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LAT: Border Patrol facing mass resignations under Homeland Security takeover

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  • SIUHIN@aol.com
    Border Patrol facing mass resignations under Homeland Security takeover By H.G. Reza, LA Times Staff Writer 02-09-03 SAN DIEGO -- Border Patrol morale here has
    Message 1 of 1 , Feb 10, 2003
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      Border Patrol facing mass resignations under Homeland Security takeover
      By H.G. Reza, LA Times Staff Writer
      02-09-03

      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
      terrorist attacks.

      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
      large numbers."

      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
      of agents."

      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
      resignations."

      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
      Security administrators.

      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
      Homeland Security.

      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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