Cutting corners to put boots on the border

Customs and Border Protection agents and officers are less trained and more unqualified than ever before.

Cutting corners to put boots on the border

Customs and Border Protection agents and officers are less trained and more unqualified than ever before.

Over the past three years, Customs and Border Protection has made several attempts to quell a so-called hiring crisis brought on by President Donald Trump’s intention to hire 5,000 new agents, part of a bid to expand CBP and Immigrations and Customs Enforcement staff by a whopping 15,000 people. Trump’s ask was aimed at increasing “frontline” positions, the roles dedicated to patrolling borders and ports of entry by ground and air to arrest migrants. The Department of Homeland Security is still struggling to meet that goal — despite an increase in Congressional funding and a decrease in skills requirements for new recruits. Now, CBP, one of the nation’s largest law enforcement agencies, is facing a crisis in both recruitment and retention. However, data obtained from the agency through an open-records request shows that despite the fact that the agency isn’t meeting its hiring goals, the past three years have seen a significant spike in overall frontline positions — people hired specifically to work along U.S. borders to identify and apprehend migrants.

In November 2018, the DHS Inspector General warned that a significant uptick in hiring of border patrol agents that was not matched by an increase in resources for training them would leave new recruits “less prepared for their assigned field environments, potentially impeding mission achievability and increasing safety risk to themselves, other law enforcement officers, and anyone within their enforcement authority.”

While the data shows erratic fluctuations in frontline staffing over the past five years, former CBP Sector Chief Victor Manjarrez, Jr. told me recruitment at the agency has always been a challenge. Manjarrez, who currently serves as the associate director of the Center for Law & Human Behavior at the University of Texas, El Paso, worked in leadership across several CBP offices under the Bush and Obama administrations. He says the hiring challenges faced by the agency don’t stem from public perception or scrutiny, but from the agency’s low starting salaries, difficult entrance requirements, and less-than-desirable working locations. “You had to reach an ungodly number of people just to get them to take a test,” Manjarrez said of his time leading recruitment for his sector.

The agency has been under intense scrutiny since it began enforcing Trump’s tough immigration policies. In 2019, CBP conducted more than one million denials and apprehensions of immigrants seeking to cross into the U.S, refusing entry for over 288,000 people attempting to legally cross through ports of entry and detaining over 850,000 who crossed over illegally. The agency continues to field accusations of cruelty and racism. Still, Manjarrez said that’s not necessarily the reason the agency is struggling to staff up.

Becoming a CBP officer or patrol agent takes months. While both are considered frontline roles, border patrol agents do more tracking, and officers do more arresting. For both, CBP says the Southwest border is in need of the most bodies. While these positions require a college degree, the starting salary sits just above $33,000 for officers and $47,000 for agents. On top of that, recruits are sent where they’re needed — often rural border towns where typical suburban comforts like nightlife, recreation, and even housing are scant. Manjarrez said that while he was at CBP, a common occurrence would be losing recruits during the long hiring process, simply because they found jobs elsewhere. Manjarrez said that out of the few recruits that would actually show up for the proctored exam, only a fraction would pass. And out of those that passed, even less would show up for the next stage of hiring. “It was such a long process,” he said.

Border Patrol agents in Nogales, Arizona.

Border Patrol agents in Nogales, Arizona.

D.B., a border patrol agent who spoke to me under the condition of anonymity, told me it took him more than two years from when he first applied to be hired by CBP to become an agent. He said that the wait time is a huge deterrent in keeping recruits interested in the positions; CBP cites their average time to hire as 300 days. “Lives change in that period of time,” he said. “People get into relationships, get pregnant, offered other jobs.”

D.B., who had a lifelong goal of working in law enforcement, also works as a recruiter for the agency. Contrary to Manjarrez’s point of view on salary, D.B. says he’s satisfied with the pay scale and the benefits he gets from CBP. He says that for his recruits, location, not compensation, is the primary deterrent. “Location of living is why we struggle to fill positions,” he says. “No one wants to live in a run-down border town.”

CBP has struggled to make service look desirable since long before Trump’s aggressive staffing goals and immigration rhetoric, and the desire to get more boots on the border is decades in the making. Under President Bill Clinton, border patrol, called Immigration and Naturalization Services at the time, saw its first major increase in staffing. Clinton’s Attorney General, Janet Reno, announced “Operation Gatekeeper” in 1994; this ushered in a new era of U.S. border patrol, with an uptick not only in staffing but in equipment, including adding 40 seismic sensors to detect movement across the border at all hours.

