Border Patrol staffing mismatch

Shifting migration patterns tax agents

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SAN DIEGO -- The downcast faces on computer screens are 1,500 miles away at a Border Patrol station in McAllen, Texas: a 20-year old Honduran woman arrested while rafting across the Rio Grande and a 23-year-old man caught under similar circumstances.

Four agents wearing headsets reel through a list of personal questions, spending as much as an hour on each adult and even longer on children. On an average day, agents in San Diego and other stations on the U.S.-Mexico border question hundreds of migrants on camera.

The long-distance interviews -- introduced last year in El Paso, Texas, and extended to California -- are a response to the dramatic increase of Central Americans crossing the border in Texas that also has flooded immigration facilities with hundreds of women and children. The Border Patrol does not have the staff to process all the immigrants crossing in the Rio Grande Valley, but faraway colleagues have time to spare.

The remote video processing reveals a perpetual predicament that has long bedeviled the Border Patrol. Many agents wind up stationed in places where crossing activity is slowest because the Border Patrol struggles to keep up with constantly shifting migration patterns.

President Barack Obama will ask Congress for more than $2 billion to respond to the flood of immigrants illegally entering the U.S. through the Rio Grande Valley and for new powers to deal with returning unaccompanied children, a White House official said Saturday. A letter will be sent to Congress today, said the official who was not authorized to speak by name and discussed the requests on condition of anonymity. The exact amount and how it will be spent will come after Congress returns from recess next Monday. Whether any funds will go toward border staffing is unknown.

In San Diego, the video processing is a welcome change of pace.

Arrests are at 45-year lows, and many agents go entire shifts without finding anyone. Cesar Rodriguez, who joined the Border Patrol in 2010, said eight hours fly by since he gave up his assignment watching a stretch of scrub-covered hills east of San Diego and took on a new assignment to process the immigrants via video.

"If there's nothing going on, what are you going to do? You're just staring at the fence," Mr. Rodriguez said in his new office, whose parking lot offers sweeping views of hillside homes in Tijuana, Mexico.

A few feet away, Victor Nunez says he interviewed a woman carrying a 4-month-old child and spent his last shift working on a group of 93 people that crossed the Rio Grande at once. Such activity was unheard of on his overnight shift patrolling the quiet mountains near San Diego.

"I feel like we're helping out our agents," said Mr. Nunez, who joined the Border Patrol in 2011. "It's a big problem going on there."

The McAllen station is designed to hold a few hundred people but often teems with more than 1,000 who spill into hallways and outside. Migrants have been sent to stations in quieter parts of Texas, and they were overwhelmed.

Overcrowding at the Laredo station prompted a visit from the fire marshal last month.

The shift to the Rio Grande Valley is part of a long-running trend where immigrants and smugglers change crossing locations faster than the government responds.

San Diego was the hot spot until the mid-1990s, when 1,000 agents were added there.

After traffic moved to Arizona, staffing in Tucson ballooned under President George W. Bush, who doubled the Border Patrol close to its current size of more than 21,000 agents.



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