"They don't want to transfer a mass amount of agents and open a gap somewhere else where we have control," said David Aguilar, the Border Patrol chief from 2004 to 2010.
Forced transfers must be negotiated with the National Border Patrol Council, the union which represents agents, and have not happened on a large scale.
The Border Patrol can move agents for 35 days — longer by mutual agreement — but those temporary assignments are expensive. More than 100 agents were sent to Rio Grande Valley this spring for short stays.
Voluntary transfers were an option but have not been used widely in South Texas. The Border Patrol began a campaign about 10 years ago, partly aimed at boosting morale, to offer more transfers if agents moved themselves. And, as agents quit or retire, the vast majority of new hires who replace them are now assigned to Rio Grande Valley.
The Border Patrol introduced video processing in El Paso in April 2013 to address the surge in Rio Grande Valley, where most border crossers are from Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala and many are unaccompanied children. It expanded the processing to El Centro, California, in March, and to San Diego last month.
Between 230 and 500 people have been processed by video each day since it was introduced last year, but lack of detention space in Rio Grande Valley recently prompted authorities to fly migrants to El Paso and Arizona for processing, said Jackie Wasiluk, a spokeswoman for the Border Patrol's parent agency, Customs and Border Protection. The agency said Friday that it will also fly migrants to California for processing.
Costs are not an issue with video processing. Headsets and cameras are $70 apiece, and it's a small sacrifice to supervisors.
Agents use a long questionnaire that aims to establish identity — where they lived, where they went to school, where they went to church. Most migrants don't have identification, so U.S. authorities must convince consulates to issue passports. Otherwise, they can't be deported.
Throughout their shifts, agents trade instant messages with counterparts in Rio Grande Valley.
"If you have time, can you adjust the camera? It was too high. Ready for another case if you have one," typed Jake Garcia, a San Diego agent for five years.
His counterpart was talking to a group of migrants. Garcia swirled his chair for something rare in his new role: He took a break.
Associated Press writer Christopher Sherman in McAllen, Texas, contributed to this report.
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