No retraining for agriculture inspectors in border agency plan

Agriculture inspectors are not being retrained as part of a massive effort to create a single team of inspectors at U.S. ports of entry, an official with the Bureau of Customs and Border Protection (CBP) said Friday.

Marjorie Budd, CBP's assistant commissioner for training and development, said retraining activities so far have been confined to inspectors of the former Customs Service and Immigration and Naturalization Service. The border agency also inherited 2,300 inspectors from the Agriculture Department's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, but these agriculture inspectors are not being cross-trained, she said.

"This is an evolving thing, but right now they've not been asked to participate in the cross-training," she said in an interview with Government Executive. "It's strictly legacy INS and legacy Customs [inspectors]."

For decades, INS inspectors examined people entering the U.S., while Customs inspectors looked at goods and Agriculture inspectors checked animals and plants. In early September, Homeland Security officials unveiled a plan to turn Customs and INS inspectors into "CBP officers," who will inspect people and goods, and perform initial checks of agricultural products. Under the plan, known as the "One Face at the Border" initiative, agricultural inspectors will be known as "agriculture specialists," but their job duties will not change.

While new CBP officers will be trained at the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center (FLETC) in Glynco, Ga., agriculture specialists will continue to learn their trade at the Plant Protection and Quarantine Professional Development Center in Frederick, Md., according to Budd.

Some agriculture specialists will experience a change in salary. Under a decision announced last week by CBP Commissioner Robert Bonner, agriculture specialists may be paid the same as their Customs and INS counterparts. Until now, journeyman agriculture inspectors have been paid at the GS-9 level, but they will be eligible to become GS-11s, the same grade as INS and Customs inspectors, according to Budd.

Michael Randall, president of the National Association of Agriculture Employees, said inspectors have been told the promotions are noncompetitive, meaning they would not have to reapply to be GS-11s.

Cross-training for CBP officers already has begun at U.S. airports with international flights, according to Budd. She added that CBP officers would receive more agricultural training. "They're learning more about agriculture, in order to make better referral decisions to agriculture specialists," she said.

But farm groups and some members of Congress have questioned whether CBP officers will receive enough agricultural training. "We were told initially they would receive 15 hours of agriculture training, and then we were told there were negotiations to raise that, but we haven't seen anything in writing," said Caroline Rydell, director of congressional relations at the Farm Bureau. "We understand they'll be secondary agriculture specialists, but the first person to come into contact with a product needs to know if it needs a second look."

Randall said CBP officials, many of whom came from the old Customs Service, are learning about the importance of agriculture inspection.

"I believe in the beginning CBP thought it could turn all the agriculture staff here into Customs inspectors. Hand them a gun and send them to FLETC," he said. "Slowly but surely, we're educating people," he said.

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