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Plunge in border crossings leaves agents fighting boredom

Arrests of illegal crossers along the Southwest border dropped more than two-thirds from 2000 to 2010, from 1.6 million to 448,000.

April 21, 2011|By Richard Marosi, Los Angeles Times

Years ago in the same area, Bourne said, he helped catch 180 people in one day. Halfway into his recent shift, his crime-stopping efforts consisted of stopping a young man from dropping a soda can in the park. Still, bike patrol, the partners agreed, is a lot better than being stuck in a parked car waiting for action that never comes.

"Sitting in the same spot for eight hours looking at the same thing… it drains you." Salazar said.

Byerly was several hours into his midnight shift at the San Luis Port of Entry in March 2010 when his eyes started getting heavy. Watching the fence at the port was once considered crucial: People would jump over and disappear into nearby truck yards the moment an agent turned his head. But that night there were no immigrants waiting to dash across, no lookouts scouting the area, and no smugglers heaving rocks at his "war wagon" vehicle, its windows fortified with steel grillwork.

"I figured it would be exciting," said Byerly, a former construction worker from Pennsylvania who joined the agency in 2008. "I didn't think it would be as dead as it was."

Byerly finished the energy drinks and put the comedy into his DVD player. (Agents are prohibited from using personal electronic devices while on duty.) "I figured something funny would keep me awake, but I still fell asleep," said Byerly, who was fired because of the incident. Two other agents have also been disciplined for falling asleep on the job, said Derek Hernandez, president of the Yuma sector border patrol union.

Senior officials acknowledge that monotony is a concern. Agents are offered extra training and special details at tactical checkpoints and hot spots in other border regions, they say. Agents are also pulled off the line to do more interior enforcement, including pursuing illegal immigrants at bus stations as far away as Las Vegas.

Agent Rob Lowry, 28, fresh from mixed martial arts training, was on line duty on a recent day when he spotted farmworkers tending a field of lettuce. Illegal immigrants in the past would try to blend in and get trucked to other fields. But not on this morning.

Since joining the agency two years ago, Lowry figures he has arrested 100 immigrants, a total that agents in busier times could once accumulate in one day. Watching lettuce grow doesn't match Lowry's expectations for border duty, but the country still needs him, he said, if only as a deterrent.

"It might be tough on some agents who want to see action," said Lowry. "But as a U.S. citizen, it's comforting to know that [the Yuma-area border] is not crazy with people running around everywhere."

richard.marosi@latimes.com

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