Border Agency Promises Not to Sacrifice Quality for Speed in Hiring

A CBP agent searches for illegal immigrants in Hidalgo, Texas. A CBP agent searches for illegal immigrants in Hidalgo, Texas. Eric Gay / AP

The Trump administration will not lower its standards for quality to ramp up hiring of border security personnel, Customs and Border Protection officials said Wednesday, leaving open the possibility the agency would reassess the total number of employees it plans to bring on.

Officials declined to state who initiated the call for 5,000 more Border Patrol agents and 500 air and marine officers, saying only the number was “very supportable” based on the standard they have been asked to achieve. President Trump ordered the hiring spree in January, and Homeland Security Department Secretary John Kelly later issued implementation guidance calling for the onboarding to begin immediately.

The CBP officials called the hiring target a “sound” number, but cautioned there was “no question” the process would take several years. CBP was not looking to hold itself to an arbitrary target for hiring per year, and the officials indicated the bureau may not need to hire as many individuals as Trump demanded once his wall is built and other infrastructure needs are addressed.  

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“It’s a target we’re charging at,” one official said. “It’s something we can reevaluate as the traffic evolves, as the infrastructure and technology affect our ability to identify and stop it.”

CBP’s strict standards for employment, including academic and physical qualifications, suitability, history with drugs, criminal history, employment history, integrity and trustworthiness will not change, the officials said. That means nearly all applicants will still require a polygraph exam, as required by statute. The agency will ask Congress to provide exemptions in “limited circumstances” in which federal, state and local law enforcement officers who have previously taken polygraphs, and veterans in good standing, would avoid the test. Republican senators recently put forward legislation to that effect. 

CBP is looking for other ways to hasten the hiring process without reducing standards, the officials said, including by adjusting the polygraph process. Just one in four applicants are currently passing the examination. The agency has also made “a number of recommendations” to the Office of Personnel Management for new hiring flexibilities and is currently working with the agency on implementing them.

Officials said they would continue to implement practices that have worked for the agency in recent years, noting the average number of days from application to onboarding has dropped from 469 days in 2013 to 160 days currently. The agency will continue to invest in social media advertising and using data analytics to identify the best age group to target in recruiting, what a successful person looks like and where to go to find that person. CBP wants to identify an “adventurous person” willing to work in remote areas along the country’s Southwest border. The agency is looking to boost its “brand awareness,” noting the ubiquity of the FBI in the public consciousness compared to the relative unfamiliarity with CBP.

“We believe we’ve identified several pieces that will enhance our recruiting and onboarding efforts going forward,” an official said, “and we’re going to apply them and reevaluate as we see the impact.”

The officials did not detail the funding CBP will require to meet the hiring goal, saying only more information on spending issues, including the support staff the agency will also have to onboard, would become available in the budget process.  

The Border Patrol is currently about 2,000 agents short of its congressionally mandated workforce floor of 21,370. A 2016 DHS inspector general’s report found Homeland Security Department components including CBP face “significant delays” in hiring despite a 2014 funding infusion to boost their workforces. The polygraph requirement, mandated by Congress in the 2010 Anti-Border Corruption Act after a rapid buildup of Border Patrol personnel during the George W. Bush administration led to widespread misconduct at the agency, continues to bog down the hiring process.

In his last budget, President Obama requested funding for 300 fewer Border Patrol agents. Trump, meanwhile, has tasked Immigration and Customs Enforcement with hiring 10,000 more employees. A CBP official said the two agencies are working closely together.  

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