Hiring and pay reforms accompany staffing surges in bipartisan border deal
After months of negotiations, Senate group unveils measure to ramp up border security, provide foreign aid and largely meet President Biden's request for thousands of new federal employees.
Updated Feb. 5 at 7:10 pm
The departments of Homeland Security and Justice would see significant staffing increases, hiring flexibilities and pay reforms under a border security and foreign aid package that a bipartisan group has unveiled in the Senate after months of negotiations, looking to attach the workforce changes to a larger bill that would restrict migrant access into the country.
The $118 billion bill includes more than $18 billion for DHS, $900 million for Justice and close to another $1 billion for border and immigration related issues at other agencies. Of that, $700 million would go toward hiring of Custom and Border Protection officer and Border Patrol agent hiring, $500 million for Immigration and Customs Enforcement staffing, upwards of $4 billion for U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services to onboard more than 4,300 new asylum officers and $56 million for the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center to staff up to train all of those new employees. Justice's Executive Office of Immigration Review would receive $440 million to plus up its immigration judges and support teams.
The White House on Monday said the measure would support more than 1,500 new CBP personnel—including both Border Patrol agents and customs officers—1,200 ICE employees, 100 immigration judges and support staff and additional USCIS staff on top of the asylum officers. That does not quite meet Biden's request for 2,300 CBP officers and agents, does not include the 1,470 ICE attorneys the president had sought and slashes the 375 immigration judge teams for which he asked. Of the CBP hiring, 1,075 of the new staff would go to the Office of Field Operations, according to National Treasury Employees Union President Doreen Greenwald.
Sens. James Lankford, R-Okla., Krysten Sinema, I-Ariz., and Chris Murphy, D-Conn., who negotiated the deal and are now fighting to win support from their senate colleagues and reverse opposition from their House counterparts, included in the measure several provisions to aid in the hiring of those employees. USCIS and ICE would receive direct hire authority—allowing the agencies to bypass normal restrictions that slow down federal onboarding—for five years. CBP would for three years receive a waiver from conducting polygraph tests for any applicant who received one in the previous 10 years for any other law enforcement agency.
Congress instituted the polygraph requirement for CBP’s law enforcement positions in 2010 after a rapid buildup of Border Patrol personnel during the George W. Bush administration led to widespread misconduct at the agency. Previous administrations have complained the requirement bogged down the hiring pipeline and three-in-four applicants failed the test.
The USCIS hiring would amount to a complete makeover of the agency. Its entire Asylum Division had 760 asylum officers on staff as of September, with 300 additional authorized positions vacant. Lawmakers proposed significant assistance to the agency for its efforts to quintuple that workforce, including by boosting base pay for General Schedule positions by 15%. Asylum officers, who conduct interviews with asylum seekers and review evidence before making eligibility determinations, are paid between GS-9 and GS-13 levels.
The funding stream for USCIS would offer newfound stability for the often cash-strapped, and largely fee-funded, agency. In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, USCIS threatened to furlough most of its workers as normal funds collected through fees dried up. Congress eventually intervened, but not before a longstanding hiring freeze depleted the agency.
As part of the policy changes that required lengthy negotiations and slowed down the supplemental funding package since President Biden first requested it in October, asylum officers would be tasked with processing applications more quickly. The measure would also raise the bar for receiving asylum and require a faster removal of those who fail the screening process.
Migrants entering the country would either be detained or face government monitoring while they await the outcome of that process. Border Patrol would be required to immediately turn away any migrant who enters the country if the seven-day average of daily encounters reached 5,000, though CBP officers could continue to process 1,400 arrivals per day at ports of entry. Any migrant who is detained two or more times after crossing illegally during a border “shutdown” period would face a one-year ban on entry into the United States, adding consequences not seen when the Title 42 policy was in effect.
Migrant encounters have in recent months jumped to unprecedented levels. In December, encounters at the southwest border reached 10,000 per day and eclipsed 300,000 for the month for the first time ever. The backlog at immigration courts has topped 3 million cases and USCIS’s asylum backlog is nearing 1 million, both also all-time records.
The rest of the bill would provide $60 billion for aid in Ukraine, $14 billion for aid in Israel, $9 billion for humanitarian assistance and $4.8 billion for allies in the Indo-Pacific. Much of the funding mirrors Biden’s requests, though the lawmakers significantly increased the overall money allocated to DHS by adding to the asks for CBP and ICE.
The senators proposed reducing the new funding for Justice’s immigration courts to one-third of Biden’s initial request, in part because DHS, rather than EOIR, will handle a larger share of asylum claims and appeals. Lankford said the additional ICE staffing would enable faster removal of migrants deemed ineligible for U.S. residency. The $7.6 billion the agency would receive would nearly match its entire budget for fiscal 2023.
The proposals raise questions about how realistic the hiring goals are given DHS’ previous failures to grow certain components. CBP has struggled for years to fill Border Patrol and customs officer positions. The Trump administration signed a contract worth up to $300 million to help it bring on 7,500 border personnel, but canceled it after it managed to hire just 15 employees. Lawmakers for years were forced to claw back money appropriated for CBP hiring after the agency failed to meet its targets. In more recent years, the agency has seen some success in slowly growing its workforce.
Murphy, one of the architects of the bill, on Monday expressed confidence to Government Executive that the DHS hiring targets were realistic.
"There's no appropriations in the bill that aren't matched to hiring expectations set by the department," Murphy said. "So we didn't put money in there that we don't believe the department can use on the timetable in the bill."
At least some federal employee groups threw their support behind the measure. The National Border Patrol Council, which endorsed President Trump in 2020 and has frequently criticized Biden’s approach at the border, endorsed the bill, saying it would empower their members with new authority they have not previously enjoyed.
"While not perfect, the Border Act of 2024 is a step in the right direction and is far better than the current status quo."
NTEU’s Greenwald did not take a position on the overall bill but praised the measure for addressing one of the union’s longstanding concerns.
"Our ports of entry have been understaffed for years and by adding more officers, CBP would be better equipped to stop shipments of fentanyl and reduce the need for temporary duty assignments to the southwest border ports,” she said.
Lawmakers have raised concerns about the pragmatism of the proposed hiring surges, noting the previous administrative challenges. The hiring and pay flexibilities included in the bill could alleviate some of those concerns, though meeting the demands of the bill is still likely to prove difficult. Lankford defended the provisions, saying the new authorities would “quickly increase officers.”
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said the bill would make the adjudication system fairer by ending underfunding and hiring more staff. On Monday he cued up the bill for votes later this week, with the first preliminary vote scheduled for Wednesday.
The bill has the backing of both Schumer and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., though senators in both parties have expressed apprehension for a measure that cannot pass without 60 votes. If the bill does clear the chamber, it will face a House Republican majority that has blasted it throughout the negotiations and may never come up for a vote at all. House Speaker Mike Johnson, R-La., and Reps. Steve Scalise, R-La., Tom Emmer, R-Minn., and Elise Stefanik, R-N.Y., the top four leaders in the chamber, said in a joint statement the bill was riddled with "loopholes" and did not go far enough to shut off immigration pathways. Their opposition has followed calls by former President Trump to kill the measure so it does not interfere with his plan to campaign on border security issues.
“Any consideration of this Senate bill in its current form is a waste of time," the leaders said. "It is DEAD on arrival in the House. We encourage the U.S. Senate to reject it."
This story has been updated throughout with additional detail.
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