Now, as thousands of agents and officers hired under Clinton become eligible for retirement, CBP faces major potential frontline losses. “The big disadvantage for ICE and CBP is that they actually hire large numbers, but need those numbers to cover attrition,” Manjarrez said. “You have to have people in the pipeline, people that you've already recruited.”

However, that long timeline for hiring recruits is something that D.B. and Manjarrez said poses the biggest systemic challenge to creating a steady pipeline. In addition to a proctored exam, extensive background checks, and multiple interviews, CBP recruits are required to take a polygraph, or lie-detector test. CBP’s website says recruits can expect the polygraph test to take up to six hours and that it’s required by the Anti-Border Corruption Act of 2010. While the polygraph requirement was introduced with the intention of creating stricter standards for CBP recruits, particularly in hopes of identifying undisclosed drug use or criminal activity, the American Psychological Association maintains that the veracity of polygraph testing is widely questioned.

“The polygraph has been detrimental to our hiring program,” D.B. said. “Granted, it helps weed out candidates who shouldn’t be in law enforcement; it also in turn is weeding out truly qualified candidates because they have a non-conclusive result.”

To ease the burden of its onerous recruitment process, CBP eliminated several requirements for new recruits around the same time Trump took office. In 2017, the agency was granted authority to waive the polygraph test for certain veterans and to conduct expedited hires for certain roles. A year later, only 184 officers and agents were hired as a result of those policies. For pilots, CBP dropped a requirement that recruits complete over 100 flight hours in the year prior to their application. Data showed that while CBP gained zero new air operations agents in 2014 and 2015, 46 were brought on in 2018. The agency also eliminated one of two fitness tests required, which D.B. says was a misguided move. “I am against that move 100 percent,” he said. “With dropping the physical fitness test, the amount of injuries at the academy have increased due to trainees not being ready for the strenuous physical demand.”

Concurrently to when CBP started softening their requirements, the agency sought outside help to quench their hiring woes in the wake of Trump’s hefty goals, awarding a five-year, $297 million contract to Ireland-based professional services company Accenture to aid with recruitment. The 2017 contract laid out the company’s plans to help CBP recruits simply finish the tedious application process, aiming to provide one-on-one counseling to encourage completion, according to a report by Mother Jones.

Accenture didn’t hold up their end of the multi-million-dollar deal. By 2018, 10 months and more than $13 million into the contract, Accenture had only processed two new hires, according to the Department of Homeland Security. By December 2018, the DHS Inspector General’s office filed a report under the urgent title “CBP Needs to Address Serious Performance Issues on the Accenture Hiring Contract.” The report, which gives scathing performance review of the company, lists each of Accenture’s shortcomings in detail. “CBP has paid Accenture approximately $13.6 million for startup costs, security requirements, recruiting, and applicant support,” the report reads. “In return, Accenture has processed two accepted job offers.”

DHS wasn’t the only one who felt unenthralled by the deal. While the Inspector General’s office was finalizing its report, Accenture employees had drawn up a petition to end the contract with DHS on the grounds of their work being used to “supercharge inhumane and cruel policies,” according to Bloomberg. (The outlet did not specify whether signers of the petition were employees who worked on the CBP deal, or Accenture employees from various teams.)

By spring, DHS succumbed to evidence that the contract was a bust and terminated the deal. By that point, only 22 new recruits had joined CBP’s ranks with Accenture’s help — less than one percent of the 2,357 frontline gains CBP had overall during 2018 alone.

While DHS’s failure to reach Trump’s hiring goals is ongoing, data from CBP shows that there have been dramatic increases in certain frontline programs that illustrate how the agency is still managing to increase its presence on the border (and the denials and arrests that follow) despite these challenges. The number of officers hired to patrol and work the field in jurisdictions like Laredo, Texas and Tucson, Arizona more than doubled between 2016 and 2018. In Tucson and New York City, officer gains in the first three quarters of 2019 has already surpassed that of 2018’s yearly total. In fact, even excluding the last three months of 2019 that haven’t been reported yet, this year has seen CBP’s highest number of new frontline gains in the past five years. However, these numbers don’t take into account attrition and include internal hires and re-assignments. So, while more employees seem to be moving to frontline roles to try and meet Trump’s demand, CBP is still struggling to bring in new people.

“The long-range planning in terms of bringing large groups of people has not been well thought out,” Manjarrez said “In the next couple of years, they're going to have massive retirement, and they'll be further in the hole.”

P. Leila Bargouty is a contributing writer at The Outline.