Rising INS attrition rates could threaten border security

The attrition rate among Border Patrol agents and immigration inspectors continues to climb and could stymie efforts to improve border security, a union leader told a House panel Wednesday.

The Immigration and Naturalization Service is losing Border Patrol agents and immigration inspectors at a staggering rate because of low pay and job dissatisfaction, according to T.J. Bonner, president of the National Border Patrol Council, which is part of the American Federation of Government Employees.

The attrition rate for Border Patrol agents has risen from 10 percent last year to 14 percent now and is expected to hit 20 percent by the end of fiscal 2002, Bonner said. Among immigration inspectors, the current attrition rate of 10 percent could reach 15 percent by the end of the year, he said.

"No organization can be expected to effectively carry out its mission while losing so many experienced personnel," Bonner told members of a House Government Reform Subcommittee on Criminal Justice, Drug Policy and Human Resources at a hearing that focused on securing the nation's borders without impeding trade. The INS currently employs slightly more than 4,700 immigration inspectors and 9,800 Border Patrol agents. Between October 2001 and January 2002, the INS lost 102 Border Patrol agents to other federal agencies.

Border Patrol agents and immigration inspectors at the GS-9 level are typically paid between $35,000 and $45,000, about $25,000 less than many of their federal counterparts in law enforcement, Bonner said.

Some Border Patrol agents are unsatisfied with their work and are applying for jobs as sky marshals with the new Transportation Security Administration (TSA). The agency's current strategy for securing the nation's borders often forces agents to sit in the same position along the border for long periods of time, Bonner said.

Bonner estimated that one out of every four Border Patrol agents will leave for the sky marshal program at TSA by the end of the year. "As limited federal dollars are being committed to new border security initiatives, some of those funds must be directed toward keeping these experienced employees on the job," he said.

INS Commissioner James Ziglar also lamented the "troubling" attrition rate among Border Patrol agents and immigration inspectors at a House Judiciary Committee hearing Tuesday. "We are getting picked off by other federal agencies," he said.

The 2002 Enhanced Border Security and Visa Entry Reform Act includes a provision that would increase the pay level of Border Patrol agents and immigration inspectors. The bill would raise their basic pay from the GS-9 to GS-11 level.

The Bush administration's proposed fiscal 2003 budget calls for hiring another 570 Border Patrol agents and 1,150 immigration inspectors next year. The INS currently is hiring immigration inspectors and Border Patrol agents, and has received thousands of applications for the positions since October.

But recruiting new hires does not solve the problem of keeping experienced employees, Bonner said. "The biggest problem is retention, not recruitment."

And the problems at the INS "will not be solved by moving boxes around on an organizational chart or enhancing technology," Bonner said, referring to administrative and legislative proposals to split the agency into two separate service and enforcement bureaus. Although Bonner supported separating the agency's service and enforcement functions, he joined National Treasury Employees Union President Colleen Kelley in criticizing proposals to consolidate agencies such as the INS and Customs Service into a single border security agency.

"Consolidating these three organizations would cause logistical and institutional chaos," said Kelley, whose union represents more than 12,000 Customs Service employees. "Each of these agency's missions are unique and should remain in their current structure."

Lawmakers, including Sen. Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn. and Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, support the creation of a separate homeland security agency that would oversee day-to-day operations and consolidate the Customs Service, the Coast Guard and the Border Patrol. Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge hinted in February that the Bush administration is getting closer to endorsing a plan that would create a single border security agency. Currently, more than 40 federal agencies are responsible for border security.

Advocates of consolidation argue that housing the major border security agencies under one roof would increase information-sharing and accountability.