Senate Panel Clears Reform to Speed Hiring of Some Border Agents

Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., was one of the bill's original cosponsors. Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., was one of the bill's original cosponsors. Cliff Owen/AP

Some applicants for Border Patrol positions could soon be eligible to skip the polygraph tests currently mandated for all potential hires, with a Senate committee approving a bill to expedite the hiring process in certain cases. 

The lie detector testing has come under scrutiny in recent months, as Customs and Border Protection has struggled to meet congressionally mandated staffing floors due to the burdensome application process requirements. Just one in four applicants are currently passing the exam and lawmakers complained onboarding can take up to 18 months.

The Boots on the Border Act would allow former federal employees who served in law enforcement for at least three years; had the authority to make arrests, conduct investigations and carry firearms; and previously passed background checks to skip the polygraph exam. Military personnel who have served for at least four years transitioning to civilian jobs with good standing and security clearances would also be eligible for polygraph exemption. State and local law enforcement officers in good standing who took a polygraph as part of their initial application process would also be able to skip the federal lie detector test.

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Congress in the 2010 Anti-Border Corruption Act mandated the polygraph requirement after a rapid buildup of Border Patrol personnel during the George W. Bush administration led to widespread misconduct at the agency.

President Trump has issued a mandate of his own to CBP, instructing the agency in a January executive order to hire 5,500 new agents and officers. Progress on that effort is off to a rocky start, as Congress reduced funding for CBP hiring by $200 million in the fiscal 2017 spending bill after agency officials told lawmakers they would hire 3,000 fewer agents than initially projected. 

The Senate Boots on the Border bill -- approved by the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee on Wednesday -- would not likely make a major dent in the attempted hiring surge, at least according to the Congressional Budget Office. The House Homeland Security Committee has already passed the 2017 Anti-Border Corruption Reauthorization Act, which would implement similar polygraph waivers.

“CBO estimates that implementing the bill would have no significant effect on the agency’s spending to vet applicants for law enforcement positions,” the office wrote in its score of the House measure, “because the expanded exemption would probably not affect very many people.”

Some Democrats on the Senate panel opposed the reform, saying border agents and customs officers are particularly vulnerable to corruption. Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., said criminal enterprises budget billions of dollars to bribe border officials and Congress should withhold any reforms until its receives a better idea of their impact. She added lawmakers should not assist Trump in implementing his immigration agenda.

“Now is not the time in any way to loosen hiring standards so the Trump administration can expand its deportation force,” Harris said.

Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., the committee’s chairman and one of the bill’s original cosponsors with Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., said there was no cause for concern.

“This isn’t a random group of people here,” Johnson said. “These are people who have been pretty well vetted.”

In March, CBP officials vowed not to lower hiring standards in efforts to enact Trump’s proposed surge. They said nearly all applicants would still require a polygraph exam, though they left the door open to some adjustments in how it is administered and said they would ask Congress for the type of exemptions included in the House and Senate bills. Officials also noted the average number of days from application to onboarding has dropped from 469 days in 2013 to 160 days currently.

The National Treasury Employees Union, which represents more than 25,000 CBP employees, said it does not want to reduce the agency’s hiring standards generally but still endorses the bill.

“This legislation would help CBP fill longstanding vacancies without lowering its standards,” NTEU President Tony Reardon said. “The polygraph screening has been a major impediment to hiring because of CBP’s unusually high failure rate, suggesting that qualified candidates have been unfairly rejected.”

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