Former U.S. Border Patrol officials question Trump plan to add agents

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By Mica Rosenberg

<span class="articleLocation”>A U.S. Department of Homeland Security plan to
add more than 5,000 border enforcement agents will present
logistical challenges and might be unnecessary, according to
former government officials familiar with earlier pushes to
accelerate border hiring.

Three former top officials at U.S. Customs and Border Patrol
(CBP) told Reuters in interviews that ramping up hiring at the
agency, as outlined in a directive on Tuesday, would
be expensive, while rapid expansion poses the risk of corruption
if screening protocols for recruits are relaxed.

The officials said the agency should get what it needs to
secure the border, but they questioned whether such a major
staff expansion was necessary, noting that apprehensions at the
border have dropped.

“Congress is going to be looking at this very carefully and
looking for justification for this kind of money to make sure
they don’t write a check that is not necessary,” said W. Ralph
Basham who headed U.S. Customs and Border Protection during the
George W. Bush administration. “The question will be do we need
more agents or do we need money for technology and
infrastructure,” he said.

Additional enforcement officers are central to President
Donald Trump’s sweeping plan to crack down on illegal
immigration, outlined in Jan. 25 executive orders on border
security and interior enforcement. Tuesday’s Homeland Security
guidance for implementing those orders called for adding more
than 5,000 border patrol agents and 10,000 Immigration and
Customs Enforcement, or ICE, officers, who enforce immigration
laws in the country’s interior, among other duties.

The White House and Department of Homeland Security did not
respond to a question about the rationale behind the number of
personnel requested.

“At the end of the day, the goal is to get control of the
border and enhance the security of the country,” said White
House assistant press secretary Michael Short in an email.

A PREVIOUS SURGE

The proposed hiring surge would be the largest since the
Bush administration, when Congress funded an expansion of border
enforcement following the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks.

That effort doubled the number of border patrol agents from
nearly 10,000 in 2001 to nearly 20,000 by 2008, according to
CBP.

The agency was required to meet tight time requirements for
hiring, said Basham who was appointed commissioner in 2006

The laser focus on quick hiring, and its cost, ended up “sucking all the air” out of other parts of the department,
Basham recalled, leaving gaps for other spending needs.

Basham said he supports CBP getting adequate resources and
was encouraged that the new Department of Homeland Security
guidelines did not mandate a deadline to complete the hiring.
But he questioned the need for a renewed expansion of the force.

More than 1.6 million migrants were apprehended trying to
cross the U.S.-Mexico border illegally in 2000 compared to
400,000 last year, according to CBP statistics. “Currently the
flow is not really anywhere near where it was,” Basham said.

Jim Wong, who was Deputy Assistant Commissioner of CBP’s
Office of Internal Affairs from 2009 to 2011, said money might
be better spent on other department needs.

“Throwing more human resources at the issue is not
necessarily the best way to approach it,” he said.

The union representing border patrol agents, which backed
Trump in the presidential election, has long supported adding
personnel, saying more manpower is needed to secure the border,
said union spokesman Shawn Moran.

Homeland Security spokespeople declined to estimate how much
the increased hiring would cost.

The 2017 fiscal year budget request for staffing at current
levels of more than 21,000 border patrol agents was about $3.8
billion for salary, overtime and benefits, or about $180,000 per
officer on average, although officers with different levels of
seniority earn different wages. Additional costs could include
housing for agents working in remote areas, equipment and
support staff, former officials said.

In the last budget cycle, the agency requested funding for
300 fewer officers than the year before to instead invest in
replacing aging radios and vehicles. CBP said the request
reflected “realistic agent hiring expectations.”

CORRUPTION SPIKE

Gil Kerlikowske, who headed CBP for three years under
President Barack Obama, said one risk of rapid hiring is quality
control.

“When you speed up the process and don’t take the requisite
time you pay a price later in things like corruption,”
Kerlikowske said.

During the Bush-era hiring surge, the Border Patrol had
problems screening candidates, and internal corruption cases
soon spiked, according to congressional testimony and government
documents.

Congress then passed the Anti-Border Corruption Act in 2010,
which made polygraph testing mandatory for all border patrol
agents. Since then, tests have revealed candidates who were
compromised by drug cartels or were heavy drug users themselves.

But the polygraph test and other controls have also slowed
the hiring process. A 2012 GAO report found that between 2008
and 2012, only 40 percent of applicants passed their polygraph
exams.

In addition to polygraph tests, applicants now undergo a
rigorous hiring process, including a cognitive exam,
fingerprinting, financial disclosure, fitness tests, medical
examinations and background checks, according to the Government
Accountability Office (GAO).

Kerlikowske said when he left the agency at the time of
Trump’s inauguration there were 1,200 authorized but unfilled
openings for border patrol agents due to the difficulty of
finding and vetting enough qualified candidates.



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