Border Patrol agent Shawn Moran remembers ducking behind a narrow light pole as smugglers' rocks pierced through the darkness into the spotlight surrounding him. The shower of rocks coming from Mexico rained down on him for nearly an hour as he waited for backup to arrive.
“That can be kind of a scary feeling when you're calling for backup and you just don't see anyone else,” Moran said on a recent tour of the border with CityBeat. He pointed from his idling jeep to the post that protected him from falling rocks before accelerating again, passing vehicles fortified with protective cages and recently installed gun turrets—signs that Moran isn't the only agent seeking protection from smuggler attacks.
Border Patrol spokesperson Wendi Lee said rock and pepper-spray battles along the fence at night are common. Lee described soaring rocks lit with kerosene-soaked cloth. Since October, Lee said, there have been 187 assaults on agents in the San Diego region compared to 254 the previous year. (The Border Patrol's fiscal year runs Oct. 1 through Sept. 30.) The most common assaults are “rockings” but also include attacks with vehicles and knives, she said.
Moran worries that the agents receiving the brunt of the attacks are the country's youngest and most under-prepared. A presidential mandate to recruit 6,000 new agents by 2009 is pushing them through hasty training and directly into dangerous mountains and deserts frequented by potentially dangerous smugglers.
“You have people in the chain of command that are more concerned about meeting their [hiring] goal than they are about who's going to be in this agency in the future and the harm that's going to do to the country,” said agent Chris Bauder, who has 13 years' experience in the San Diego sector.
Bauder, the president of the local border agents union, warns that recent changes in training to accommodate the hiring mandate will be tested in the next two years. He remembers the last hiring push in the 1990s and points to examples like former agents Ignacio Ramos and José Compean, who are serving prison sentences for a February 2005 shooting they tried to cover up, and Eric Balderas Jr., another former agent who's serving two years in prison for lying about his citizenship status, conspiring with smugglers and using government vehicles to transport migrants into the country—all men were hired in the mid-to-late 1990s, Bauder said, and he blames their actions on poor training. [Please see our editor's note at the end of this story for a clarification on this point.]
What concerns the union most are efforts to fill the ranks quickly by lowering hiring standards, Bauder said. The agency is transitioning to a two-day application process from one that used to take seven months, and some recruits are being admitted to the academy before undergoing a thorough background check.
Ray Harris, who retired from the Border Patrol in 2002 and now guides recruits through the application process, said he's seen a decline in the quality of candidates.
“There was a depleted pool [of applicants] for awhile, so they're hiring people they wouldn't have in the not-so-distant past,” Harris said.
Applicants are given unlimited chances to get a passing score of 70 on the entrance exam, which includes basic reasoning, a language test and a personality assessment, all aimed at recruits with a high-school diploma. When he was an agent, Harris said, people who got a 70 on the exam were rarely selected for an interview but are now the most common admits.
Moran was more candid about the level of applicants being admitted into the academy: “It seems like you need more education to be a Wal-Mart greeter,” he said.
In the past, applicants went through a thorough background check once they passed the exam. But a pilot program in Texas now allows some recruits to temporarily forgo a background check. Applicants can opt for a polygraph test during which they're asked basic questions about their criminal record. If they answer the questions satisfactorily, they can begin training before their background check is complete, said Matthew Calmes, a regional recruitment manager. He said the pilot program seems to be successful and might expand soon.
But polygraphs are notoriously unreliable: A 2003 National Academy of Sciences report and a 1983 report by Congress' Office of Technology Assessment both dismiss the polygraph's accuracy. And Bauder points to former agents who used false names or were later found to be in the country illegally.
“If they couldn't do it right the other way, then we definitely know there's going to be problems doing it this way,” he said.
Unlike most law-enforcement agencies, Border Patrol applicants don't have to undergo a psychological assessment before being hired. Calmes said the agency collaborated with a psychologist to structure its pre-academy interview, conducted by senior agents, and insists it's just as effective. He said the agency won't sacrifice quality for quantity and is confident it can weed out individuals who shouldn't be agents by focusing recruitment on military veterans and criminal-justice students.
