Hispanics Bolster Border Patrol

James Pinkerton, Houston Chronicle, December 29, 2008

Growing up along the Texas border, Edward Caballero remembers fearing the green-uniformed agents of the U.S. Border Patrol.

Now, the 32-year old Caballero—a former schoolteacher in the Rio Grande Valley—is one of thousands of new agents who have swelled the force’s ranks to more than 18,000, a product of an historic recruitment blitz.

And unlike the Border Patrol of his youth, which was overwhelmingly Anglo, the expanded border agency is now 54 percent minority. Hispanics like Caballero comprise 52 percent of the agents.

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Since the Bush administration mandated hiring 6,000 new agents to boost the force to 18,000 by the end of this year, the ranks of Hispanic agents have mushroomed. The roughly 6,400 Hispanic agents on duty in 2006 increased 45 percent to about 9,300 last month.

Caballero said his fluency in Spanish and his upbringing in the Rio Grande Valley, which is predominantly Hispanic, is an advantage when he encounters illegal immigrants trying to cross the winding Rio Grande and fade into riverside communities.

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Recruits’ advantage

Because southwest border communities are largely Latino, recruits there have an advantage in the required Spanish fluency as well as familiarity with the job. Applicants who can pass a Spanish proficiency test can skip 40 days of required language instruction at the academy.

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The government employed a diverse array of recruiting tools to meet the 18,000-agent goal. The Border Patrol sponsored NASCAR stock cars and bull-riding events, held job fairs in communities with high unemployment and visited black college campuses.

Though the Border Patrol force has become more ethnically diverse, it’s still 95 percent male. However, the recruiting drive boosted the number of female agents to nearly 1,000.

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What critics say

But there are some concerns about thousands of new agents enforcing laws in the same communities where they have strong family ties, some that extend across the border.

“The problem I think that will come up are with people who are born and raised there, and have associates on both sides of the border. I don’t think that’s especially good from an integrity standpoint,” said James Dorcy, a director of the National Association of Retired Border Patrol Officers.

“The drug cartels are trying to do everything they can to infiltrate the Border Patrol right now,” Dorcy said.

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Corrupt agents

Their concerns have some validity, as a number of agents have been caught taking bribes to allow illegal immigrants, as well as drugs, to cross the border.

Last week a federal judge in McAllen sentenced ex-Border Patrol officer Reynaldo Zuniga, 34, to seven years in prison for drug smuggling. The officer, from the Valley city of Harlingen, was paid to pick up a cocaine smuggler on the Rio Grande and drop him off at a hamburger stand nearby.

Earlier this month, federal prosecutors returned a bribery and narcotics trafficking indictment against Leonel Morales, a 30-year-old Border Patrol agent from Zapata. He is charged with taking a $9,000 bribe to escort a load of narcotics this summer.

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