ARTESIA, N.M. (AP) _ The U.S. Border Patrol's push to expand the number of agents on the lookout for illegal crossings has some current and former agents worried that the pressure will lead to corner cutting and will jeopardize public safety.
Raising the Border Patrol's numbers from about 12,000 to 18,000 by the end of 2008 is a key element of President Bush's plan to improve security along the border, crossed by tens of thousands of illegal immigrants each year.
The sprawling Border Patrol Academy here in southeastern New Mexico recently started launching two 50-student classes each week, compared to one class every two or three weeks before the expansion plan was announced nearly a year ago.
Some critics worry that pressure to meet the hiring goal will lead the agency to admit recruits with integrity problems.
``That's a very real fear that a lot of agents have, that they will lower the standards,'' said T.J. Bonner, president of a union representing agents. ``They have done it before.''
Nearly 5,000 new agents were added in a five-year period that began in 1996. That expansion was criticized for poor screening that let in some agents who were later accused of wrongdoing.
Jim Dorcy, a retired Border Patrol agent who investigated corruption cases as an internal investigator and is a leader in a group of former agents, said he expects more ethical problems to emerge during the latest expansion because the numbers are higher and the deadline is tighter.
``When you're hiring a lot of people, you can't properly vet them,'' Dorcy said. He also predicted that the agency wouldn't have enough veteran agents to act as mentors for incoming rookies.
In the six months since the latest expansion began in earnest, no evidence has surfaced of lowered qualifications or of agents with ethical problems, but Bonner said the agency has already taken shortcuts in its training that could affect the quality of agents.
He cited the decision to cut the length of academy training from about 19 weeks to 17 weeks.
Even some supporters of boosting Border Patrol staffing say the agency is trying to hire too many people in too short a time and is at risk of repeating mistakes made during the last big expansion.
Rep. Silvestre Reyes, D-Texas, whose 26-year career at the Border Patrol included stints as an academy instructor and as a chief agent, said new candidates might not get the same level of scrutiny as they would in years with more realistic hiring goals.
``Instead of maybe asking additional questions that would tell you whether or not there is a good potential for a trainee agent to make it through the academy, you are going to let more through,'' said Reyes.
Border Patrol spokesman Mario Martinez said background checks, while not a guaranteed way of getting clean recruits, go back 10 years to determine whether applicants have had arrests, job dismissals, financial problems or a history of substance abuse.
Agency officials also said interviews of recruits, ethics training, mentoring by journeyman agents and a two-year probationary period can help detect bad agents.
The Border Patrol, which so far has hired 1,000 new agents, also maintains that it isn't compromising the quality of training and that changes at the academy grew out of an effort to match its lessons with the evolving needs of agents.
``We continue to find able and willing applicants that are well qualified (and) meet our requirements for training,'' said Martinez.
In shortening the academy training, the Border Patrol removed duplicative material, such as a constitutional law class whose basics also were taught in another course, agency officials said. Other lessons were taken out of the academy so they can be taught during on-the-job training.
``The increase in people has not changed the training,'' said Agent Clark Messer, a training supervisor at the academy. ``It's still the same quality training. It's high-quality training.''
Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., a key supporter of the last major expansion, said he is optimistic the agency can meet the latest goal without compromising the quality of agents.
``We are capable of it,'' Hunter said. ``This is a small number of recruits compared to our military (recruiting efforts).''