Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., is one of the sponsors of the bill to increase hiring.

Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., is one of the sponsors of the bill to increase hiring. Manuel Balce Ceneta / AP file photo

Bipartisan Group of Lawmakers Pushes Federal Hiring Spree to Address Border Influx

Several agencies would see boosted workforces, even those where Democrats previously resisted such efforts.

Lawmakers in both parties and chambers are looking to address the large uptick in migrants arriving at the southern border through hiring, introducing legislation that would require several immigration-related agencies to staff up. 

The 2021 Bipartisan Border Solutions Act—introduced in both the House and Senate—would task agencies within the departments of Homeland Security and Justice with hiring nearly 2,000 employees, which the bill’s authors said would help address longstanding backlogs exacerbated by the recent increase in children and other immigrants arriving from Central America and Mexico. 

Customs and Border Protection’s Office of Field Operations would face a requirement to onboard at least 600 officers and additional employees annually as determined by the agency’s workforce staffing model. The Government Accountability Office would be required to report on any failures to reach those levels. The bill would also require the Border Patrol to bring on 250 processing coordinators and Immigration and Customs Enforcement to hire 300 enforcement and removal officers. ICE would also have to onboard nearly 200 additional members to its legal team, with GAO also monitoring hiring initiatives at the agency. U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, which recently operated under an extended hiring freeze, would see 300 new asylum officers. The Justice Department’s Executive Office of Immigration Review would be tasked with hiring 150 immigration judge teams, which includes both the judges and support staff. 

The bill’s sponsors said the hiring would collectively allow front-line DHS personnel to focus on their core missions. 

“I am proud to introduce bipartisan, bicameral legislation ensuring the federal government takes meaningful steps to support our border communities, secure the border, and treat all migrants and unaccompanied children fairly and humanely,” said Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., who introduced the measure with Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas.

Reps. Tony Gonzales, R-Texas, and Henry Cuellar, D-Texas, put forward companion legislation in the House, with Gonzales saying immigration agencies had been stretched “to a breaking point.” 

“To restore order, Congress must enact commonsense measures that relieve the bottlenecks in our immigration system and allow our DHS agents to focus on their national security responsibilities,” Gonzales said. 

There has been widespread support for boosting capacity at U.S. immigration courts in recent years, where there is currently a backlog of 1.3 million cases and individuals typically must wait several years to have their cases heard. The Trump administration also sought to boost hiring within the Executive Office of Immigration Review. His efforts to dramatically increase the workforces at the Border Patrol and ICE were met with significant controversy, however, and Congress ultimately declined to fund the efforts. Even when the agencies attempted to boost their workforces, they were largely unsuccessful and were forced to cancel multiple contracts aimed at helping them meet President Trump’s hiring targets. 

The proposals in the new bill mirror some of the recent plans laid out in President Biden’s preliminary budget blueprint for fiscal 2022. The White House requested a $345 million appropriation for USCIS, nearly tripling the fiscal 2021 allocation for the largely fee-funded agency. After the agency threatened to furlough about 70% of its workforce last year, the Biden administration said USCIS would use the money to address its backlog of asylum cases. The immigration review office would see a 21% funding increase to address its backlog and hire 100 immigration judges. Biden’s budget was silent on staffing for CBP and ICE enforcement personnel and the administration is currently conducting its own assessments of staffing needs at the agencies, looking to create a new model for making those determinations. 

The number of migrants encountered by border personnel jumped by 71% in March compared to February, continuing a trend that began a year ago. While many of those individuals are quickly turned away under rules put in place during the COVID-19 pandemic, the growing number of unaccompanied immigrant children is placing significant strains on government capacity. The children are typically transferred to Health and Humans Services Department custody within 72 hours after CBP personnel detain and process them at the border. The migrants have remained in emergency shelters in CBP custody for longer periods, however, as agencies have struggled to keep pace with the surge of arrivals. Measures for social distancing at the facilities, put in place to protect the migrants from COVID-19, have further strained capacity.

Biden has deployed the Federal Emergency Management Agency to the southwest border to help stand up emergency shelters and federal agencies across government have solicited employees to volunteer for border assignments to help process and care for migrant children. 

The bipartisan bill unveiled this week would also create regional centers along the border to allow for better interagency coordination and quicker processing of migrants. It would allow USCIS to tweak the asylum process through pilot programs, require immigration courts to prioritize certain cases during “influx events” and ease DHS’ transportation of migrants between facilities. 

Previous efforts to prioritize cases within the immigration review office were met with derision by immigration judges, who said they should be given the freedom to run their own courtrooms in the manner they deem most efficient. The Trump administration often clashed with the judges, ultimately successfully moving to decertify their union. The National Association of Immigration Judges has pushed the Biden administration to reverse that decision, but is still awaiting action.

NAIJ President Amiena Khan reiterated her union’s longstanding desire to see the immigration courts removed from the Justice Department’s purview, but called the new hiring bill a “welcome measure.” Khan particularly praised the bill for providing judges with full supporting teams.

The National Treasury Employees Union, which represents CBP officers, praised the new hiring bill, saying it would improve morale, reduce overtime and improve efficiency.

“We appreciate that the sponsors of the Bipartisan Border Solutions Act have included authorization to add 600 CBP Office of Field Operations employees at the nation's ports of entry every year until the agency is fully staffed.” said NTEU President Tony Reardon. “Many ports remain understaffed, which affects the ability of CBP [field operations] employees to efficiently deal with legitimate trade and travel while intercepting dangerous or illicit drugs and products.”