08/24/2007

Border Patrol chooses rugged style to reflect the job

The Grand Rapids Press 


U.S. Border Patrol Agent Brian Ratz, left, and Shone Sessions, both wearing the new border patrol uniform, get ready for their shift on their all-terrain vehicles at the Chula Vista Sector Border Patrol Station in San Diego, Aug. 16. (AP Photo/Denis Poroy)
SAN DIEGO, Calif. — Leather belts with brass buckles are out; nylon belts with quick-release plastic buckles are in. Slacks are out; lightweight cargo pants are in. Shiny badges and nameplates are out; cloth patches are in.

The Border Patrol uniform is getting its first makeover since the 1950s to look more like military fatigues and less like police garb.

The new uniform, introduced last week, reflects how illegal border crossings have changed in the past decade. As enforcement heightened, routes moved from the streets of San Diego and other border cities to unforgiving, often remote mountains and deserts on the 1,952-mile, U.S.-Mexico border. That means rigorous exercise in extreme heat for migrants -- and the agents who pursue them.

"We still do street patrols, but 99.9 percent is hills and rugged terrain," said Joe Perez, supervisor of the agency's Chula Vista station, which guards a 7-mile stretch of border in the San Diego area. "We pushed it out to where it's a lot more difficult to cross."

The redesign marks only the second major uniform change since the Border Patrol was created in 1924, said Assistant Chief Scott Garrett, who oversaw the national launch. In the 1950s, World War I-era cavalry-type uniforms were jettisoned.

The new uniform -- in the works for three years at a cost of $7.5 million to outfit 14,000 agents -- is designed to be "more operational, more tactical," Garrett said.

The quick-release belts are designed to prevent drownings in the Rio Grande and elsewhere, Garrett said. Loaded with flashlights and other gear, the heavy belts made it more difficult to stay afloat. Four agents have drowned since 2003, most recently in May in the Coachella Canal in the southeastern California desert.

Two large pockets with Velcro flaps can hold ready-to-eat meals, flashlight batteries and global positioning system devices.

Badges and nameplates are sewn on because the old, shiny pins often fell off when agents crawled and whacked through brush. The new nameplate matches the olive green uniform to make agents less visible to people who are trying to hide.

"When the moonlight shined on that name badge, you really stood out," Perez said.

The makeover comes shortly after the Border Patrol switched to a lighter .40-caliber handgun. The new holster is a plastic loop, instead of leather snap, which was prone to stretching.

About two dozen agents at a recent roll call in San Diego gave generally favorable reviews. The station's 7-mile border stretch rises 4,000 feet east from the bustling Otay Mesa crossing through mountains covered by cactus and brush, inaccessible by road.

Jordan Salamat, who spends his shifts walking through mountain brush, said that the old uniforms were known to rip on first-time outings, and that the pants lacked pocket space.

Ramon Ramirez, an agent for 10 years, said the new garb looks more military, "like you mean business."

The launch didn't go without scattered complaints.

Some agents said the yellow patch badge was still too visible. Others who drive all-terrain vehicles grumbled that the two-piece uniform was inferior to their old jumpsuits, which kept out dirt.

Perez, the station chief, would prefer lighter boots and a nylon holster, but he welcomed the change.

"These are made for climbing over fences and walking up and down hills," he said.  
 
Copyright 2007 Grand Rapids Press

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