US Border Patrol, overwhelmed in Texas, turns to agents in quiet areas for help using webcams

Elliot Spagat / The Associated Press
June 29, 2014 09:35 AM

In this June 5, 2014 photo, a Border Patrol agent uses a headset and computer to conduct a long distance interview by video with a person arrested crossing the border in Texas, from a facility in San Diego. Hit with a dramatic increase of Central Americans crossing in South Texas, the Border Patrol is relieving staffing woes by enlisting agents in less busy sectors to process arrests through video interviews. (AP Photo/Gregory Bull)

SAN DIEGO - The computer screens are in San Diego but they show downcast faces 1,500 miles (2,400 kilometres) away at a Border Patrol station in McAllen, Texas: a 20-year old Honduran woman arrested 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 up to an hour on each adult and even longer on children. On an average day, hundreds of migrants are questioned on camera by agents in San Diego and other stations on the U.S.-Mexico border.

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.

One example of the staffing mismatch: the roughly 2,500 agents in the San Diego sector arrested 97 immigrants illegally crossing the border on June 14, according to an internal document reviewed by The Associated Press. On the same day, the roughly 3,200 agents further east in the Rio Grande Valley made 1,422 arrests.

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 on Monday, 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 on July 7. Whether any funds will go toward border staffing is unknown.

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.

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.

Some warn against bulking up in South Texas because smuggling routes will inevitably change along the 1,954-mile (3,144-kilometre) border.

"They don't want to transfer a mass amount of agents and open a gap somewhere else where we have control," said David Aguilar, the Border Patrol chief from 2004 to 2010.

Forced transfers must be negotiated with the National Border Patrol Council, the union which represents agents, and have not happened on a large scale.

The Border Patrol can move agents for 35 days — longer by mutual agreement — but those temporary assignments are expensive. More than 100 agents were sent to Rio Grande Valley this spring for short stays.

Voluntary transfers were an option but have not been used widely in South Texas. The Border Patrol began a campaign about 10 years ago, partly aimed at boosting morale, to offer more transfers if agents moved themselves. And, as agents quit or retire, the vast majority of new hires who replace them are now assigned to Rio Grande Valley.

The Border Patrol introduced video processing in El Paso in April 2013 to address the surge in Rio Grande Valley, where most border crossers are from Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala and many are unaccompanied children. It expanded the processing to El Centro, California, in March, and to San Diego last month.

Costs are not an issue with video processing. Headsets and cameras are $70 apiece, and it's a small sacrifice to supervisors.

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," Rodriguez said in his new office, whose parking lot offers sweeping views of hillside homes in Tijuana, Mexico.

___

Associated Press writer Christopher Sherman in McAllen, Texas, contributed to this report.


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