DHS chief Jeh Johnson testifies before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee on the department's fiscal 2017 budget request.

DHS chief Jeh Johnson testifies before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee on the department's fiscal 2017 budget request. Andrew Harnik/AP

Border Agencies Fall Short of Fulfilling Ambitious Hiring Plans

High attrition rates and a shortage of qualified polygraphers are hampering efforts; DHS chief cites tough budget choices.

How much the government should invest in border protection may depend on one’s view of whether the current Border Patrol and related operations demonstrate progress in improving national security.

Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson at a Tuesday budget hearing faced challenges from senators warning that ISIS terrorists and Central American refugees might render his $13.9 billion Customs and Border Protection budget request inadequate, while the union representing the agency warned of overstretched staff and a shortfall of more than 2,000 employees.

“We faced hard choices to fit within the caps established by the bipartisan budget agreement of 2015, but, at the end of the day, it funds all of our vital homeland security missions in these challenging times,” Johnson told the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.

The fiscal 2017 request for $66.8 billion in budget authority would achieve an increase of $506.3 million over last year’s account, but the discretionary budget request of $47.3 billion is $1.9 billion less than what was appropriated in 2016. Hiring for Border Patrol under the $7 billion request for salaries and benefits would fund 300 fewer new agents than the level enacted last year, while ambitious hiring plans at CBP and Immigration and Customs Enforcement have not been fulfilled.

Committee Chairman Ron Johnson, R-Wis., while praising CBP for progress since the 2014 influx at the Southern border of refugees from Latin America, warned that the recently heightened pace of arriving unaccompanied children is alarming enough to impact Johnson’s spending plan.

"Four months and we're up to 23,000 already… 2014 was a crisis, right now I think we're running ahead of 2014 levels" of a record 68,541 by 49 percent, Sen. Johnson said. "If we maintain this pace, we'll have 77,000 in 2016. I think we're possibly beyond crisis proportions here."

Jeh Johnson offered a different set of numbers, differentiating between those children arriving from Mexico and those from Central America. 2015 was a "pretty good year," he said. “It was down significantly from fiscal 2014 in terms of total apprehensions along the Southwest border.” Some 28,000 were sent back to Central America, and more to Mexico, he said. “That’s sending a pretty public message that if you come here illegally, we will send you back,” the secretary said. “But nobody at Customs and Border Protection, ICE, or DHS thinks this crisis has been averted.”

The influx of unaccompanied minors “is overwhelming recourses,” Jeh Johnson said, adding that “pushback from poverty and the like” in the Latin American countries means “there’s only so much border security can do.”

America’s northern border, said Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., now has 300 fewer border agents and “is looking like we’re putting something at risk,” he said. All terrorists need to do is locate “the weakest link,” he said.

Jeh Johnson replied that “all of the actions you see reflect our judgment about where the risks are, and we have a pretty active southern border. We’re not doing as good a job in hiring as I’d like to see,” but recruiting is under way. DHS does have a task force and strategic plan for sealing the Southern border, he added.

The broader hearing focused on cybersecurity, keeping out foreign fighters and “building bridges” with community grants and outreach to domestic Muslim communities, where some aspiring terrorists become radicalized. Jeh Johnson justified his budget’s request for a $1 hike in each aviation travel passenger fee to fill a $900 million budget “hole” in security protections. “Generally, users and American taxpayers should pay for security,” he said. Without that $900 million in new fees, “we will have a hard time paying for that airport security that is central for this Congress to support.”

That drew praise from ranking member Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del. But he warned that having spent a “half trillion dollars” on border security over the past decade, “we still have not addressed the root causes” of the migration—violence and lack of economic opportunity in Central America, he said—for which the U.S. bears some responsibility through the drug and weapons trade, he added.

In submitted testimony, the National Treasury Employees Union, while praising the administration’s proposed 5.2 percent budget hike and plan to add 2,000 CBP employees, warned that current “employees are forced to work overtime and asked to take assignments far from home because their agency is chronically understaffed and is struggling to accomplish its mission.” NTEU National President Tony Reardon said CBP Officers in particular are “demoralized by having to work 12-15 hour shifts for months and work far from home.”

Some of the reasons for the hiring backlog were outlined Tuesday afternoon at a separate Senate Appropriations Committee hearing by Kevin McAleenan, CBP’s deputy commissioner. He said efforts to reach the planned hiring rate were hampered by high attrition rates for current employees who receive better-paying and better-located offers from other agencies at a time when general unemployment is dropping. 

Last year’s data breach at the Office of Personnel Management “set us back two months” in reducing the backlog, he said. There is a shortage of qualified polygraphers to help with background checks and a high failure rate of applicants, he added. “Our standards are higher,” he said, but too many candidates fail drug tests, or hesitate to relocate to remote assignments.

McAleenan told Appropriations Homeland Security Subcommittee Chairman John Hoeven, R-N.D. -- who said CPB’s budget would hinge on its performance in protecting Americans -- that filling the jobs is a “high priority,” for which he conducts weekly meetings. Through recruiting fairs and by consolidating stages of the interview process, CBP trimmed the average hiring time from 18 months to 160 days.

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., a longtime booster of strengthening border protection, told Jeh Johnson he is considering legislation to ease hiring by offering hardship pay to Border Patrol employees. Johnson replied that he supports hiring veterans and would be “happy to take a look” at such a bill.

Carper urged Johnson to recruit cyber experts and other employees who could earn more in the private sector by “appealing to their sense of patriotism.”

He also asked Johnson why he was awaiting for the next generation to reorganize DHS management and procurement as part of his 2014 Unity of Effort initiative.

Johnson said the effort to “remove the stovepipes should be institutionalized,” to endure longer than just his own tenure. DHS seeks a more centralized, strategic approach modeled on the Defense department,” he added, saying that current law imposes limitations.

In a nod to his 240,000-employee department’s consistently low scores in employee engagement surveys, Johnson in his written testimony vowed to “improve the levels of employee satisfaction across the department. We’ve been on an aggressive campaign to improve morale over the last two years,” he said. “Though the overall results last year were still disappointing, we see signs of improvement…. This year we will see an overall improvement in employee satisfaction across DHS.”