The 7,000 square miles south of San Diego along the Mexican border is the second-smallest sector the US Border Patrol guards, but it requires the most manpower. The complicated terrain that includes wide mesas, steep canyons, mountains, and beaches provides plenty of opportunities for illegal crossings from Tecate and Tijuana - large cities directly south across the border.
Border Patrol agents facing this reality day and night increasingly feel unsupported by the country they are trying to protect. Their latest concern: President Bush's recent "guest worker" proposal. To them, agents on the front line, it's the latest signal that America is going soft on illegal immigrants, even while asking the Border Patrol to step up efforts to catch illegals. At the same time, agents feel threatened by the possibility of a weakened National Border Control Council (NBPC). It's a double hit to workers who already feel weighed down by low pay, long hours, and increasing pressure to keep the United States safe from would-be terrorists.
"The most difficult thing about being an agent now is that nothing we seem to do is supported," says senior patrol agent Thane Gallagher, health and safety director for NBPC Local 1613. "America loves illegal immigrants but hates illegal immigration," he says.
With President Bush's guest worker proposal on the table and fear that the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) will disable the NBPC - the union representing about 9,000 out of 11,000 agents employed nationally - some say morale is lower than its ever been.
Not that the job has ever been a cakewalk. "It's been a constant, the morale issues with border agents and immigration inspectors at ports of entry because of our schizophrenic immigration policy," says Albert Benitez, an immigration-law professor at George Washington University. "[There's been] no increase in training and funds and personnel, but now these folks are the front lines in the war on terror. It's not surprising morale is low."
Agents in San Diego - who routinely work 10-hour days and often find themselves patrolling desolate areas alone - say agents who leave are discouraged and unhappy. The high attrition rate - among the highest of any federal agency - and rising discontent raises concerns about the quality of coverage at the border.
Others point to different factors for the San Diego Border Patrol which loses about 30 of its 1,900 staffers each month. Interim chief Michael Nicely says it has less to do with disagreements over administration policy and more to do with the high cost of living in San Diego and the fact that most agent training occurs in this sector. "Not all of our trainees make it and stay," he says.
Still, turnover is an issue of concern. The apprehension rate at the border has dropped steadily since 2000 - that year 1,676,438 illegal immigrants were stopped at the border compared with 931,557 apprehended last year. Gloria Chavez, spokeswoman for DHS, says the reason for the decline is that the agency has become more effective at deterring people. Yet others suggest understaffing or inadequate coverage at the border is the real reason.
The guest worker proposal would allow undocumented immigrants currently living in the United States to apply for a work permit for up to three years, if they can prove their employer could not find a US citizen willing to take the job. While the proposal is an attempt to reform ailing immigration policies, patrol agents feel the measure will only further undermine their effort at the border.
"I risk my life everyday dealing with people who would just as soon see us dead than submit to an arrest, and now we have the administration saying, 'We're going to legalize them anyway,'" says Mr. Gallagher. "You have no idea what this does to us."
Some agents claim traffic has already increased since President Bush announced the proposal during his State of the Union address, though it's difficult to quantify at this point. There is always an increase in traffic as aliens return to the US after the Christmas holiday, in addition to the beginning flow of springtime migrant workers.
But George McCubbin and his fellow agents fear that if the proposal becomes law, traffic at the border will be overwhelming. "I honestly believe if this goes through, a lot of people here will leave. They won't want to work for an agency that doesn't want to support its mission," he says. [Editor's note: In the original version, McCubbin's first name was omitted.]
Border agents are also furious over DHS's plan to establish new regulations governing the union. The administration has said the union will stay in place, but most agents expect to be stripped of many of their rights. New "personnel recommendations" outlining the changes were released - after a delay - in mid-February, and were promptly criticized by union officers.
Chief Nicely believes what agents fear is what might happen, not necessarily what will happen and that most are reacting to speculation and rumor. He says agents are anxious about the direction the border patrol will take now that US Customs and Border Protection falls under the auspices of the DHS, a change that took place in March 2003. "There is a lot of disagreement out there and I think that discussion is an example of how dedicated agents are and how deeply they care about what they do. That's a good thing," says Mr. Nicely. "If I see people throwing their hands up in disgust, that's when I worry."
Local 1613 members, however, - like Shawn Moran, a senior patrol agent and spokesman for the union who guards at the Imperial Beach station - believe the writing is on the wall. Mr. Moran says what really underlies the discontent isn't disagreements about overtime, benefits or hours. What's underneath is a feeling of betrayal. "We signed up to serve our country, to make a difference, and we're being neglected and not utilized the way we should be," he says.