Border Strategy: Desert Chats in Spanish

The Border Patrol’s 19-week residential training program, with a curriculum that includes immigration law, physical training, firearms instruction, driving and the Spanish language, takes place at a single facility in New Mexico and is designed to prepare an agent — working alone — to physically confront groups of people surreptitiously crossing our un-walled and largely unfenced Southern border so he can converse with them in Spanish.

Because of this border security strategy — and because there is only one training center — the Border Patrol had originally aimed at training a maximum of 1,500 new agents this year. But now, with President Bush’s calling for the deployment of 18,000 agents by 2008 (there are currently only 11,300), the patrol has reset its goal at 6,000 new agents over the next two years.

Mario Martinez, national spokesman for the Border Patrol, said, "We patrol alone most of the time" and an officer is expected "to be able to go out and function on his own."

To qualify for Border Patrol training, a recruit must pass a three-part entrance exam that gauges reasoning skills, a recruit’s ability to learn Spanish and job-related experiences and achievements. During resident training, an agent must complete 200 hours of Spanish-language instruction and then pass periodic refresher courses.

All officers must learn Spanish. "In order for our officers to be able to function in this environment," said Martinez, "they need to have a working knowledge of the language so they are able to elicit information from witnesses, to elicit information from people they have just arrested, to be able to fill out forms and be able to read documents that are presented by these folks in hopes of establishing their citizenship to determine whether or not they are legally in the United States."

For Their Protection

He emphasized that the language requirement was created for the agents’ own protection. "When they are in the field encountering these aliens who are from the Spanish-speaking countries, sometimes in large numbers, they have to know, for their own safety, what these folks are saying so they are not caught off-guard," said Martinez. "People cannot overtly plot against them as they are trying to interview them or make an arrest."

"Once the agent detects entry and identifies himself, makes the determination whether the person is an alien and is in the United States illegally, he takes the person physically into custody and makes a total arrest in which he takes him back to the station for processing for removal from the country," said Martinez.

All agents carry guns, including, if they wish, shotguns and rifles. They also carry pepper spray and a collapsible metal baton.

Martinez said the job is "confrontational and our agents are very well trained on the use of force and the escalation of force. An arrest could be as benign as a conversation such as you and I are having, or it could be a full assault on a Border Patrol agent."

Some areas, such as traffic checkpoints, may be manned by three to four agents at a time, depending on the volume of the checkpoint. Horse patrol agents usually work with partners. Other agents may be assigned to a "high-profile, high-visibility position" in hopes of deterring aliens rather than physically apprehending them.

Agents are trained in groups of approximately 50 people in Artesia, N.M., the nation’s only facility for training Border Patrol agents.

Before the President’s request, Martinez said the Border Patrol had set a goal of hiring 1,500 agents this year. "Now that we are going to try to do 6,000 in two years," he said. "That will be a big step up, but we are confident we can do it."

Martinez said it was difficult to determine the New Mexico training site’s full capacity because "we are continuing to upgrade facilities and bring on modular training capacity, so that number increases during the course of the year." According to the Border Patrol’s website, nearly $30 million in improvements have been made to the facility, ranging from new security to a new 286-bed dormitory and cafeteria.

Only about one in every 30 people who begins the Border Patrol recruitment process actually becomes an agent. Prior military service or previous law enforcement experience does not accelerate the training period for new border agents. "All Border Patrol agents have to go through the very same training, immaterial of where they came from, even if they had prior law enforcement training," Martinez said.


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