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Many border agents quit because of working conditions

‘You’re constantly in a recruiting mode’

U.S. Border Patrol agent Kate Griffith puts on her bulletproof vest at the start of her shift at the Imperial Beach Border Patrol Station on Aug. 6 in Imperial Beach, Calif.  Griffith has been a Border Patrol agent for little over 20 months. The sobering reality of life on the border has created an environment in which about 30 percent of agents leave the agency in less than 18 months.

U.S. Border Patrol agent Kate Griffith puts on her bulletproof vest at the start of her shift at the Imperial Beach Border Patrol Station on Aug. 6 in Imperial Beach, Calif. Griffith has been a Border Patrol agent for little over 20 months. The sobering reality of life on the border has created an environment in which about 30 percent of agents leave the agency in less than 18 months.

IMPERIAL BEACH, Calif. – Law enforcement officers wanted: must work graveyard shifts alone in remote towns along the Mexican border, put in long hours and perform well in triple-digit temperatures.

That message is never touted in U.S. Border Patrol recruitment brochures, but the sobering reality of working on the border has created an environment in which about 30 percent of agents leave their jobs in less than 18 months.

“This has complications up and down the line,” said Richard Stana, director of homeland security issues at the Government Accountability Office. “You’re constantly in a recruiting mode . . . If this population keeps churning, you’re constantly training.”

The Border Patrol’s struggle to keep new hires has become more evident as the agency comes close to meeting President Bush’s target of 18,000 agents by the end of the year, up from 12,000 two years ago and double the number from eight years ago. The hiring surge means 42 percent of agents have less than three years on the job.

The GAO estimates that taxpayers pay $14,700 for each trainee at the Border Patrol Academy in Artesia, N.M. That 2006 figure doesn’t take into account the many additional hours that senior agents spend training hires during a two-year probationary period.

Money aside, a revolving door means a large percentage of the force will always be inexperienced.

“You’ve got to fill the slots, but you want quality people who are not going to leave,” said Jeremy Wilson, associate director of RAND Corp.’s Center for Quality Policing. “You don’t want to spend time and resources on someone if they’re just going to up and leave.”

About 20 percent of Border Patrol employees fail to graduate from the academy, which lasts up to 95 days for trainees who need to learn Spanish. More leave after returning to their stations.

The attrition rate for entry-level agents – generally those who have been on the job for 18 months or less – is 29.6 percent since October, up from 23.7 percent during the previous 12-month period and 22.7 percent the year before, the agency said.

Senior agents tend to stay put, but the growing number of newcomers has raised the Border Patrol’s overall attrition rate to 10.9 percent since October from 9.6 percent during the previous 12-month period and 6.7 percent the year before.

Democratic Rep. Loretta Sanchez of California said the attrition rate signals a need to slow hiring.

“The solution is to give the (Border Patrol) chief a bit of breathing space to find the right recruits,” she said.

Border Patrol officials said they are not bothered. They insist the agency’s growth has made it easier to get promoted and more likely that new hires will get to pick where they want to work along the Mexican border.

“In any job or any career, the first year or two you’re learning whether it’s for you,” Assistant Chief Michael Olsen said.

The Border Patrol warns recruits that their first assignments are often in small, isolated towns, some with poor schools and medical care. The heat can be stifling in places such as Calexico, Calif., where the average daily high temperature is 104 degrees in July.

Some recruits get homesick. New hires must work on the Mexican border. After two years, they can seek transfers to the Canadian border or to Washington, D.C., but competition for those jobs can be fierce.

“If you’re from Kansas, you’re not going home,” said Quinn Palmer, a Border Patrol spokesman in El Centro, Calif.

Mike Fisher, the Border Patrol’s San Diego sector chief, had never been west of Cleveland when he got his first assignment in Douglas, Ariz. He was warned about the heat and the long drive to Phoenix, but no words could have prepared him.

“It’s a huge culture shock,” he said.

The high cost of living is a drawback in San Diego. A Border Patrol agent starts at $36,658 a year, though overtime can improve pay up to 25 percent. After three years, pay can climb to about $70,000 a year, including overtime.

Boredom is another job hazard. Agents in Imperial Beach wait alone in parked Jeeps and pickups, waiting for migrants to jump the border fence and make a run for the nearest patch of stores and homes.

Darin Bowdin of Sacramento, who joined the station in October 2006, wants to be promoted to a special unit – like all-terrain vehicles, horseback, boat patrol or SWAT-style teams – but those jobs are off-limits until he finishes two years.

Kate Griffith applied at the FBI and the Drug Enforcement Administration but lacked experience, so she joined the Border Patrol in January 2007 after hearing a radio ad.

Recruiters are going to extraordinary lengths to find applicants. New television ads show agents jumping out of a helicopter, climbing over boulders and sitting on galloping horses.

In September alone, the agency will hold job fairs from Honolulu to Charleston, S.C. It is sponsoring NASCAR and professional bull riding contests. Specialized teams focus on hiring women and African-Americans.

The Imperial Beach station has grown to 400 agents from 300 since October, with more than 40 percent having less than 2 1/2 years at the agency. Of the 100 newest hires, 20 have left, most before finishing training.

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