Senator backs agents' rights

November 15, 2001|By SAM SCOTT, Special to this newspaper

WASHINGTON (MNS) — A senior Democratic senator said Tuesday that he was disturbed that Border Patrol agents are facing disciplinary action for publicly criticizing security along the U.S.-Canadian border and vowed to protect agents who speak out to reporters and politicians.

"It's hard enough to swim against the tide without being punished for it financially and professionally," said Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich.

Levin made his comments at a committee hearing investigating how the Immigration and Naturalization Service treats detained illegal immigrants. The senator put the immigration agency on the hot seat for not knowing how many illegal immigrants fail to show up for hearings after being released into the country pending a hearing.

Michael Pearson, an INS executive associate commissioner, could not say how many illegal immigrants never return for their hearings.

"Why in heaven's name are we releasing people (on their own recognizance) after they have been arrested for trying to enter the county illegally?" Levin asked. "That is a totally absurd policy."


Mark Hall, a 17-year veteran of the Border Patrol and one of two Michigan agents facing punishment for talking to the press, told the committee that he faces suspension and demotion for speaking out on what he saw as lax security on the northern border.

"Rather than recognize and address any shortcoming, our local managers' response has been to threaten those who speak out," said Hall, president of the Border Patrol union chapter in Detroit.

Hall said the vast majority of illegal immigrants caught by the Detroit-area Border Patrol are released with little or no bond — even many with criminal records. Those without addresses are given a form to mail in with their new address, he said.

"They normally throw (the form) on the ground as they are walking out," Hall said.

Though Hall and one other agent testified willingly, Levin said he subpoenaed the men to protect them from retribution. He said he would subpoena Hall's personnel record if the immigration agency took disciplinary action against the agent.

Joe Dassaro, president of the San Diego chapter of the Border Patrol union, said he was not convinced that the senator would be able to protect the whistleblowers. A San Diego agent was grounded as a helicopter pilot after complaining to a local congressman, he said.

Hall also had his doubts. After speaking to the committee, he avoided giving further comments to journalists covering the hearing.

"I'm really not comfortable speaking to you folks," he said. "I have no doubt it will result in further action against me."

T.J. Bonner, national president of the Border Patrol union, said he thinks the senator's admonitions to the INS will have an impact.

"When you have a member of Congress saying, ‘I am watching you,' … they have to sit up an take notice because members of Congress have so much power over so many facets of life at a federal agency."

An INS spokesman declined to discuss Hall's case, saying privacy concerns prevented it.

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