US Border Patrol agents get help with custody work, and are back in the field
San Diego Dozens, if not hundreds, of immigrant asylum seekers often wait hours to surrender to US Border Patrol agents, but the thousands of Haitians gathered at a bridge in the small Texas border town of Del Rio may be unprecedented and point to a glaring problem with the federal police force.
Rather than patrolling and detecting smuggling activity, his agents spend about 40% of their time caring for people already in custody and administrative tasks unrelated to border security.
The agency hopes to free agents back into the field by hiring civilians for jobs such as making sure microwaved burritos are served properly, checking holding cells and time-consuming work gathering information for immigration court papers.
The Border Patrol graduated its first batch of Process Coordinators in January, aiming to eventually hire 1,200. The position requires less training from law enforcement officers and pays less. It is also seen as a recruitment tool for an agency that struggles to find qualified applicants, especially women.
While it is too early to tell if the new hires will succeed as hoped, initial reviews of the hiring plan are generally favorable. Their skills will be in great demand as US authorities respond to the suddenly arriving Haitians and other large groups of new arrivals.
“This is a very, very, very good program,” said Brandon Good, president of the National Frontier Patrol Council, a labor union that represents many of about 20,000 clients. “It is a program that will allow us to get more clients in the field.”
US Representative Nanette Barrajan, a Democrat from Los Angeles, told members of the second graduating class in June that they are “pioneers.” She saw the need for their skills in April while visiting a detention facility in Texas’s Rio Grande Valley, the busiest passage for illegal crossings from Mexico to the United States.
Bargan said the unaccompanied children were held at the facility for several days, unable to contact their parents. “The clients were working around the clock to deal with the kids quickly, but they needed help,” she told the graduate students.
The need is especially high during periodic hikes at the US-Mexico border, including those seen in 2014, 2019 and again this year. Coordinator positions are for 13 months, renewable for up to four years.
Most unmarried adults are expelled without a chance to seek asylum under a pandemic-related authority aimed at preventing the spread of the coronavirus. Unaccompanied children and most families can seek humanitarian protection, which gives them little incentive to avoid arrest because they will be released in the US with notices to appear in court.
As a result, there are migrants crossing the border and waiting – and waiting – for agents to arrive, who may need more care once they do. In August, families made up 41% of Border Patrol encounters, and unaccompanied children made up 9%.
Agents also complain that they have less time to go after migrants trying to avoid arrest.
The civil coordinator assigned to a San Diego area border station, Aide Franco Avalos, got a taste of the job in 2019, when she worked for the Transportation Security Administration at Palm Springs International Airport in California.
Franco Avalos volunteered for a temporary border patrol assignment in El Paso, Texas, and felt fulfilled in his care of immigrants. When she saw an opening in California that didn’t require a family relocation, the Los Angeles native decided to switch careers.
“I wasn’t sure what I was doing at first because it’s a brand new position, but I knew my help for agents was in great demand,” she said.
Avalos would like to become a border guard, but at 42, she’s missed the maximum starting age of 39.
The annual wage for processing coordinators ranges from $35,265 to $51,103, which is significantly less than what agents earn. The Biden administration’s 2022 budget proposal says a placement costs 18.5% less than the average agent cost.
Border guards began seriously considering finding the job in 2014. Discussions intensified when agents were again pressured by large numbers of asylum seekers, families and children in 2019, many of them from Central America.
“It gets a little repetitive and a little frustrating because there’s no other choice, right?” said Gloria Chavez, head of the El Paso sector of the Border Patrol, who was deeply involved in these efforts. “Who else can we count on to help us with this task? This is when the conversation began.”
Chavez said the agency also hopes the new positions will recruit agents in the future, including more women, who make up only about 5% of clients.
“Processing coordinators will work alongside our agents in the central processing center, learn a lot of different skills, build their confidence in everyone, and then maybe want to apply for those jobs,” she said.
Melanie Garcia, 24, quit her job as a prison guard at a psychiatric unit in Lubbock, Texas, to work as a treatment coordinator at a Border Patrol detention center in El Paso. She wanted to know more about the agency and be closer to the family. She said the job was a “really good stepping stone” to becoming an agent.
Atanasio reported from El Paso, Texas.
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