Border agent questions post-9/11 spike in staff at U.S.'s north

McClatchy NewspapersSeptember 11, 2011 

The U.S./Canada border crossing at Blaine, Washington, in 2001.

DEAN RUTZ/SEATTLE TIMES/MCT

WASHINGTON — On Sept. 10, 2001, only four border patrol agents worked in Port Angeles, Wash., a picturesque coastal town on the northern edge of the Olympic Peninsula. Now more than 40 are stationed there, and soon 50 could be housed in a new $5.7 million building that will include a fitness center and dog kennels.

But Christian Sanchez, an agent at Port Angeles for the past two years and a former chaplain, says there's one big problem: There are no terrorists to apprehend, and the agents don't have much to do.

"When I arrived at my station, there was rarely any casework to be done, if at all, so I just roved ... wasting gasoline," Sanchez told a congressional panel recently. "Today this has not changed and there still is rarely any casework to do, if any, and we agents are bored."

Ten years after foreign terrorists crashed airplanes into the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon just outside Washington, D.C., the number of U.S. Border Patrol agents has more than doubled, and nowhere has the rate of growth been faster than on the 4,000-mile northern border.

Even though the border has accounted for less than 2 percent of the Border Patrol's apprehensions since 2001, the size of its staff has jumped from 340 to 2,263 in the past decade, more than a sixfold increase.

The growth has been accompanied by roughly a 40 percent drop in apprehensions in the past 10 years, which proponents cite as proof of success.

But Sanchez's testimony is raising questions of whether the federal government may have gone overboard.

The agent has set off a firestorm since he took his story to a congressional committee in late July, with members of Congress promising to investigate. He became angry, he said, when he was ordered to claim overtime even though he wasn't doing the work.

Sanchez, an agent since 2003, said he'd worked on the southern border until September 2009, where he was "very busy, doing the real, important work" to protect the country. But he said all of that changed when he moved his family from San Diego to Washington state.

"Since there is no casework, instead there is micromanagement of everything and everyone," Sanchez said in his testimony. "That's what keeps the station busy."

He added: "The worst fraud on taxpayers is that we are getting paid overtime not to work."

Sanchez depicts a picture vastly different from that of a congressional study released earlier this year, which found that only 32 miles of the border with Canada — less than 1 percent — was fully secured, possibly making the situation more dangerous than the U.S.-Mexico border.

Sanchez said he was stripped of his duties as a chaplain as retaliation for speaking out. Border Patrol officials have declined to discuss specifics of the case.

While federal officials are saying little, Washington state Democratic U.S. Rep. Norm Dicks and the state's senators — Democrats Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell — want to know what's going on. Representatives from their offices planned to meet with top Border Patrol officials last Thursday in Washington.

"I don't want to prejudge, but it sounds like they might have a few more people there than they need. ... They might want to reassign some of these people," said Dicks, the top-ranked Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee.

Tensions flared earlier this summer when an illegal immigrant jumped into a river and died while trying to avoid capture by a border patrol agent in the small town of Forks, Wash., best known as the fictional home of the vampires and werewolves young adult book saga "Twilight." The area includes a significant immigrant community working in the local timber industry.

In Port Angeles, a group called Stop the Checkpoints has been picketing the construction of the new Border Patrol station, complaining that too many agents have been disrupting the community.

Addressing reporters at a breakfast in Washington in late August, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said she was satisfied with staffing on the northern border.

"You've got to cover a lot of miles, most of which are very sparsely populated," said Napolitano, who oversees the Border Patrol agency. "And then you've got the Washington area, and you've got the area in Detroit, and then you've got the East Coast ports. So you've got these big areas — a lot of trade, a lot of commerce go back and forth. And then you've got these huge areas of almost uninhabited territory. So how do you deal with that? It's manpower but a greater reliance on technology as well."

She said Congress was involved in determining staffing levels at the border.

"It's written into our immigration bill," she said. "So we try to deploy them where they are best used, and that changes over from year to year."

Indeed it does.

Consider the Border Patrol's Blaine, Wash., sector in the state's northwestern tip, one of the agency's 20 sectors nationwide: In 2001, there were 48 border patrol agents in the Blaine sector. That number has risen to 327 today, nearly a sevenfold increase. As recently as 2008, there were 182 agents there.

Up until the late 1990s, crossing the border from Canada was fairly routine. But security became a top concern when Ahmed Ressam, an Algerian, was arrested in Port Angeles in December 1999 after he drove off a ferry from British Columbia with bomb-making materials in his trunk. He was convicted of plotting to blow up the Los Angeles Airport on the eve of the millennium.

The Patriot Act, which Congress passed in 2001 as one of the first responses to the 9/11 terrorist attacks, called for adding 10,000 border patrol agents. Since then, the size of the force has doubled to more than 20,000.

At the same time, Congress increased funding for the Border Patrol from $1.06 billion in 2000 to $3.6 billion last year, according to the Congressional Research Service.

Some fear that all that added security has hindered business along the northern border, by making it more difficult to cross.

Democratic U.S. Rep. Rick Larsen, who represents a border district in Washington state, said his district benefited greatly from cross-border traffic, adding that the "economic engine of trade is an important part of our lives here."

Since Sanchez went public with his story, Border Patrol officials have been going to community meetings, trying to assure citizens that the agency has plenty to do to keep its workers busy.

Richard Sinks, a spokesman for the Blaine sector, said his office "could always use more agents."

"The agents here have a job to do," Sinks said. "And the more agents we have, the safer we'd be."

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McClatchy Newspapers 2011

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