By early next year, the Border Patrol's busiest sector on the Southwest border was supposed to receive about 350 freshly trained agents from its academy in New Mexico. But that training center and three others like it that train tens of thousands of federal law enforcement officers each year from 91 different federal agencies have been shut down by the budget fight in Washington.
Trainees at the Border Patrol's academy in Artesia, N.M., have been sent home. That means the Rio Grande Valley sector, which saw a 58 percent increase in arrests in the fiscal year that ended last month, will have to wait longer for reinforcements. How much longer depends on the duration of the budget dispute.
"The guys in Rio Grande, they need the help, but unfortunately right now there will be no one to send, and the classes that were being trained will now be delayed," said Shawn Moran, vice president of the National Border Patrol Council, a labor union.
"As this goes on, that's going to happen more and more, and our concern is that it's going to open up gaps in coverage out on the border," Moran said. "And we know that the cartels are still working — they're not on shutdown. People are still trying to cross. They're going to get across. And as it goes on, I think it's just going to get incrementally worse."
A plethora of training programs for everyone from the Capitol Police that patrol the halls of Congress to customs officers at airports are being evaluated individually to determine how they will resume once a budget agreement is reached.
"The problem is we suspended training for this first week and ... every five days we're looking at where are we at for the next day or the next week," said Joseph Wright, chief of staff for the Federal Law Enforcement Training Centers. That way they can notify the agencies with enough lead time to get their personnel back to the centers.
The Federal Law Enforcement Training Centers, a component of the Department of Homeland Security, trained 70,000 people last year.
In August, the first of seven Border Patrol trainee classes, each with about 50 recruits, checked in atBorder Patrol stations in the southernmost tip of Texas before departing for 11 weeks of training at the academy in New Mexico. Each class of academy graduates was scheduled to return to the Rio Grande Valley over the coming months.
This stretch of the U.S.-Mexico border became the nation's busiest this year, overtaking Tucson, Ariz., the longtime leader in number of arrests. In mid-September with just two weeks left in the fiscal year,Border Patrol had made nearly 150,000 arrests in the Rio Grande Valley sector.
The decision to send most of the academy's new graduates to this hot spot was "part of the U.S.Border Patrol's national strategy to proactively address risk where the threat is greatest," according to a statement from the agency in August. The full impact of a delay in additional agents was not immediately clear because Border Patrol's spokespeople were unavailable to comment due to the shutdown.
Agents who were on training assignments have been called back to help fill holes left in the support staff, said Moran, the union official.
U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, a Democrat whose Texas district covers some of this stretch of border, has been among those calling for more personnel.
"It's going to affect our training and our movement of people down to the border now that the Rio Grande is the No. 1 crossing and it's not Tucson, Ariz., anymore," Cuellar said.
It was not immediately clear how other federal agencies were impacted by the training freeze.
Asked how many people were participating in training when the centers were shuttered this week, Wright, who is among a skeleton crew remaining on the job at the Glynco center, the training center's headquarters near Brunswick, Ga., said, "I really don't have those numbers. We have no staff to actually pull them up."