Trump plan to boost Border Patrol is in trouble

In this April 6, 2017 photo, a U.S. Border Patrol agent gives information about working for the agency to 24-year-old Ric Kindle, of the Phoenix area, at the Country Thunder Music Festival in Florence, Ariz. President Donald Trump has ordered 5,000 new Border Patrol positions.
In this April 6, 2017 photo, a U.S. Border Patrol agent gives information about working for the agency to 24-year-old Ric Kindle, of the Phoenix area, at the Country Thunder Music Festival in Florence, Ariz. President Donald Trump has ordered 5,000 new Border Patrol positions. AP

When a U.S. Senate committee voted recently for a bill that would end lie-detector tests for some job applicants at the U.S. Border Patrol, it was a stark recognition that one of the major components of President Donald Trump’s plan to stop illegal immigration — a hiring surge of 5,000 new agents in the Border Patrol — is in serious trouble.

Snarled by a combination of bureaucratic torpor and the economic reality that not many qualified applicants find the job attractive, not only has the Border Patrol failed to make any of the new hires, it hasn’t even been able to fill the 1,700 positions it had open at the time of Trump’s January order to expand.

“Five thousand new agents, we all knew that was pie in the sky,” said Zack Taylor, head of the National Association of Former Border Patrol Officers. “They’ll be lucky if they can find 500.”

And an unusual coalition of immigration hawks and doves predicts that attempts at a speedy mass hiring will touch off a tidal wave of misconduct, corruption and even narcotrafficker spying within the Border Patrol as applicants with dubious skills and sinister intention take advantage of softer requirements.

“Given all the problems the Border Patrol has had finding new agents, we’ve been sort of unclear on how the Trump administration thought it was going to be able not to just quickly get the organization up to strength, but to hire 5,000 more,” said Joshua Breisblatt, a policy analyst at the American Immigration Council, an immigrant-rights group.

“The answer is that they’re going to have to find ways to make it easier to hire agents, and that could easily end in disaster.”

Agreed James Tomsheck, former head of the agency’s internal affairs section: “I think it’s going to be very difficult for them to accomplish this hiring surge...And in the process, they are likely to allow huge numbers of unsuitable people into the organization.”

The shortage of Border Patrol agents has been chronic since 2001 when the George W. Bush administration, in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks, launched a crash hiring program that doubled their numbers over the next seven years.

Border Patrol bosses are reluctant to discuss the shortage or how they’re coping with it. The agency’s Miami office, which oversees nearly 1,800 miles of coastal border stretching from North Carolina around Key West and to the northwestern tip of Florida, would say only that it regularly moves around agents and equipment to “where they can have the most impact.”

But some former Border Patrol officials believe the lack of manpower is making the job more dangerous — especially if Trump’s ambitious plans for more aggressive border enforcement go into effect.

“The job is still getting done, but it’s a thinner line than it should be, where the safety and security of Border Patrol agents are at greater risk,” said Tomsheck. “Border Patrol agents are at greater risk. They’re patrolling longer, mostly alone, at a greater distance from back-up.”

The pressure of President Trump’s order for the surge in hiring — from the current 19,627 agents to 26,370 — is putting enormous pressure on a Border Patrol headquarters that, during the last budget cycle, said it wanted to cut money for 300 agents and spend it on vehicles and other equipment because “realistic agent hiring expectations” were that it couldn’t come up with that many warm bodies.

Now the agency has changed strategies: It’s asking to ease the requirements for new agents. The Senate bill curtailing lie-detector tests for job applicants (the House is considering a nearly identical measure) is a response to a request from the U.S. Customs and Border Protection Acting Commissioner Kevin K. McAleenan, who said it was necessary to make the hiring process easier.

In an internal memo that leaked out to news media in February, McAleenan wrote that in addition to easing the lie-detector requirements, the Border Patrol would need $2.2 billion and five years to carry out the hiring surge — and warned that even if the money and changes were approved, “we do not expect to see the impact” this year.

McAleenan’s memo also touched on some of the other points that skeptics cite in arguing that the hiring surge is doomed: The job is dangerous — about 750 agents are assaulted every year, with 30 dead in the line of duty since 2003 — yet the Border Patrol doesn’t pay as well (starting salaries are as low as $40,000 a year) as other federal law-enforcement agencies competing for the same job applicants.

Even when the Border Patrol signs a recruit, there’s a good chance that new agent won’t stay long — about 900 quit each year, according to the organization’s statistics. One major reason: Agents are often stationed in rough-and-tumble areas along the U.S border that offer little in the way of amenities or schools.

“One agent told me, ‘the closest thing to culture in my territory is a Walmart 30 miles down the road,” said Tomsheck.

In some areas, especially along the Mexican border, even security is an issue. “A lot of the places where you have Border Patrol stations are also major alleys for narcotrafficking,” said Taylor. “And you’re gonna have your wife and child sitting there in the middle of it? A lot of guys say, no.”

Some of those obstacles might be overcome with the blunt force of money. The difficulties associated with the lie-detector test are less easily resolved. Border Patrol says the problem with them is that they’re time-consuming and chill recruitment.

But critics among both advocates and opponents of immigration argue that the real trouble with lie detector exams is that so many Border Patrol applicants flunk them because they’re drug users, criminals or even narcotrafficker spies. And easing the polygraph requirements at the very moment the Border Patrol is rushing to hire 7,000 new agents, they say, will result in a flood of corruption within the agency.

“Putting 5,000 new agents on the ground real fast is exactly what you don’t need,” said Taylor. “Even one bad apple can do a lot of damage, and if you get a whole barrel of bad apples, it’s terrible.”

That’s exactly what happened during the hiring surge of 2001. A steady drumbeat of arrests of Border Patrol agents soon began — nearly 200 since late 2004. And when the agency began requiring lie-detector tests for job applicants in 2008, Border Patrol bosses were horrified at the results.

“We looked at a random sample of 1,000 polygraph results from job applicants — these were applicants who had been cleared by background checks — and about two-thirds of them had failed the polygraph test,” said Tomsheck, whose internal affairs unit oversaw the testing.

“And the reason they were failing was truly shocking. “Many of them admitted involvement in felony crimes, including border-related crimes [like smuggling drugs or illegal immigrants]. There was one who admitted killing his infant son. Some had direct involvement with drug cartels, some admitted they had been sent by drug cartels to infiltrate the Border Patrol and pass intelligence back to the narcotraffickers.”

Among the surge-hiring applicants who slipped into the Border Patrol before the lie detector tests were required was Ivhan Herrera-Chiang, generally regarded as one of the most corrupt agents in the organization’s history.

Working secretly for the cartels, he looted his Yuma, Arizona, Border Patrol office for intelligence to pass back to the traffickers: maps of Border Patrol electronic sensors, locations of the agency’s traffic checkpoints, and even keys to locks on the gates of protective border fences. Most chillingly, Herrera-Chiang provided the cartels with information on law-enforcement informants in Mexico, including one the narcotraffickers planned to kill.

Follow Glenn Garvin on Twitter: @glenngarvin