Despite arrests of illegal border crossers falling to the lowest point in almost 40 years, Border Patrol agents have racked up daily overtime at a cost of about $1.4 billion in the past six years.
Since the 2006 budget year, the agency charged with stopping would-be illegal border crossers and smugglers from making it into the U.S. over land and sea borders has spent more than $1.4 billion on what is described as "administrative uncontrollable overtime," according to the data provided by the Border Patrol. In practical terms, agents average two hours a day in overtime.
That means agents can earn anywhere from 10 percent to 25 percent extra pay an hour for the first two hours of overtime, with the extra cash being steadily reduced every hour after that because of complicated overtime rules. Over the course of a year, an agent can earn about $15,000 more than the base salary. Agents are limited to $35,000 in overtime annually.
The cost of overtime rose from about $155.8 million in 2006 to more than $331 million in 2011. That increase coincides with the addition of about 9,000 agents in the past six years and the drop of apprehensions to a nearly 40-year low, from more than 1 million arrests in 2006 to about 340,000 in 2011.
Border Patrol Deputy Chief Ronald D. Vitiello said patrolling the border can be an unpredictable job that requires longer hours from agents.
"The uncontrollable nature of the work is inherent in the primary duty of a Border Patrol agent and must be performed in order to get the job done," Vitiello said, adding that anything from making an arrest to talking to witnesses can keep an agent on duty beyond a scheduled shift. Often it stems from charging the Border Patrol for the time spent driving from a remote location to an agent's home base or staying late to finish the paperwork from an arrest or seizure of illicit cargo.
Still, with the government facing record deficits and the Department of Homeland Security likely to see more cuts, a system that builds in overtime the same way on the busy U.S.-Mexico border as it does on the relatively sleepy U.S.-Canadian border raises questions.
Most illegal border crossers are apprehended along the 2,000-mile long Mexican border in California, Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas. In the budget year that ended in September, 18,506 agents made a combined 327,577 apprehensions — an average of nearly 18 apprehensions per agent. The agency spent about $283 million on overtime.
But along the northern border there have been far fewer arrests, a statistic long used to judge the amount of illegal activity along the borders. Patrolling about 4,000 miles of border with Canada, 2,237 agents made 6,123 apprehensions— an average of about three arrests per agent — in 2011. For example, the 201 agents in the Houlton Sector in Maine arrested just 41 illegal border-crosses. Agents on the northern border earned a combined $37 million in overtime pay.
The more than 200 agents assigned to the Border Patrol's headquarters also made a combined $4.8 million in overtime last year.
Vitiello defended the long hours and said agents need to have a strong presence on the border.
"Regardless of the level of illegal cross border activity, agents are responsible for securing the border against all threats," Vitiello said. "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."
As for those agents assigned to headquarters, Vitiello said they also cover shifts around the clock, including stints in the agency's situation room.
T.J. Bonner, a retired Border Patrol agent and former president of the agents' union, said daily overtime is necessary to make sure any gains made in securing the border aren't lost.
"You can't just punch in for an eight-hour day and go home," said Bonner, who spent his career in the once-bustling San Diego sector. "If you have gaps at shift change, they (criminals) are going to exploit that gap."
Vitiello said the agency is looking at possible changes that would impact overtime, including shifting to 10 hour shifts for four days a week. No final decisions have been made.
Sharon Snellings, Customs and Border Protection's deputy assistant commissioner of human resources, said agency officials also are looking at shifting to another type of overtime system used by other law enforcement agencies that she said could save the agency about $70 million a year.
Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano has said that her department is constantly looking for ways to trim its multi-billion budget.
"Every element of the federal government has an obligation to find ways to do what we do more efficiently and in a more cost effective manner," Napolitano said in a speech this past week. "We've been looking for these ways for three years. It's everything ... it's cutting down expenses related to procurement, it's doing certain things with IT which are cutting the costs of that, it's eliminating you know, subscriptions to unnecessary periodicals. We are finding that we can get leaner and meaner. And we will continue to do that."
Napolitano did not mention cutting staff or spending for manpower.
Union president George McCubbin said the proposed changes don't "fit the type of work that we do. It's more suited for investigations." McCubbin said the current overtime system isn't perfect, but it does ensure that agents are paid for the hours they work.
Bonner said such pay changes or a scheduling shift would amount a substantial pay cut and mean hiring thousands of new agents to keep the same level of enforcement at the border.
"You would sacrifice security for what amounts to a drop in the bucket in the federal budget," Bonner said. "It's in exchange for having a presence on the border. You would have to hire 25 percent of the existing workforce to have the same coverage."
Bradley Schreiber, a former Homeland Security senior adviser and current vice president for the Applied Science Foundation for Homeland Security, said it's difficult to know if the Border Patrol's overtime system is the most efficient because the government hasn't come up with a clear strategy to measure the threat at the border and respond appropriately.
"It's a circular question," Schreiber said. "Since there's no assessment, how do you know ... does this make sense?"
Based on reporting by the Associated Press.