Border Patrol agents have racked up daily overtime at a cost of about $1.4 billion in the past six years while the number of arrests of illegal border crossers has fallen to the lowest level in nearly 40 years, an Associated Press analysis of agency records finds.
Since the 2006 budget year, the agency charged with stopping would-be illegal border crossers and smugglers from making it into the U.S. over land and sea borders has spent more than $1.4 billion on what is described as "administrative uncontrollable overtime," according to the data provided by the Border Patrol. In practical terms, agents average two hours a day in overtime.
Photos: 60 years on the U.S.-Mexico border
- Take a look back at over 60 years on the border, from the agents that protect it to the people that try to avert it. This slideshow is part of Myth vs. Facts, a special series from Viva Colorado about immigration.
That means agents can earn anywhere from 10 percent to 25 percent extra pay an hour for the first two hours of overtime, with the extra cash being steadily reduced every hour after that because of complicated overtime rules. Over the course of a year, an agent can earn about $15,000 more than the base salary, which for a more experienced agent is typically over $60,000 a year. Agents are limited to $35,000 in overtime annually.
The cost of overtime rose from about $155.8 million in 2006 to more than $331 million in 2011. That increase coincides with the addition of about 9,000 agents in the past six years and the drop of apprehensions to a nearly 40-year low, from more than 1 million arrests in 2006 to about 340,000 in 2011.
Border Patrol Deputy Chief Ronald D. Vitiello said patrolling the border can be an unpredictable job that requires longer hours from agents.
"The uncontrollable nature of the work is inherent in the primary duty of a Border Patrol agent and must be performed in order to get the job done," Vitiello said, adding that anything from making an arrest to talking to witnesses can keep an agent on duty beyond a scheduled shift. Often it stems from charging the Border Patrol for the time spent driving from a remote location to an agent's home base or staying late to finish the paperwork from an arrest or seizure of illicit cargo.
Still, with the government facing record deficits and the Department of Homeland Security likely to see more cuts, a system that builds in overtime the same way on the busy U.S.-Mexico border as it does on the relatively sleepy U.S.-Canadian border raises questions.
Most illegal border crossers are apprehended along the 2,000-mile long Mexican border in California, Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas. In the budget year that ended in September, 18,506 agents made a combined 327,577 apprehensions - an average of nearly 18 apprehensions per agent. The agency spent about $283 million on overtime.
But along the northern border there have been far fewer arrests, a statistic long used to judge the amount of illegal activity along the borders. Patrolling about 4,000 miles of border with Canada, 2,237 agents made 6,123 apprehensions- an average of about three arrests per agent - in 2011. For example, the 201 agents in the Houlton Sector in Maine arrested just 41 illegal border-crosses. Agents on the northern border earned a combined $37 million in overtime pay.
The more than 200 agents assigned to the Border Patrol's headquarters also made a combined $4.8 million in overtime last year.
Vitiello defended the long hours and said agents need to have a strong presence on the border.