James McHenry, director of the Executive Office of Immigration Review, testifies before Congress late last month. EOIR is one of the offices under scrutiny for its hiring.

James McHenry, director of the Executive Office of Immigration Review, testifies before Congress late last month. EOIR is one of the offices under scrutiny for its hiring. Jose Luis Magana/AP

Administration's Failure to Hire More Employees to Support Immigration System Meets Bipartisan Criticism

Customs and Border Protection and Justice Department face pressure from Congress to meet mandated hiring levels.

Lawmakers on Thursday voiced concerns over the Trump administration’s inability to hire new employees to bolster the nation’s immigration system, highlighting a long list critical functions that are feeling the strain of insufficient personnel.

At two separate hearings, members of both political parties faulted the administration for wasteful spending and failure to make progress on boosting staff that Congress has specifically authorized. At a House Appropriations Committee hearing, a Justice Department official confirmed that the agency is no longer prioritizing the onboarding of new immigration judges and support staff due to funding shortfalls. The announcement came just weeks after President Trump signed a spending bill with appropriations for additional judges, but the department said unforeseen costs will make that—and previously funded hiring—impossible.

The hiring was a bipartisan priority to help address the backlog of cases in Justice’s immigration courts, which now stands at 850,000.

At a House Homeland Security Committee hearing, lawmakers implored Customs and Border Protection to make progress in filling vacant positions at the Border Patrol and in its Office of Field Operations. The staffing shortfalls have persisted for years, even despite President Trump’s mandate that Border Patrol hire 5,000 new agents. CBP officials stressed that they are making progress, emphasizing that in fiscal 2018 the agency hired more employees than it lost to attrition for the first time in six years.

While the officials cited CBP’s improved time-to-hire, tweaks to the polygraph test it administers to all applicants, and the use of relocation incentives and rotational programs to fill vacancies in understaffed areas, they conceded the agency remains thousands of agents and officers short of its authorized levels.

Lawmakers particularly pressed CBP on its contract with Accenture Federal Services, which the agency was forced to scale back through a partial stop work order due to its failure to bring on new staff in significant numbers. The contractor as of December had helped CBP hire just 36 employees, despite signing a contract in 2017 worth up to $300 million to bring on 7,500 workers. Government Executive first reported on the low hiring totals in November, and the partial stop work order in December.

John Goodman, Accenture Federal Services’ chief executive, still portrayed the contract as successful during testimony on Thursday, noting it helped develop a hiring platform and a marketing campaign CBP will continue to use. Lawmakers, however, made clear they did not find those accomplishments sufficient.

“You’re in a bit of a hot seat today, aren’t you?” asked Rep. Clay Higgins, R-La.

Rep. Dina Titus, D-Nev., trivialized Goodman’s characterization of Accenture’s successes as “bureaucratic jargon” and noted CBP has already spent $19 million for start up costs associated with the contract. The agency has obligated $43 million to Accenture.

“What could you have possibly built for $19 million that is working so well that we couldn’t hire anybody?” Titus asked, adding she would request that Goodman return to the committee in six months to see if any progress had been made.

Rep. Van Taylor, R-Texas, criticized Goodman for not knowing the answers to “very basic question[s].”

Goodman remained defiant, blaming the media and the Homeland Security Department’s inspector general for painting “an inaccurate and incomplete picture of [Accenture’s] performance under the contract.” He said CBP will continue to reap the benefits of the structure Accenture has put in place and called the terms of the contract—which mostly only allocated funds after an employee was offered a job and onboarded—”very favorable to both the agency and taxpayer.”  

Asked after the hearing why CBP pared down the parameters of the contract given the successes he touted, Goodman said he respected “CBP’s decision to press the [pause] button and determine how the program can move forward most effectively.”

CBP remains 7,000 employees short of its staffing targets, according to Rebecca Gambler, director of the Government Accountability Office’s homeland security and justice team. She noted that CBP saw a net loss of more workers in the first half of fiscal 2018 than in fiscal 2017.

Rep. Dan Crenshaw, R-Texas, said he supported increased border fencing and technological tools on the U.S.-Mexico border, but ultimately only increased staffing would enable CBP to meet its mission.

“There is no substitute for boots on the ground,”Crenshaw said. “Without sufficient staffing, these tools are wasted.”

At the Appropriations hearing, James McHenry, director of the Executive Office of Immigration Review, touted the progress his agency has made in staffing up. He noted that EOIR has hired more immigration judges since Trump took office than it had in the seven previous fiscal years combined. Just prior to the hearing, however, McHenry notified staff the office would cancel planned hiring, training and technological updates due to cost overruns.

Rep. Jose Serrano, D-N.Y., who chairs the panel at which McHenry testified, criticized the director for delivering a “glowing” statement to the committee while simultaneously announcing a gloomy message to his staff. McHenry attributed the decision primarily to increased costs for interpreters at immigration hearings, noting the agency’s increased efficiency has led to more cases and higher costs.

“Our challenges are driven by our successes,” McHenry said.

EOIR is authorized to employ 534 judge teams, and expects to have 450 on board within the next few months. At that point the agency will only have 460 courtrooms at its 43 courts across the country, meaning it will have to acquire more space before resuming its hiring.

Rep. Ed Case, D-Hawaii, said the immigration review office was still in need of systematic reform, as the case backlog continues to grow even as the office handles cases more efficiently.

“You’re chasing a car that is going faster than you are running,” Case said.