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Poll Finds Low Morale for Border Officers

August 24, 2004|Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Front-line U.S. border security officers are divided over whether the nation is safer from terrorism than it was before the Sept. 11 attacks, and many say morale in the Department of Homeland Security is low, according to a poll released Monday.

A slim majority -- 53% -- of Border Patrol agents and immigration inspectors say they believe the country is safer, and 44% believe it is no safer or less safe, the survey of 1,000 officers found. Unions representing about 16,000 agents and inspectors sponsored the poll, which was conducted by Peter D. Hart Research Associates.

"The bureaucratic bungling that plagued and hampered the old Immigration and Naturalization Service has not only survived, it has thrived in the new Department of Homeland Security," said T.J. Bonner, president of the National Border Patrol Council, one of the unions that participated in the poll. "Bureaucrats are not listening to the front-line border-protection personnel."

A spokeswoman for U.S. Customs and Border Protection, a division of the Department of Homeland Security, called the poll "blatantly biased and inaccurate."

"I think it misleads the employees and misinforms them at a time when they need to know we appreciate their sacrifice," said Christiana Halsey.

Department officials complained that the poll of 500 Border Patrol agents and 500 immigration inspectors surveyed only union members, but the unions say they represent about two-thirds of all such employees. The unions said the poll was commissioned to give management "hard data" on their concerns.

Border Patrol agents guard land borders, mainly the frontier with Mexico, while most immigration inspectors are stationed at airports. Before the Sept. 11 attacks, catching illegal immigrants was the central mission for both.

Since then, Border Patrol agents and immigration inspectors have been charged with aiding the war on terrorism. But in its recent report examining the causes of and responses to the attacks, the Sept. 11 commission concluded that the new roles and responsibilities had not been fully worked out.

The poll found that 60% of agents and inspectors rated morale as low or very low. Respondents cited poor management, management mistrust of the rank and file, lack of equipment and training, and increased bureaucracy.

About 35% of the officers said they were not satisfied they had the tools and training to stop potential terrorists, and 29% said they were only "somewhat" satisfied. About 18% said they were "fairly satisfied," and 16% said they were "very satisfied."

The officers said they lacked access to the most up-to-date databases of terrorists and suspects and to the most sophisticated technology. They also complained about weak support from the Homeland Security Department.

Spokeswoman Halsey questioned those findings, saying the department had invested in such technology as radiation detectors and a screening system that uses fingerprints and digital photographs to monitor visitors at the border.

The poll found that 62% of the officers believed the department could do more to protect the U.S. from terrorism. Thirty-six percent believed it was "doing as much as could reasonably be expected."

The telephone survey was conducted July 30 to Aug. 7 and has a margin of error of plus or minus 4.5% for the Border Patrol agents and 6.3% for the immigration inspectors.

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