St. Petersburg Times Online: Business

Weather | Sports | Forums | Comics | Classifieds | Calendar | Movies

Border agents languish in limbo

They took open posts in Florida, but many months later they're still waiting for the money to make their transfers possible.

Published October 19, 2003

Keith Weeks keeps waiting.

He goes to work each day, as he has for eight years, as a U.S. Border Patrol agent in San Diego. But his thoughts are far away in Florida.

Weeks and his wife, Pam, were raised near Ft. Walton Beach. Since the attack of Sept. 11, 2001, they've wanted to return to their home state to be near family and raise their two children - Logan, 6, and Grace, 14 months.

Weeks applied for a transfer and a year ago was hired to fill a vacancy at the Border Patrol field office in Marathon. He figured within a few months, the family would be soaking up the Florida sunshine.

A year later, he waits and wonders.

"Your whole life is on hold," said Weeks, 37. "You can't make any plans. You can't get involved in anything out here. It's tough on the family. My son constantly asks when he is going to see grandma or granddad."

Weeks' story is one echoed from coast to coast these days. More than a third of about 75 Border Patrol positions in Florida remain vacant, according to agency officials and the National Border Patrol Council.

Most of the positions have been filled with agents from different parts of the country. The problem: the agency has told those agents that there is no money to move them to Florida. So they wait.

"Moves are very expensive. It costs the agency about $90,000 to move one agent," said Steve Mangino, associate chief of the U.S. Border Patrol in Washington.

He said the agency provides a per diem allowance for two months until agents find permanent housing in their new city. The government also promises to buy the agent's old house if it doesn't sell.

"For positions like (in Florida) where we're relocating agents, the issue has always been that we've never really had money," Mangino said, adding that moving expenses come directly out of the agency's operating budget. "The shortage of funds is a given."

Complicating the matter is that the Border Patrol has been absorbed into the Department of Homeland Security, a transition that caused changes in logistics and budgeting.

Perhaps an even more important factor is the Border Patrol's push to beef up security along the Canadian border.

"The No. 1 priority is to staff up the northern border," Mangino said. "We were severely understaffed (there) in the past. It was essential after 9/11 to get agents up there as soon as possible. That ate up a lot of our money."

With so much focus and so many resources headed north, Florida has taken a back seat. That angers people like Rich Pierce, an agent in Tampa and executive vice president of the national union that represents Border Patrol agents.

"With the attention they've paid to the northern border, they've forgotten about everything else," Pierce said. He said some agents have grown so frustrated waiting to move that they've left to find other work.

And even though officials in Miami have worked to get people moved to Florida, they have been "hitting a stone wall," Pierce said.

Pierce also said he worries that the continued vacancies have caused Florida's borders to be neglected.

Mangino said that's not the case.

"I don't think it's to the point where it's really affected operational effectiveness," he said. If it were, he said, the agency would send in additional staff on an interim basis.

In any case, the situation has left agents like Steven Driscoll, of Calais, Maine, in limbo. He is 43, has served 19 years on the Border Patrol and loves his job.

But he desperately wants to move his wife and four school-age children to Florida. They have vacationed in the state for years, and he wants to retire here.

Driscoll said he was hired in August 2001 to work as an agent in the West Palm Beach office. Since then, he too has played the waiting game.

"It really is a hardship. It throws the whole family into a loop," he said. "My wife gave up a position as a nursing instructor. You don't want to leave halfway through (the) school (year). It's very frustrating. But I'm hoping. We're still optimistic."

Both Driscoll and Weeks say they have asked higher-ups for information about when their moves might come. No luck.

"It's complete and total silence. They don't keep in touch with you at all," Weeks said. "The only response I get back is, "We don't have the money.' "

Said Driscoll: "I talked to my bosses. They have no idea what's going on."

Mangino said he has sympathy for the men who have waiting so long for their transfers. He said Border Patrol officials want to move them, just as they want to move. But it's just not that easy.

"The main thing we told them is that we're committed to moving them," he said. "We would like to be able to do this as soon as possible. But I hate to put a timetable on it."

© Copyright, St. Petersburg Times. All rights reserved.