Posted: Saturday, March 30, 2013 9:45 pm
By Dave Hendricks The Monitor

McALLEN — When Border Patrol agents assigned to the McAllen Station received their assignments for the 4 p.m. to midnight shift last Saturday, all hell broke loose.

Typically, agents assigned to the McAllen Station spend their weekend nights tracking undocumented immigrants through the brush between Hidalgo and Sullivan City, a winding 30-mile stretch of the Rio Grande. It’s popular with undocumented immigrants, who dash across the river and melt into small towns along the border.

Last Saturday, though, the McAllen Station’s shift assignments showed the unthinkable.

A lone canine unit had been assigned to patrol the border near Mission. Everyone else had been assigned to headquarters, where they would process undocumented immigrants — leaving the Rio Grande virtually unguarded.

“You put one person out there, that’s like putting a Band-Aid on a broken leg,” said Agent Chris Cabrera, vice president of National Border Patrol Council Local 3307, which represents Rio Grande Valley agents.

Almost immediately, rank-and-file agents began calling Local 3307 about the problem, Cabrera said, and the union began asking questions. Management later released boats, horse patrol, training units and regular agents into the field.

The Monitor reviewed the McAllen Station’s initial shift assignments recorded on a Border Patrol document called Form G-481, which shows every agent’s name and duty, for the 4 p.m. to midnight shift on March 23. The document appears to confirm Cabrera’s account, which was also verified by other agents who wouldn’t speak for attribution.

Agents speculated the McAllen Station’s management had become overwhelmed with detainees and wasn’t equipped to arrest anyone else.

Last month, the McAllen Station detained and processed nearly 4,800 people, well above the 2,800 people agents handled in January. Agents have become so concerned about overcrowding and unsanitary conditions that they’ve called the McAllen Fire Department to complain, Fire Marshal Juan P. Salinas said.

Border Patrol wouldn’t directly address the allegations about staffing, concerned that releasing detailed assignment records would hurt operational security. Asked to comment, Chief Patrol Agent Rosendo Hinojosa, who oversees the Rio Grande Valley Sector, released a statement that dodged questions about the March 23 shift assignments.

“In the 72 hour period from March 22-24, McAllen agents apprehended nearly 900 people, each of whom had to be individually processed,” according to Hinojosa’s statement. “When a station such as McAllen is heavily burdened due to the number of people in custody, we are obligated to deploy additional resources to the area. Aside from the station personnel, we also have other specialty type personnel to augment line operations and maintain a law enforcement presence along the border.”

After an inquiry from Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Laredo, who serves on the House Appropriations Committee and closely monitors U.S.-Mexico issues, Border Patrol released additional information.

“I specifically asked their folks, the folks in charge of that area,” Cuellar said. “I said ‘Did you have agents working there?’ and they said ‘Yes, we had agents working there.’”

Border Patrol had 99 agents working the 4 p.m. to midnight shift on March 23, including 38 assigned to process detainees and another 61 on patrol, Cuellar said, recounting information provided by the agency. During the shift, agents apprehended 63 people, reported 69 turned back after spotting law enforcement and estimated 66 escaped — what Border Patrol calls “got aways.”

“But again, the folks on the ground and management have a different perspective on this,” Cuellar said.

With federal budget cuts looming, Local 3307 and the Rio Grande Valley Sector’s management have been increasingly at odds. Agents have recently taken their concerns about border security and staffing public.

“Most of our guys love to do this job,” Cabrera said. “But lately it’s just deteriorating due to political pressure. People feel, little by little, that they’re not being allowed to do their jobs.”

The sequester — automatic budget cuts forced by Congress’ inability to reach a spending and debt deal — slashed $521 million from U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s budget. Agents received furlough notices on March 7 and Border Patrol will severely curtail overtime and other payroll expenses.

To address some of Local 3307’s concerns, including the March 23 shift assignment controversy, Hinojosa attended a union meeting Wednesday night at the Embassy Suites.

Hinojosa insisted the shift assignment list didn’t involve special units, including boats and mounted agents, who patrolled on March 23. Agents left without finding common ground or reaching an agreement on what happened that night.

Border Patrol union questions security, staffing in Hidalgo County - Brownsville Herald: Valley