Border Patrol to expedite training for Spanish speakers

Starting this October, Spanish-speaking Border Patrol recruits will spend less time in training, witnesses told members of a House subcommittee at a hearing Tuesday.

To get agents in the field faster, U.S. Customs and Border Protection will administer a Spanish language proficiency test to all trainees entering the Border Patrol Academy in Artesia, N.M. Those who pass will be able to skip the language component of basic training, allowing them to enter the field approximately 30 days earlier than non-Spanish speakers, said Richard Stana, director of homeland security and justice issues at the Government Accountability Office, in testimony before the House Homeland Security Subcommittee on Management, Investigations and Oversight.

The move will help the Border Patrol meet President Bush's goal of adding 6,000 agents by December 2008, a goal Border Patrol Academy Chief Charlie Whitmire said was entirely feasible.

Stana noted that Border Patrol officials have told him nearly half of their recruits are fluent in Spanish. "If your facilities are strained, it really doesn't make sense to keep people there longer than they need to be to take Spanish language training that they don't need," he said in an interview after the hearing.

The new policy will not detract from Spanish speakers' law enforcement training at the academy. "All current curriculum hours remain exactly the same," Whitmire said. "Not one hour is deleted from our current law enforcement curriculum - only Spanish is removed from that curriculum and taught separately."

While the implementation of the proficiency test will undoubtedly clear up space in the academy and get agents in the field faster, several witnesses questioned whether this was an unequivocally positive development.

Stana expressed concern about the Border Patrol's ability to train and mentor new agents once they reach the field.

"The real concern I have is how many experienced agents are going to be there to show them the ropes, to train them in what it takes to be a Border Patrol agent so you don't have these ethics gaps, so they do their job safely," Stana said after the hearing. "Right now in some of the busier sectors of the Southwest border, the experienced people only have a year and a half or two years, so you have rookies training rookies. That's worrisome."

According to several witnesses, in-the-field training goes beyond basics like firearms and apprehension techniques; the presence of a mentor and supervisor is crucial to prevent corruption.

"Every major police department that has undergone even less ambitious recruitment campaigns has suffered the consequence," said T.J. Bonner, president of the National Border Patrol Council of the American Federation of Government Employees. "Corruption has increased, officers have been poorly trained and the level of confidence the public has in that department has decreased dramatically. I don't want to see the same thing to happen in the United States Border Patrol."

According to Stana, U.S. intelligence reports indicate that drug cartels are attempting to recruit people with clean records to apply to the Border Patrol. He said he fears that a surge of new agents in the field could mean some with bad intentions would slip through the cracks.

"What we've seen in past ramp-ups like this is we get a few bad apples in the Border Patrol corps, and if we don't have the proper supervision to identify these bad apples and get them out of that barrel as soon as we can, we're going to get ourselves into trouble," Stana said.

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