ICE agents arrest a fugitive in Los Angeles during a targeted enforcement action in Los Angeles in 2017.

ICE agents arrest a fugitive in Los Angeles during a targeted enforcement action in Los Angeles in 2017. AP file photo

Congress Rejects Trump’s Bid for More Immigration Enforcement and Border Patrol Agents

CBP concedes an inevitable net loss of workers, giving back $200M originally intended for hiring.

Despite a consistent push from President Trump and leaders in his administration, lawmakers once again rejected the White House’s call for a dramatic increase in the number of federal law enforcement officers at the Homeland Security Department.

Congress took its opposition a step further in the fiscal 2018 omnibus spending bill, not just declining to fund a hiring surge but questioning the underlying wisdom of Trump’s proposal. Appropriators even noted, for the second consecutive year, that they reduced the funding total for Customs and Border Protection because of the agency’s own admission it would not be able to reach its lofty goals.

While the spending package included a 10 percent increase of $641 million to Immigration and Customs Enforcement funding, it authorizes the hiring of just 65 additional criminal investigations agents. Trump’s budget had requested funding for 1,000 new agents as part of the his mandate that ICE bring on 10,000 law enforcement personnel. The agency has struggled to meet that goal, with the number of new deportation officer hires—where the Trump administration has envisioned the overwhelming majority of the new employees working—dropping in half in Trump’s first year in office to just 371.

Danielle Bennett, an ICE spokeswoman, told Government Executive last month that the agency is taking a “multi-pronged” approach to fulfilling Trump’s hiring mandate and would be ready to ramp up if it received authorization from Congress.

”ICE is building a pipeline of candidates to support the president’s executive order . . . pending receipt of appropriations,” Bennett said.

In a statement announcing the president’s support for the omnibus, the White House praised the overall increase in ICE funding but denounced the restrictions the spending bill enacted.

“Without reservation, the administration will execute its immigration enforcement mission, using all available authorities and resources,” the White House said.

The same executive order called on CBP to hire 5,000 new Border Patrol agents, and Trump’s budget requested funding for 500 to come on board this fiscal year. But Congress did not authorize any new hires at Border Patrol, and instead provided $7 million for 351 customs officers at ports of entry. Lawmakers noted that “despite significant investments in hiring, retention and recruitment strategies,” CBP now expects Border Patrol to lose more agents than it will gain in fiscal 2018.

“These reduced payroll costs are reflected in the bill,” lawmakers wrote in an explanatory statement accompanying the omnibus, which Trump signed into law last week.

Border Patrol also saw a net loss in agents in fiscal 2017 and is still nearly 2,000 agents short of its current congressionally-mandated floor. CBP is looking to improve that trend by adjusting its polygraph exam, changing its physical fitness test and reforming its training process. Agency leaders have said the average application processing time has decreased from 400 days in 2014 to 160 days today. Still, for the second consecutive year, CBP advised lawmakers to reduce its allocation for personnel by more than $200 million because its payroll costs are going to fall short of its projections. Congress used the savings to boost CBP-wide recruitment and retention programs, as well as “other operational requirements.”

Lawmakers indicated they did not include more funding for CBP hires not just because the agency was struggling to hire, but also because it has not demonstrated a need for the new employees.

“The budget request for new Border Patrol agents, in particular, was not supported by any analysis of workload and capability gaps across CBP that would be necessary to evaluate the benefits of the proposal as compared to other investments,” congressional appropriators said. They instructed CBP to provide them quarterly briefings on developing a “comprehensive assessment” of agencywide capability gaps.

CBP was not the only DHS component to actually request less money for hiring. The office of the secretary, “based on technical assistance” from the department, saw a $1.6 million reduction to “reflect more realistic hiring projections.” The management directorate saw a $5 million cut for the same reason.

The House last year backed the 2017 Border Security for America Act (H.R. 3548), which would have authorized CBP to hire 5,000 new Border Patrol agents and an additional 5,000 customs officers. 

Despite the lack of funding, CBP and ICE are both looking to the private sector for massive hiring sprees. ICE’s solicitation is seeking a contractor’s assistance in hiring 8,500 deportation officers, 1,500 criminal investigators and 6,600 support staff. CBP recently awarded a similar contract to provide Accenture Federal Services up to $297 million to help it hire as many as 7,500 employees.

The Trump administration doubled its hiring request for ICE in its fiscal 2019 budget proposal to 2,000 agents. DHS again suggested hiring 1,000 new agents in fiscal 2019 in its initial submission to the White House, according to documents released by Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., but the administration instructed the department to double the number.

Despite the relative lack of new hires, ICE is fulfilling some of Trump’s promises. ICE removed more than 81,000 individuals as a result of arrests from Jan. 20, 2017, through Sept. 30, 2017, a 25 percent increase from the same period in fiscal 2016. ICE arrested 143,000 individuals for violating immigration laws in fiscal 2017, up 30 percent from the previous year. In the time since Trump took office compared to the same period in 2016, arrests jumped 42 percent.