Despite Drop in Border Apprehensions, Border Patrol Collects $331 Million in Overtime

February 7, 2012

Border apprehensions may be falling, but a Border Patrol agent's work is never done. At least based on the number of overtime hours agents are working these days.

Border Patrol agents police the northern and southern borders, especially border checkpoints like Sierra Blanca, mainly for drug and immigrant smuggling. However, border apprehensions are the lowest they have been in 40 years. If that is the case, then why do Border Patrol agents possibly need overtime hours?

Travel is one explanation. Agents may need to drive from a remote location to their home base. Bureaucracy is another -- filling out paperwork from an arrest or a search and seizure. Then there is the unpredictability of hunting down suspects, which can take several hours. All of this adds up to $331 million worth of overtime -- more than twice the amount in 2006, at $155.8 million. This, despite the fact that one million arrests were made in 2006, compared to 340,000 in 2011.

But if apprehensions are down, why are so many overtime hours spent trying apprehend the suspect? Have suspects really become that much craftier since 2006? The perennial reason given is that a safe border requires a strong Border Patrol presence. Border Patrol Deputy Chief Ronald Vitiello claims: "[A]gents are responsible for securing the border against all threats. This means that agents must have the flexibility to develop intelligence, act on that intelligence, interact with the community and work with their law enforcement counterparts on illegal activity that has a nexus to the mission." Vitiello does not explain why this is truer now than it was in 2006.

Nor does he explain why Border Patrol agents on the much quieter northern border collect overtime as easily as agents on the busy southern border. Despite an average of three arrests per agent in 2011, Border Patrol agents on the northern border earned a combined $37 million. Security well worth every penny.

Given the budget cuts everywhere else in government, the Border Patrol's system could not remain under the radar forever. Homeland Security and the Border Patrol agency are looking into implementing another overtime system that could save $70 million per year. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano is looking into making budget cuts in her department. Homeland Security admits it is tough, though, to assess whether the system in place is the most efficient.

That should be relatively easy to answer: no. A system in which Border Patrol agents reap unprecedented amounts of pay in return for rapidly decreasing results is not the definition of efficiency. On the contrary, it is a system that threatens to spiral out of control. Despite some attempts to rein in the Border Patrol, such as restricting agents' ability to investigate transit hubs, agents often have unrestricted power to search and arrest suspects. The agents' actions too often cross the border into illegal conduct, as they pull over cars without the required reasonable suspicion and arrest the people inside without probable cause. They, too, claim that it is all in the name of safety and protecting American citizens. After a while, you ask yourself: from what? Is the border so much more dangerous now than five years ago? Are terrorists, drugs, or illegal immigrants more of a threat? Now it appears that the Border Patrol agents' role is no longer just the concern of criminal defense attorneys -- now we can see that it exacts a huge economic cost as well as a social one. Is it one that we want to keep paying?