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Agency tackles trouble within


PHOENIX -- With a major expansion proposed by President Bush, the Border Patrol might overtake the FBI as the largest federal law enforcement agency. But the expanded mission comes as the patrol wrestles with recruitment and training problems and several agents face accusations of misconduct and corruption.

In response to concerns, the Homeland Security Department, which oversees the Border Patrol, said it would audit its recruitment, hiring and training practices. A spokeswoman, Tamara Faulkner, said the review could begin this month.

David V. Aguilar, the head of the Border Patrol, told Congress that the extraordinary growth was vital to national security, particularly as authorities seek to clamp down on illegal crossings along the Mexican border. The agency has swelled from 4,000 agents 15 years ago to more than 11,000, and Bush proposed 6,000 more by 2008 as a cornerstone of his immigration overhaul.

"Terrorists and violent criminals may exploit smuggling routes used by migrants to enter the United States illegally and do us harm," Aguilar said.

But as the Border Patrol seeks more agents, its training academy in Artesia, N.M., needs expansion, and some watchdog groups question its ability to prepare so many agents in so little time. As a temporary measure, thousands of National Guard troops will be dispatched along the 2,000-mile Mexican border to assist with logistics and support work.

"This is not something where you can snap your fingers and have thousands go on the job," said Deborah W. Meyers, an analyst at the nonpartisan Migration Policy Institute.

Concerns about how well the agency screens recruits have risen as several agents have been accused of misconduct and immigrant smuggling, including one from Mexico who was hired in 2002 even though he is not a U.S. citizen.

In January, the man, Oscar Antonio Ortiz, pleaded guilty to immigrant smuggling and other crimes. He is awaiting sentencing.

In March, two Border Patrol supervising agents, Mario Alvarez and Scott McClaren, were also charged with smuggling. They pleaded not guilty and are awaiting trial in San Diego.

Several agents have been convicted of assaulting border crossers and other abuses. Advocates for immigrants have long accused the agency of stopping people, particularly Latinos, without proper justification and of giving little public accounting of any results of abuse accusations.

But Todd Fraser, a spokesman for the Border Patrol, said the majority of agents are honorable, including several who won praise for efforts to rescue immigrants stranded in the desert.

He said the agents go through increasingly extensive preparation for jobs that often involve great risks, including confrontation with armed smugglers.

Some critics also express greater confidence in the agency. Rep. Xavier Becerra, a California Democrat who in the early 1990s called for a federal commission to oversee the agency because of its many problems, said it had made great strides in raising standards and curtailing questionable tactics.

"I certainly think over the years we are seeing border enforcement become more professional," Becerra said.

The Border Patrol has had trouble over the years keeping agents and hiring enough to compensate for the losses. Agents blame entry-level pay, which is $35,000 to $40,000, lower than many local and state law enforcement agencies.

The work is demanding and calls for solitary patrols in the dead of night in forbidding terrain, often arresting the same people over and over again.

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