictions are taking their toll on the morale of rank-and-file agents, said Ron Zermeno, the Temecula Border Patrol union shop steward.

“It’s kind of like beating your dog with a newspaper,” Zermeno said. “If you do, the dog is not going to want to leave the house.”

Agents in the Temecula station patrol an area of nearly 3,600 square miles, stretching from northern San Diego, east to the Imperial County line and nearly as far north as Interstate 10. The station has about 125 agents, divided into three shifts, Border Patrol documents show.

However, an internal 2003 memorandum written by the station’s then head agent stated that 300 Border Patrol agents would be necessary to do the job properly, Zermeno said.

“We remain hampered by a lack of staffing and have to pick and choose” between the different inland checkpoints and other types of enforcement, Zermeno said last week.

“We are spread too thin to cover the area; we are trying to keep them guessing—that’s the best we can do with the limited manpower we have,” he said.

San Diego sector Border Patrol spokesman Angel Santa Ana acknowledged Zermeno’s assertion that more agents are needed.

“Management here feels the same way: You do the best you can with what you’ve got,” he said.

The Temecula station operates the Interstate 15 checkpoint and 10 other smaller checkpoints scattered along back roads throughout south Riverside County and north San Diego County. Agents also conduct other enforcement operations, such as observing traffic and then pouncing on vehicles suspected of transporting illegal aliens; chasing down suspects they see running from Border Patrol cruisers; monitoring local day-laborer hiring spots and checking individuals’ immigration documents; and patrolling inland cities and country roads.

However, those operations have been drastically curtailed since June, union officials say. Santa Ana said Tuesday that he couldn’t comment on Zermeno’s assertions because he is prohibited from discussing operations and staffing levels at specific stations.

“I can’t give you that information because it’s sensitive to our operations,” Santa Ana said. “People are always trying to find out where our must vulnerable areas are.”

Agent numbers down

Santa Ana did acknowledge, however, that staffing levels for the entire 7,000-square-mile San Diego sector have decreased by about 15 percent in the past year. In 2003, nearly 2,000 agents worked in the San Diego sector; this year, that number is down to 1,700.

A significant number of those nearly 300 agents have transferred to other parts of the country just in the past few months, Santa Ana added, many to Arizona.

The staffing losses stand to continue in the coming months, a San Diego sector union official said recently.

“We are currently pending another 115 (or so) transfers to Texas as well,” said Joseph N. Dassaro, president of the National Border Patrol Council’s San Diego Local 1613. “There is simply not enough manpower.”

Border Patrol officials in Washington, D.C., say they are shifting agents to where the greatest needs are. For example, since October 2003, agents have apprehended 450,000 suspected illegal immigrants in the Tucson sector alone, said Border Patrol national spokesman Mario Villareal. By comparison, the San Diego sector saw 130,000 apprehensions in the same period.

But shifting agents to meet Arizona’s needs is hurting the ability of San Diego sector, including the Temecula station, to do its job, Dassaro said.

“The less manpower you have, the less apprehensions you have,” he said. “That is the nature of the business.”

A few weeks ago, Dassaro said, he met with Border Patrol officials at the I-15 checkpoint to register an informal complaint about the slowdown in operations there.

“We told them they need to get their operations together and be up and running on a consistent basis,” Dassaro said.

Local Border Patrol spokesman Richard Kite said officials send agents where the need is greatest, both within the sector and within individual station areas.

“Checkpoint operations are assessed on intelligence—we channel resources accordingly,” Kite said.

Zermeno said the numbers tell the story. In the months when the I-15 checkpoint was fully operational for longer periods of time and the other checkpoints were up and running more often, the number of apprehensions rose accordingly.

“If all the checkpoints were operational at all times, we would be averaging easily 1,000 arrests a month,” Zermeno said. “Agents feel that we are lucky to catch 20 percent of the illegal aliens coming through.”

The Border Patrol documents show that for the first eight months of 2004, the number of apprehensions by Temecula station agents averaged about 500 a month.

In addition to staffing shortages, however, agents continue to be hampered by management, Zermeno said—especially when it comes to operations other than working the checkpoints.

In June, a newly formed mobile patrol unit began conducting sweeps of inland cities stretching from Escondido to Ontario. In just two weeks, those agents had snagged about 500 illegal immigrants.

Immigrant advocates immediately began pressuring Washington legislators and the sweeps were halted a short time later, union officials said. Border Patrol officials denied that the agency had yielded to political pressure and stopped the sweeps. However, the number of total apprehensions by agents at the Temecula station fell from 711 in June to 349 in July.

Zermeno and another local union official say that drop was no coincidence. And it wasn’t just the mobile patrol sweeps that were halted, they say. Some supervisors began discouraging agents from other types of enforcement as well, the men said.

“One supervisor will say you can’t make any stops at all and another supervisor doesn’t even address the issue,” Zermeno said.

Ed Dominguez, another union representative at the Temecula station, agreed with Zermeno.

“One day you are allowed to do your job and the next, they don’t want you doing interior patrols,” Dominguez said.

On a recent morning, about 15 men gathered on a Temecula street corner, waiting for offers of jobs. At one point, as a Border Patrol cruiser slowly drove by, conversations froze in mid-sentence and several of the workers glanced sideways in expectation—but no one ran. The agents did not stop.

That was not by chance, Zermeno said.

“If we are driving by a day-laborer hiring spot, we can’t stop anyone to check for documents,” he said. “Those orders come from current station management.”

Santa Ana, the Border Patrol spokesman, said that he didn’t have the information to comment directly on decisions made by Temecula station supervisors. However, the San Diego sector has received orders from the Department of Homeland Security—which oversees the Border Patrol—that the No. 1 focus must be on the border itself, not interior operations.

Low morale

Agents’ frustration is leading to a lowering of morale at the station, Zermeno said. But declining morale appears to be not just a local phenomenon, based on a recent survey.

In late August, union officials released the results of a nationwide survey of Border Patrol agents and Customs and Border Protection inspectors. More than 500 agents and inspectors were interviewed. The results of that survey showed that 60 percent of those interviewed believe morale is low among their co-workers. Of those who said they believe morale to be low, nearly one-third attributed that to poor management, poor communication and their belief that management doesn’t trust them.

Fed up with the situation, some agents at the Temecula station are ignoring management and doing what they feel needs to be done to do their job, Zermeno said.

“Guys are still doing interior enforcement,” he said. “We tell them they are risking disciplinary action, putting their jobs in jeopardy.”

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