Spanish Speakers at a Premium at Border and Immigration Agencies

Jonathan Marino, GovExec.com, Aug. 4, 2006

Following the lead of the Customs and Border Protection bureau, Immigration and Customs Enforcement is considering requiring its trainees to learn Spanish as part of their academy curriculum.

Spanish-speaking agents are at a premium at border and immigration agencies as federal managers and Capitol Hill staffers say the fight against illegal aliens hinges, in part, on the ability to communicate effectively in the field.

At the United States-Mexico border, the inability of some National Guard members sent to assist in border control to speak and understand Spanish was noted by veteran CBP officials, said one congressional staffer familiar with illegal immigration issues.

“This is one of the objections the Border Patrol has always had to using the National Guard,” the source said, adding “and also why the National Guard now is in a support rather than a front-line role. Obviously, you can’t tolerate possible armed confrontations between people who can’t communicate well.”

Under the former Immigration and Naturalization Services agency within the Justice Department, border patrol personnel and managers were required to be fluent in Spanish. When these employees joined CBP or ICE with the formation of the Homeland Security Department, requirements diverged. CBP has what one manager called an accelerated Spanish program, equivalent to taking college language courses.

Trainees are required to take 300 hours of Spanish courses in a 20-week period, said Border Patrol spokeswoman Maria Valencia. At the Border Patrol’s academy, trainees are required to learn basic commands and interviewing skills in Spanish. But, Valencia said, for some this is an uphill battle.

“Some of the guys who come here, they don’t even know how to ask for a cerveza,” Valencia said.

But at ICE most agents and managers are not required to speak or learn Spanish, an agency manager said. It is considered a positive for a job candidate to know Spanish, and the agency has translators, according to the manager.

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The CBP manager said ICE might have made a misstep in not directing trainees to learn Spanish, but noted that the agencies have two separate roles in securing the border. CBP is responsible for border protection and enforcement, while ICE devotes more of its resources to detaining illegal immigrants.

ICE and CBP are not alone in their desire to have more Spanish speakers onboard. In a speech at Government Executive’s Excellence in Government conference last month, Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Thad Allen said retention of Spanish-speakers is a priority.

But like ICE, the Coast Guard doesn’t have strict language requirements.

“The Coast Guard does not have a Spanish-language requirement for individuals entering active duty,” said Jeff Carter, a Coast Guard spokesman. “We do have some military positions that we prefer to fill with Spanish speakers, and we track members that are Spanish speakers so that we can call on them if required.”

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