Border Patrol pay to reflect IT skills

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The U.S. Border Patrol relies increasingly on technology-savvy border agents,

and that's one of the things driving pay reform legislation that takes effect

next year.

Nearly $41 million is included in the fiscal 2001 budget to upgrade

journeyman level agents from GS-9 to GS-11, or from $33,254 a year to $40,236,

according to the Office of Personnel Management pay chart.

The upgrade recognizes that Border Patrol work has evolved so that agents

routinely use advanced technology in their duties, just as investigators

and intelligence agents do, Doris Meissner, Immigration and Naturalization

Service commissioner, testified to Congress.

Bruce Cooke, assistant chief at patrol headquarters in Washington, D.C.,

said the technologies run the gamut from office PCs to sophisticated surveillance

equipment — including many systems not even in the Border Patrol's inventory

a decade ago.

"Seven to 10 years ago, a lot of our stations in the field still used

manual typewriters," he said, and identification of border crossers often

was done by cross-referencing index cards. Nighttime field surveillance

depended on Vietnam-era starlight scopes.

"Now we're going gangbusters," Cooke said. Just two years ago, the patrol

deployed its Integrated Surveillance Information System, which includes

ground sensors, portable infrared scopes and an Intelligent Computer-Aided

Detection System that analyzes and forwards information picked up by the

sensors to field offices.

Agents also rely on a system of fixed cameras along the border and use

night-vision goggles and Global Positioning System units, he said.

Although agents receive some training on the technologies before their

first assignments, they learn mostly on the job, he said.

"The technology helps retain people; it retains their interest in the

work," Cooke said.

As with the military services, retention has become a problem for the

Border Patrol, and Cooke said the pay reform alone will not turn things

around. "You've got to give them the tools to do the job," he said.

Next year's budget even includes about $52 million for 430 new Border

Patrol positions, bringing the patrol's agent strength to 9,000.

In 1999, the Border Patrol lost two agents to the private sector for

every new one it hired, Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas) said last year

when arguing for the pay reform.

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