LAT: Border Patrol facing mass resignations under Homeland Security takeover
- Border Patrol facing mass resignations under Homeland Security takeover
By H.G. Reza, LA Times Staff Writer
SAN DIEGO -- Border Patrol morale here has hit a low, with agents leaving
in significant numbers. Union officials predict an even greater wave of
resignations nationwide after March 1, when the agency becomes part of the
new Department of Homeland Security.
Agents and Border Patrol union officials said the new department's
personnel rules have raised concern within the 78-year-old law enforcement
agency, causing some agents to start looking elsewhere for jobs.
Officials promised that there will be no job changes within the first year,
but after that agents will work under the broad authority Congress granted
President Bush and Department of Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge to
hire, fire and reassign employees. Bush argued for the special powers,
despite vehement opposition from congressional Democrats, because he said
he needs greater control of employees to protect the nation against future
Leaders of the new agency insisted that competent employees will have job
security. However, Dennis Murphy, spokesman for the new department's Border
and Transportation Security agency, which will include Border Patrol
agents, acknowledged the shift to new management is causing "rampant"
anxiety among employees.
"People don't have answers. They may not get answers for a week or a month,
but we're working on getting them the information they want," said Murphy,
who added that the department has been operating less than a month. "Rather
than react to rumor, let's work this out together."
Ridge has told employees that he will do all he can to reassure them.
"Our job is to make sure you're focused on homeland security, not job
security," Ridge has said at employee meetings, according to Murphy.
A yet-to-be-established pay structure for the department also has agents
worried about pay cuts, mostly in overtime and premium pay. Furthering the
anxiety is the new administration's unwillingness to assure workers that
their pay will not be cut. However, Murphy said that, because of a shortage
of agents at the border that overtime pay is likely to remain in place.
But Border Patrol union leaders said they need more answers.
"What's going to happen after March 1, 2004? Nobody knows. I've made
inquiries, but I've been stonewalled at every bend of the road," said T.J.
Bonner, president of the National Border Patrol Council, which represents
about 9,000 agents. "We expressed our concern that people may leave in
Border Patrol Associate Chief Steve Mangino said the agency's overall
attrition rate was "markedly up," by 18%, last year. About 750 agents left
to join the Transportation Security Administration, another agency of the
Department of Homeland Security.
However, Mangino emphasized that the 10,200 agents now on the job represent
the largest number ever and that 1,500 applicants are under consideration.
"I've seen nothing to indicate there will be a mass exodus," he said.
Job cuts are also unlikely, he added. "In the current environment of
homeland security, it would be premature to talk about reducing the number
Homeland Security officials have not seen any signs that a large number of
Border Patrol agents will quit after March 1, said spokesman Murphy.
"To be sure, there's melancholy. But we're moving ahead," he said. "I don't
know what basis of fact they have for saying there might be a lot of
Nevertheless, resignations in the Border Patrol's San Diego Sector are
averaging about 30 or 40 agents per month, said Joseph N. Dassaro, a
National Border Patrol Council official. About 100 agents quit in a
two-month period last summer, Dassaro said.
Border Patrol managers in San Diego did not dispute the union's figures.
But they refused to provide comparable figures for other periods. Instead,
spokeswoman Gloria Chavez said the attrition rate for the San Diego Sector
in fiscal year 2001 was 12.6%. For fiscal year 2002, which began the month
after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the attrition rate was 20%.
Dassaro said the high cost of housing in San Diego County is partly to
blame for the departures, but "more and more agents are quitting because
they've received no assurances about the future." Some have been hired by
other law enforcement agencies, where their bilingual skills are valued,
while others have entered the private sector, he said.
Thane Gallagher, a six-year veteran, said he has interviewed with one
police agency and is awaiting the results of a background check from another.
Homeland Security officials "aren't giving us any answers," he said. "I've
got to look out for my family and do what's best for them."
The loss of experienced agents hurts enforcement efforts, said Chris Bader,
another union official. "The experience level keeps dropping, and we're
starting to lose institutional memory at the border. What you're going to
have is new agents training new agents."
Except for union officials, agents interviewed for this article declined to
talk on the record, fearing retaliation from Border Patrol or Homeland
For now, most expressed doubts about the new department's ability to
protect the nation's borders. The common complaint is that the Department
of Homeland Security is promising more for the border than it can deliver.
Many agents believe they need reinforcements to secure the border, but they
predicted it will be hard to add more agents as long as Border Patrol pay
lags behind that of other law enforcement agencies.
Nonsupervisory agents earn between $37,000 and $51,000 a year.
Murphy said Ridge has vowed "to ensure pay-grade parity."
Bonner, the Border Patrol union's national president, said another problem
hamstringing the agency is the failure of the CIA and FBI to share
information about threats and suspected terrorists.
"They have secret watch lists, which they don't share with us. It's
amazing, and it's scary. We have this super-agency to combat terrorism, but
the FBI and CIA aren't part of it," Bonner said.
The union's Dassaro said no one from the new department has asked for the
agents' input about what needs to be done to secure the nation's borders.
"The best source of information about homeland security at the border is
from the agents. And nobody's asked them. It's demoralizing," he said.
Bonner said he began noticing the dismay in the ranks last July, after
White House press secretary Ari Fleischer used the hypothetical example of
a drunken Border Patrol agent to press Bush's demand that Congress give him
authority to promptly fire incompetent employees of the new department.
Otherwise, Fleischer told reporters, a Border Patrol agent "found to be
intoxicated on the job and lets a potential terrorist into the country"
could not be fired without 30-day notice. Fleischer later praised the job
done by the Border Patrol.
Bonner said Border Patrol agents read "Fleischer's remarks as a sign that
this administration doesn't have a high opinion of our job as the first
line of defense for this country." It was then, he said, that "a lot of
people began to worry about their futures in Homeland Security."
The anxiety was apparent at a November meeting of the union's Local 1613 in
San Diego, home to the largest concentration of Border Patrol agents in the
United States. The union meeting occurred as provisions of the bill that
created the department were being completed. Bush signed the measure into
law Nov. 25.
"There were around 80 agents at the meeting. When someone asked for a show
of hands of those looking for jobs, every hand went up," said Dassaro, a
Border Patrol agent and Local 1613 president.
The Border Patrol is an arm of the Immigration and Naturalization Service,
which operates under the U.S. Justice Department. On March 1, the INS will
be among the first of 22 federal agencies transferred to the Department of
Former Drug Enforcement Administration Director Asa Hutchinson will head
the department's Border and Transportation Security agency, which will
include the INS, Customs Service, Federal Protective Service and
Transportation Security Administration.
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