Normally, the immigration agency budgets overtime so that few agents approach the $30,000 limit, said Nicole Chulick, an INS spokeswoman.
On average, a journeyman agent works about $20,000 of overtime a year. But since the terrorist attacks, pressure to secure America's borders and personnel shortages on the Canadian border have increased overtime needs, Chulick said. More than 100 Border Patrol agents relocated last Sunday to the Canadian border from the Mexican border to staff what suddenly seems an undermanned frontier.
More than 9,000 agents work along the southern border, while only 334 work along the northern border, which is approximately twice as long.
The new law will ensure that more experienced agents, who are paid more and reach their limits faster, are in the field more, said Jim Dorcy, a consultant for the Federation for American Immigration Reform, an advocacy group seeking tighter immigration policy.
"You need the experienced old hands out there," he said. "When you have caps like that, it's the old hands who are sent home and it's the young inexperienced people who are left on the job."
He said management should make sure agents aren't overworked so much that they become less effective as result of eliminating the cap.
Robert Harrington, vice president of the Border Patrol union in El Centro, said the change could help offset the relatively high cost of living for agents in El Centro. He said his brother, who is an agent in McAllen, Texas, says his paycheck goes a lot further.
"I'm pleased that it's lifted," Harrington said, but noted, "For you to be able to earn that, you have to be at work and when you're at work, you're not with your family."
He also said that allowing more overtime isn't enough to curtail illegal immigration. He advocated giving the Border Patrol increased policing power and more aggressive orders.
"Do I think lifting the cap and allowing us to work more is going to solve the immigration problem?" he asked. "The answer is no."
Although lifting the overtime restriction goes into effect immediately, further legislation is needed to appropriate the money to pay for hiring more Border Patrol, Customs agents and immigration officials and to pay for the new technology.