Retention Blues

Why is the Border Patrol losing an increasing number of agents?

The ad begins: "You value freedom, but you know there is a price."

Odds are whoever penned that recruiting plug for the U.S. Border Patrol wasn't aiming for irony. But irony was achieved, nonetheless--considering that the agency is bleeding agents who won't pay the price of long hours working in hot, remote locations, for less money than employees of other federal agencies make.

Not that the Border Patrol doesn't have its charms. Enviable federal benefits is one. Job security is another: With a presidential mandate to add nearly 6,000 new agents by the end of 2008--reaching a total of 18,000 Border Patrol agents on the job--few will be handed their walking papers anytime soon.

Still, the agency is struggling to maintain manpower levels, in the face of attrition rates among new hires that steadily top 30 percent.

Many blame the problem on false--or at least misleading--advertising for new recruits.

"The agency could and should do a much better job of preparing people for what to actually expect," says T.J. Bonner, president of the National Border Patrol Council, a union representing roughly 9,000 agents. "Instead, they show a glitzy recruiting video, where you see people repelling out of helicopters and riding ATVs and horses and things. You think, 'Boy, that looks like fun.' Then you actually get out there, and they say, 'Oh, we don't have those anymore, and besides, you wouldn't be eligible to apply for those specialty units until you've been on the job for a few years.'"

But Border Patrol spokesman Jason Ciliberti, based in Washington, D.C., says his agency gives recruits the real deal. "We try to make sure that people are informed as to what the job is going to be like. We try to have agents available to talk to (the recruits), to let them know what to expect down the line."

Ciliberti also suggests that the attrition rates aren't particularly surprising, all things considered. "Any law-enforcement agency with that big of a workforce is going to have that kind of turnover," he says, "especially with people leaving and moving on to other things, or with people retiring."

Still, the departures are a steady drain in time and money. And they're increasing: The overall attrition rate for this fiscal year is 10.9 percent, compared to 9.6 percent last year, and only 6.7 percent in fiscal year 2006.

According to Ciliberti, the 30 percent attrition rate among new recruits includes those who never show up at the academy, or drop out partway through training. The rest quit during their first year of on-the-job internship. "But after that first year, (the attrition rate) drops very dramatically," he says.

With so many first-timers leaving, however, the agency finds itself in a constant recruiting mode, and training new hires at a cost of more than $15,000 each. "It's tremendously expensive," says Bonner. "You certainly need to look at the money spent on recruiting efforts (like) having agents travel around the country and put on presentations."

Then comes the learning curve, as new agents slowly become proficient. "For the first year or two years, you're not getting a lot of work out of them, because they're in a training mode," he says. "It really takes 18 to 24 months before people are really ready to be out there on their own and be effective."

But even as the agency scrambles for fresh blood, manpower rates in the Tucson Sector have remained healthy, with a staff of 3,200, says spokesman Mike Scioli. "I've been in for the past five years, and we have more agents now than we've ever had before."

Scioli says the national dropout rates "are just the nature of the beast. We're work out in the desert. We cover over 90,000 square miles, and we're trained for situations where a single agent by himself will handle anywhere from 10 to 15 people at a time. If you wanted to have a job where there was a little more comfort, maybe Border Patrol isn't the right choice."

Adjusting to new geography is another challenge for new agents, Scioli says. "Moving from their hometown, say, New York or Chicago, and then coming to live in Sonoita or Nogales, it's a big change."

It's also a change Scioli knows well; originally from Buffalo, N.Y., he remembers the difficulty of leaving everything behind. "The hard part is that I came out here with no family," he says. "The only people I had to rely on were my brothers and sisters in the Border Patrol. Holidays were lonely, and being the new guy in the agency, you never had the opportunity to go back home for the holidays. It was definitely an adjustment."

Bonner says agents who bring their families along have a tough time as well. "They get posted in some very remote places, and maybe the school systems aren't what they're used to. Then, when you have to drive 100 miles in one direction to get to the closest department store, that puts a strain on things, particularly with today's gasoline prices. Very soon after they come on, they start looking for greener pastures."

Another factor behind high attrition rates, says Bonner, is that the agency is under such pressure to hire new agents. As a result, he believes that applicants aren't screened scrupulously enough. "They're not doing the proper background investigation. It's very wasteful when you have nearly a third of the people leaving within the first 18 months."

But even with that massive hiring directive from the Bush administration, Ciliberti says the agency is ably handling the surge. "We've put in a really robust program of training and retention. We're under that mandate to do it, and we're taking the proper steps to do it correctly. We think we're turning out a good quality of agent that's ready to do the job at hand."

But Bonner remains skeptical. For example, he cites a recent incident when a smuggler was stopped--and found to have Border Patrol recruiting materials in his car. Such incidents illustrate that the agency may be casting its net too wide in search of new bodies, he says.

"Quite frankly, no law-enforcement agency is capable of absorbing that many people in such a short period of time. They've lowered the standards both in background checks and in training--and it's a recipe for disaster."