As Trump debates border security, field agents decry existing, dire staffing shortages

As both the Trump administration and Congress turn their focus to immigration and border security in the coming weeks, the agencies that have and will be charged to meet those demands aren’t nearly equipped to handle the job — whatever that might be.

Customs and Border Protection and the U.S. Border Patrol have a dire recruitment and retention problem, and the agency must dig itself out of a growing hole before it moves forward with its plan to hire 5,000 new border patrol agents.

President Donald Trump’s executive orders on border security, which he signed early last year, ordered the Homeland Security Department and CBP to hire as many as 15,000 new border patrol agents and immigration officers. To get started, the Trump administration charged DHS human capital leadership to bring on 5,000 new employees.

But to meet demands from the president and Congress, the Border Patrol must recruit and train 2,729 new agents a year for the next five years, said Jon Anfinson, president of the National Border Patrol Council’s Local 2366.

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“The Border Patrol is only as good as its employees,” he told the House Homeland Security Border and Maritime Security Subcommittee. “If we can’t retain quality personnel, we will never be able to secure our border.”

But based on the recent past, CBP and the Border Patrol have a long way to go to meet the administration’s demands. The agency hired, trained and deployed just 485 agents to field in 2016, according to Anfinson.

And the trend goes beyond the past two years. The U.S. Border Patrol hasn’t met mandated hiring targets since fiscal 2014, House Subcommittee Chairwoman Martha McSally (R-Ariz.) said during Tuesday’s hearing on the topic.

Today, the Border Patrol isn’t fully staffed to its congressional target of 21,370 agents. Instead, it has 1,900 vacancies, said Brandon Judd, president for the National Border Patrol Council.

CBP itself is experiencing a similar staffing shortage with its Customs and Border Protection officers, the employees who secure U.S. ports of entry.

The agency has nearly 1,200 funded, but vacant, CBP officer positions, National Treasury Employees Union President Tony Reardon told the subcommittee. NTEU represents about 25,000 CBP officers, agriculture specialists and trade enforcement personnel.

CBP needs to fund and hire an additional 2,500 CBP officers to meet 2018 staffing needs, Reardon added.

The high vacancy rate stems from a variety of intersecting challenges.

CBP can’t keep up with the current pace of agent and officer retirements.

Though Customs and Border Protection has in recent years shortened its time-to-hire from 400 days, it takes the agency more than 292 days, on average, to complete the 12-step hiring process for a new officer or agent, McSally said.

CBP recently signed a $42 million, one-year contract with Accenture Federal Services to help the agency test and screen prospective candidates and streamline the hiring process for 7,500 applicants.

In a Jan. 3 letter to acting CBP Commissioner Kevin McAleenan, Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee Ranking Member Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) expressed some skepticism with the $40,000 figure per recruitment and hiring action.

But based on figures union officials presented at Tuesday’s hearing, CBP’s latest contract could be a bargain. According to Anfinson, it costs CBP $180,000 to recruit, hire and train one new border patrol agent.

Union officials said they largely see CBP’s current requirements for the polygraph examination as the biggest hindrance to hiring border patrol agents and officers more quickly.

Most applicants must pass a polygraph to begin a job with the agency, but two out of three applicants fail the Border Patrol’s polygraph test, Anfinson said.

Both Anfinson and Reardon agreed that CBP’s polygraph requirements shouldn’t be so stringent, and some lawmakers see an opportunity to change the status quo as well.

The House Homeland Security Committee passed a bill last year, which McSally sponsored, that would waive the polygraph requirement for current state and local law enforcement officers who have already passed a polygraph test, federal law enforcement officers who have already passed a background investigation and veterans with at least three consecutive years in the military who have held a security clearance.

But once CBP hires its agents and officers, it struggles to keep them.

According to Anfinson, the U.S Border Patrol has a 6 percent attrition rate, nearly twice the federal law enforcement rate of 3.2 percent.

Agents are leaving for other law enforcement organizations, union officials said, and the pay disparities that exist among other federal law agencies aren’t helping matters, either.

Congress passed the Border Patrol Agent Reform Act in 2014, which modernized agents’ 40-year-old overtime system.

“This legislation, which we supported, was originally revenue neutral, however, through the legislative process, the Obama administration forced through a savings cut of $100 million per year in the final law,” Anfinson said. “As a result, the average agent took a pay cut of approximately $5,500. We only supported the legislation because the agency had begun limiting agents’ [administratively uncontrollable overtime], which began affecting agents’ monthly pay and retirement.”

Anfinson said the National Border Patrol Council is discussing the pay disparity issue with the Trump administration.

Yet Reardon, who also argued that CBP and other federal agencies must use existing recruitment, retention and relocation incentives to attract top talent to stay in the field, sees a broader issue with compensation.

According to a preliminary budgetary “passback” document, which McCaskill obtained from a whistleblower and reported to the press, the Homeland Security Department requested a pay raise for border patrol agents, Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents, Customs and Border Protection officers and other DHS employees for 2019.

But OMB denied DHS’ request to provide additional pay and added that the administration planned to issue a governmentwide pay freeze for civilian employees next year, according to McCaskill’s report on the passback documents.

“When we’re looking at trying to make a career at CBP more attractive, it is difficult to try to go out and recruit folks, and at the same time they’re hearing in the media [about] the potential for federal employees — all federal employees — [to get] another pay freeze,” Reardon said. “That is a non-starter.”