Mass Turnover and Retirements Could Soon Plague the Overtaxed DHS Workforce, IG Warns
Workforce burdens are likely to escalate as Homeland Security secretary warns of "extremely challenging" period to begin next week.
The unprecedented number of migrants arriving at the southwest border in recent years has placed a strain on the federal agents and officers who work there, according to a new report, leading to declining morale and the potential for mass turnover.
While the staffing levels have remained consistent, workloads have increased dramatically, the Homeland Security Department inspector general found. Instead of building out its workforce, Immigration and Customs Enforcement and Customs and Border Protection have leaned heavily on forcing overtime and deploying personnel to various locations in need of additional support. The IG, pointing to a survey it conducted and additional feedback it solicited throughout the agencies, called the approach “unsustainable” and said it has “negatively impacted” the workforce’s health and morale, as employees feel overworked and removed from their normal duties.
“Unless CBP and ICE assess and strategically change their current staffing management at the border, heavier workloads and low morale may lead to higher turnover and earlier retirements,” the IG said. “This could worsen staffing challenges and degrade CBP and ICE’s capacity to perform their mission.”
DHS personnel totaled 2.4 million encounters in fiscal 2022, an all-time high that more than doubled the total from fiscal 2019. While a soon-to-end, pandemic-era policy known as Title 42 allowed DHS to quickly turn away most migrants arriving at the border, it also inflated the total because it enabled those rejected to quickly make renewed efforts to cross into the United States. CBP officers staffing legal ports of entry are also facing increased workloads, with the number of vehicles and travelers jumping by 36% in fiscal 2022 compared to the previous year. ICE agents in fiscal 2019 averaged seven “notice to appear [before an immigration judge]” cases. By fiscal 2022, that had more than doubled to 17 cases per agent.
Approximately nine in 10 ICE and CBP respondents to the IG’s survey said their field locations are not adequately staffed to handle periods of unusually high migrant encounters. Seven in 10 CBP personnel and six in 10 ICE employees said the same is true even during normal operations.
The IG sent its survey to all 57,000 law enforcement personnel at CBP and ICE, receiving 9,311 responses. The results were not representative of the entire population.
DHS management blasted the use of the survey at all, saying it had a low response rate and created results that were "generally misleading and not necessarily representative" of the workforce. It further cited the construction of the survey as out of line with accepted best practices. The IG countered that DHS was ignoring the problems brought forward by its findings.
“The purpose of our survey was to provide frontline law enforcement personnel the opportunity to confidentially share their perspectives on the challenges they are facing,” the IG said. “DHS’ choice to call into question the validity and reliability of the survey results does not invalidate the individual perspectives and experiences shared by those who responded.”
CBP and ICE have mostly received the budgets they requested in recent years, though officials told the IG those requests are "complex" and require coordination with the White House and Congress. Front-line personnel told the IG staffing levels may appear to be sufficient to management, but that view does not account for the frequent details to other stations and processing duties. They also accused management of obscuring the true realities on the ground when officials and lawmakers visit.
Congress funded an additional 300 Border Patrol agents as part of the fiscal 2023 omnibus spending bill—marking the first such increase in more than a decade—and Biden requested an additional 350 in his fiscal 2024 budget.
Lawmakers required CBP to create a workforce staffing model in 2011, but it failed to do so for more than a decade. It finally submitted a completed model to DHS and the Office of Management and Budget last year.
There has not been any uptick in attrition at CBP or ICE in recent years and the rate has remained consistent with the rest of government, though the IG predicted that could soon change. One in four respondents to the auditor's survey said they would leave within the next year, with many citing extraneous job duties and low morale as motivating that decision. DHS employees reported to the IG that management was prioritizing keeping up with the flow of traffic over security, with the watchdog noting the significant increase in recent years of migrants detected crossing the border but never detained. Additionally, due to DHS' formation in 2003, a wave of employees will become retirement eligible in 2028.
DHS components have for years detailed employees to assist during upswings in migration. Since fiscal 2019, the IG found Border Patrol itself has spent nearly $40 million sending thousands of employees from the northern border to temporary assignments in the southwest. CBP’s Office of Field Operations and ICE has also sent employees to provide support at the southern border.
Front-line personnel told the auditors those deployments required them to do what they considered non-law enforcement work and left their normal duty stations understaffed. Some also reported having to miss holidays and vacations with their families. DHS is also relying heavily on overtime to address staffing shortages. During the first seven months of fiscal 2022, CBP spent $400 million on overtime costs for field operations officers. The average officer was set to earn 14 days worth of overtime for the year. About three in four field operations office respondents said they had worked extra or double shifts within the last year.
The IG criticized CBP and ICE for continuing to "treat details and overtime as viable, long-term solutions to staffing issues at the border." Both components, it added, should make "strategic changes to their planning and operations" to develop better approaches. The IG also suggested DHS hire a contractor to fully assess staffing needs at the southwest border and the impact of details and overtime on the workforce, though DHS management said it does not have the funding for such a review and would not take on the recommendation. The auditors further suggested CBP and ICE complete reviews to determine whether the Biden administration's strategies at the border have been successful, which DHS agreed to do.
In addition to its criticism of the IG’s survey, DHS management faulted its watchdog for its failure to recognize initiatives the department has created to support its workforce. Those have included allowing employees to take on details on a voluntary basis, hiring hundreds of processing coordinators, contracting out some processing and caregiver roles, improving facility amenities, launching focus groups to identify morale issues, creating various suicide awareness programs and even deploying a mindfulness and meditation app for employees.
The Biden administration has repeatedly butted heads with DHS Inspector General Joseph Cuffari, who is currently facing allegations that his office mishandled investigations into missing text messages from Secret Service agents in the lead up to the Jan. 6 Capitol violent riots in 2021 and is under a separate investigation by the Council of the Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency.
In the near term, the issues the department’s workforce are facing will likely be exacerbated. On Friday, DHS officials spoke to the steps it is taking to prepare its law enforcement personnel for the expected uptick in migrant arrivals when the Title 42 policy ends May 11.
“I think that there is no question that this is going to be extremely challenging,” DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said. “I do not want to understate the severity of the challenge that we expect to encounter.” He added DHS has “the greatest workforce in the world to fulfill our mission, and we will do so.”
CBP acting Deputy Commissioner Carry Huffman added his agency has taken steps to add capacity to alleviate the burdens the workforce will face.
“We're focused on getting as many agents back on the line,” Huffman said. “We've been hiring, for the last year or so, contractors and non-uniformed personnel to new jobs that Border Patrol normally do to get them back on the line.”