Agent Mandy Alder, who said she felt “like a deer in the headlights” when she entered the academy in August, said the training is challenging enough to get rid of people who aren't cut out for law enforcement. Her classmate, Daniel Siazon, is a military veteran who said he felt like he was at boot camp again.
“If you don't 100-percent want to be there, you're not going to stay,” Alder said.
Bauder noted that the Border Patrol has cut training from 19 weeks to 11. According to news reports, border-agents unions have complained that that makes it too easy to graduate. Even at its previous length, the training academy fell short of the standards of other law-enforcement agencies, which average around 25 weeks of training.
The union “gets calls all the time from supervisors concerned about the direction the agency is going,” Bauder said. “They're concerned it just isn't training [new agents] up to the proper level, and that's a safety issue for everyone because you have to work with these people.”
Bauder said trainees risk losing valuable practice with firearms. What's more, all new hires are taught to use pepper spray and collapsible batons, but are only required to be certified in one or the other before leaving the academy, said Clark Messer, an assistant chief patrol agent at the academy. Bauder said he's worried about new agents' mastery of such weapons because the agency is relying more heavily on pepper spray to quell violence.
“If you can't cut it here in a training environment, you're never going to cut it in the field,” Bauder said. “It's just not going to happen.”
With assaults on agents and more migrant traffic occurring after nightfall, a lack of night-pursuit training has become another major concern for senior agents. New agents fill most night shifts within 10 months of graduation, despite being classified as interns, because assignments are based on seniority. But trainees complete just four hours of night-driving instruction and are tested only on their driving abilities during the day, Messer said. Agents commonly drive at night with their headlights off to remain undetected through terrain so rugged that it's enough to turn a passenger's knuckles white during the day. Moran doubts that new recruits are prepared for these uneven trails, especially when they're required only to get a drivers license the day before they enroll in the academy.
“There's more action, more things happen at night. We do acknowledge having new people on the line [at night] is a concern,” said Calmes.
At night, “everything looks completely different. I didn't know where I was,” Alder said of her assignment near Pine Valley, even after spending time with her field-training unit getting oriented with the terrain in daylight.
Though new agents like Alder are cushioned by their field-training unit for about a year, Bauder said the local union fears that there aren't enough senior agents to mentor new hires post-academy. With 6,000 new hires, the U.S Border Patrol is expanding by about a third, so fresh agents may be learning from others who, themselves, have only been in the agency two to three years. According to a 2007 report by the federal Government Accountability Office, the average experience level among agents nationwide is four years, but only 18 months in some southwest sectors. The report also says the agent-to-supervisor ratio should be 5-to-1 but averages between 7-to-1 and 11-to-1.
What's more, Moran said, agents hired in the 1980s are approaching the mandatory retirement age of 57. He estimates that the agency will lose about 30 percent of its senior agents who usually mentor new recruits. National Border Patrol spokesperson Lloyd Easterling said the agency has hired more people in the past two years than it did during the '80s, so manpower won't be compromised.
“It's safe to say there are things going on in the field that shouldn't be happening, and it's because of poor training,” Bauder said, refusing to elaborate. “I don't blame the new agents so much; I just don't think they know any better.
They've never been taught any better. When you have fairly new agents training new agents, that's what you're going to get.”
Agency representatives still maintain, however, that they're adequately training recruits to enter the field. Messer cited the GAO report and said the agency is patching holes in training standards. According to the report, the Border Patrol's “basic training program exhibits attributes of an effective training program.”
But at a time when the agency already faces scrutiny, senior agents, and those represented by the union in particular, say they are hesitant to go along with a hiring strategy that could produce problem agents.
“These agents are just another black eye to the good agents out there,” Bauder said.
Agents hardly need scandal and incompetence to mar their often poor public image.
As retired agent Harris said, “Border patrol agents are in kind of a funny position. People don't like agents as much as firemen. I always tell [new recruits], ‘If you want a job where people wave at you with all five fingers, don't be a Border Patrol agent.'”
Editor's note: CityBeat mistakenly implied that Chris Bauder, president of the local agents union, supports the imprisonment of agents Ignacio Ramos and José Compean. Bauder's union believes both men were wrongfully convicted. He also does not blame the corruption of agents hired in the 1990s on poor training, but on rushed hiring. We regret any confusion.
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