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Political debate taking toll on Border Patrol

Border Patrol agents don’t have it easy. Nobody seems to like what they’re doing. To many they’re the face of increasingly oppressive policies and arguments that have racial undertones. Others say they aren’t doing their jobs, since many people still manage to encroach our boundaries without getting caught.

So news that suicides by Border Patrol agents have increased over the past two years is alarming, but not surprising.

The Associated Press reported that at least 15 agents have killed themselves in the past two years, after nearly four years without a reported suicide among their ranks. It’s the largest spike in suicides the agency has seen in 20 years.

Many factors contribute to suicides; family members of some Border Patrol agents who took their own lives downplay stress or other work-related issues that might have influenced their decision. Others, however, link them directly.

Certainly, the job has grown more challenging. The AP notes that with border incursions down, many agents endure entire days sitting in hot vehicles scanning their assigned territory without seeing anything. At the same time the agents know that anyone they do see could be an illegal border crosser or smuggler; any interaction could be a dangerous confrontation.

Boredom on the job adds stress. So does the knowledge that although they don’t see anything, people are still coming over. They know many people think they aren’t doing their job well enough.

They surely hear the arguments that constantly stream over radio airwaves and the debates in Congress seemingly every day. Every person who gets through, they hear, is a potential terrorist ready to destroy American society.

Every couple of years lawmakers pass another bill mandating even more agents because illegal immigration, they allege, continues unabated. The border security bill President Barack Obama signed last week calls for hiring 1,000 more agents to join the 22,000 already working our borders.

Those huge hiring mandates could also be a factor. Could the Department of Customs and Border Protection compromise hiring standards, applicant screening and comprehensive training in order to meet the demands of deploying so many people at once? Critics and some observers — including some Homeland Security officials — have said that such massive infusions of new agents dilutes the pool of veteran agents, reducing the overall age and experience within the agency.

Could they be hiring some people who might not have passed personality screening if the agency didn’t feel the pressure to hire so many people? Are background checks as thorough as they should be?

Those who knowingly throw out exaggerations and outright lies about immigration in order to score political points should consider the likelihood they are contributing to the pressures under which our border sentries must work. Increasingly, it appears, some of those agents are finding the pressures too much to take.