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Border Squeeze-Play 

A move to streamline security with cross-training has some officials worried

Humanity streams endlessly through the twin ports of Nogales, a northbound torrent numbering some 1.4 million faces each month. In turn, these shoppers, travelers and truckers are now greeted by a single visage: America's complex border security boiled down to one inspector who checks all bags, passports, visas, fruits and vegetables.

This is called, aptly, "One Face at the Border," and touted as streamlining by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. Under the new policy, about 18,000 former customs inspectors, agricultural inspectors and immigration inspectors--all within the new Customs and Border Protection agency, and further squeezed into the DHS--have been consolidated into a single position.

And that's a recipe for disaster, says Charles Showalter, a DHS inspector and president of the National Homeland Security Council. His group represents 22,000 former immigration inspectors, and is affiliated with the American Federation of Government Employees. "DHS and this policy of One Face at the Border are doing a great disservice to the American public," Showalter says. "It dilutes the skills necessary to do all three jobs effectively. Ultimately, it's reducing the agency's ability to effectively control our ports of entry and borders."

TJ Bonner agrees. He heads the National Border Patrol Council, another AFGE affiliate. "In essence, (the government) has created jacks of all trades, and masters of none," he says. While the Border Patrol is officially included in One Face, its agents still operate much as before, since they don't work at ports with other border officials. "We haven't been merged into the same uniform as the rest of the Customs and Border Protection officers, like they did with customs, immigration and agriculture inspectors," says Bonner.

Showalter's folks aren't so lucky. Under this consolidation, he says, the six months of basic training officers formerly received in their respective roles "has been reduced to 71 days." But when inspectors complain that they're unprepared to protect the ports, their higher-ups "have responded with words like 'acceptable risk,'" Showalter says. "They've actually called acceptable risk a cost of doing business."

In addition, DHS has seen cross-training delays, often due to short funding and instructional materials. Consolidation under DHS also includes "streamlined" labor relations, says Showalter. Employees likewise have new job classifications and pay scales. Ultimately, he says, it's a push to cut labor costs by extracting more work from officers. "They are telling officers, 'Move faster, move faster--but God help you if you make a mistake, because we're going to ding you for it.'"

Meanwhile, the grievance process within the department has been stifled. Under the DHS, "we don't have any external boards to take our grievances to," he says. "It's all internal. So the agency is the complainant, the agency is the judge, jury, witness and executioner."

Those resisting the new plan are history, according to CBP Commissioner Robert Bonner. "My intention is to shoot the stragglers," the commissioner reportedly told a September 2003 town hall gathering in Chicago.

Attempts to interview such "stragglers" in Southern Arizona were unsuccessful--for obvious reasons, says Showalter. "Right now, the agency is doing everything they can to go after anybody who talks to the press about this."

But Leticia Kirkpatrick, a CBP spokeswoman in Nogales, says most of the wrinkles in One Face have been smoothed. "Overall, the (officers) have all been cross-trained in each other's responsibilities. The legacy inspectors (those dating from before the consolidation) have been cross-trained. And training in new classes has been expanded to cover all areas."

She calls the cross-training "a nice opportunity," adding that "everyone is working together." In this arrangement, the legacy inspectors are vital "for their knowledge." And despite delays, she says that all of the training is complete for the existing officers.

As for the ability of new inspectors to wear three hats, "You would be surprised," Kirkpatrick says. "All of them have received extensive training that includes classroom training, manuals. And once again, there's nothing like having the actual expert (legacy officers)" on hand.

Others call that cold comfort. "As time goes on, the chickens are going to come home to roost," when those specialists in the former agencies retire or move on, says TJ Bonner. "Then the real problem is going to emerge, when these folks who have only had very generalized training" are expected to do detailed inspections.

For example, inspectors coming from the other divisions aren't experienced with immigration law's intricacies, says Showalter, who was with the former Immigration and Naturalization Service. "This is not customs, where we're collecting tariffs and duties, stopping smuggling operations and counterfeit goods. Enforcing the Immigration and Naturalization Act is a very controversial, emotionally charged task. And it's dynamic--immigration laws change on a regular basis. Officers charged with enforcing it have to be on top of it. And customs officers with the DHS are not prepared to enforce the INA."

In turn, innocent people are hurt when those new officers stumble, according to Tucson immigration attorney Vikram Badrinath. He says inexperienced officers have mistakenly detained his clients, and even begun deportation proceedings against them. "That person can lose their job or be detained for several months fighting their case. Then when those cases finally arrive at an immigration court proceeding, you find that a lot of times, the charging (documents) are incorrect, requiring that the case be terminated or be recharged. It wastes government resources and everyone's time."

One Face has also devastated morale, as CBP officers are forced into rapidly expanding responsibilities. According to an AFGE survey conducted in August, 53 percent of polled border officers think the effects of One Face are negative. And 64 percent despair over inadequate support--the support they need to protect the nation from criminals and terrorists.

Those numbers don't surprise Charles Showalter. "But I'll tell you," he says, "whatever is considered an 'acceptable risk' by the yahoo who's telling me to move faster, move faster, it probably isn't the same acceptable risk that I have. This is about my job, my reputation, and my ability to look myself in the mirror in the morning."

More by Tim Vanderpool

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