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Trump Administration Seeks to Loosen Hiring Requirements to Beef Up Border Patrol

According to an internal memo, laxer standards are needed to expand the number of Border Patrol agents, but that could come at a cost in security.

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The Trump administration is seeking to loosen some security requirements for hiring Border Patrol agents in order to meet a dramatic surge in immigration enforcement, according to internal memos obtained by Foreign Policy and analyzed by five current and former officials in the Department of Homeland Security.

Customs and Border Protection, part of DHS, is seeking approval to relax some stringent standards that have made it difficult for the agency to meet recruitment targets in recent years. That includes a request to potentially loosen congressionally-mandated requirements such as a polygraph, as well as an entrance exam and background check.

According to the five-page, Feb. 17 memo from CBP Acting Commissioner Kevin McAleenan, changes to hiring standards are urgently needed if the agency is to expand as now planned from 19,627 Border Patrol agents to about 26,370. One former DHS official said the current requirements, especially the lie-detector test, are “insanely cumbersome,” and a big reason the agency has trouble recruiting compared with other law-enforcement agencies and even other immigration bodies within DHS, such as Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

“We do face headwinds,” McAleenan allowed, in an interview with Foreign Policy on Saturday. While declining to discuss internal planning documents, he emphasized, “Secretary Kelly has made it absolutely clear we are not going to lower standards to speed up our hiring.”

The memo estimates that even with the measures to accelerate hiring, it will take five years and cost about $2.2 billion to help fill out CBP’s ranks to meet President Trump’s quota.

“The taxpayer demonstrated in the November election very clearly that border security is a very important issue for them,” McAleenan told FP. “The investments are justified to protect our communities.”

But some former officials said the plan, despite bland bureaucratic language, clearly suggests loosening requirements in order to ramp up hiring.

“Most of the measures are worded in terms that look neutral on their face,” Stephen Legomsky, former senior counsel to the Secretary of Homeland Security and U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services under President Barack Obama, told FP after reviewing the memos.

“But because all of that is prefaced with how they need to make changes for the express purpose of enhancing their hiring ability, then obviously these things are meant to loosen those standards, not to tighten them,” he said.

And some current and former DHS officials and outside experts are concerned that lowering standards could allow the influx of less-qualified candidates who may be susceptible to corruption. CBP is uniquely targeted by drug-trafficking and other transnational organizations seeking out agents they can bribe — with money or sexual favors — to allow drugs, undocumented immigrants, or other contraband across the U.S.-Mexico border.

“We actually lived through this,” said Jay Ahern, a deputy CBP commissioner under George W. Bush, when the agency doubled in size. When reviewing tens of thousands of applicants, he said, mistakes are inevitable.

“If you start lowering standards, the organization pays for it for the next decade, two, or three,” Ahern said. (He did not review the memos.)

McAleenan’s memo is part of CBP’s effort to figure out how to meet the Trump administration’s increased immigration enforcement. In one of his first acts as president, Trump issued an executive order that mandated building a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border and beefing up enforcement by adding 5,000 additional Border Patrol agents, and 10,000 additional ICE officers, tripling their number. DHS Secretary John Kelly expanded upon the executive order with directives released on Feb. 21 that dramatically expand the pool of immigrants subject to deportation.

“CBP has insufficient agents/officers to effectively detect, track, and apprehend all aliens illegally entering the United States,” Kelly wrote in the directives, released three days after the internal CBP memo was stamped. He directed DHS department heads, such as McAleenan, to immediately begin the process of hiring, “while ensuring consistency in training and standards” and “subject to the availability of resources.”

In the memo, McAleenan described some of the changes CBP is considering — waiving the polygraph for some applicants such as police in good standing, making background investigations less stringent, and easing the entrance exam — as making CBP “more competitive.”

Some officials said the steps outlined are long overdue to reduce unnecessary bureaucratic hurdles and meet the staffing shortfalls at CBP; it is still 1,600 agents shy of its authorized strength, and turnover is prevalent. In the last budget cycle, CBP requested funding for 300 fewer officers than the prior year, preferring to upgrade old equipment than chase “unrealistic” hiring expectations.

In addition to the lie-detector test, CBP applicants undergo cognitive, fitness, and medical exams, as well as fingerprinting, financial disclosure, drug testing and background checks. Even veterans with security clearances have to undergo an additional security screening to be hired at CBP, the former DHS official pointed out.

McAleenan said Saturday CBP is also looking at better pay equity, incentivizing remote locations, opening up more opportunities for veterans, and continuing to streamline the hiring process. In the last two years, McAleenan said, CBP has reduced its hiring timeline from 400 days to 170.

But social changes, he added, have added to the hiring difficulty. “We’re dealing with an environment around law enforcement that’s challenging in our society right now,” he said. And marijuana legalization in some states “makes it challenging for young people to meet our standards.”

Yet the polygraph has become the biggest hurdle, officials and experts say. Two out of three CBP applicants fail — more than double the average rate for eight other law enforcement agencies, according to the Associated Press.

McAleenan observed in the memo that the lie-detector test “has been identified as both a significant deterrent and point of failure.” ICE, he noted, does not require a polygraph test, and that agency’s own drive to hire 10,000 more agents will “greatly hinder” CBP’s own staffing.

The polygraph “helps us insure our integrity,” and has helped identify cartel lackeys trying to infiltrate CBP, McAleenan said Saturday. But he’s looking for ways to ensure it’s not being used “as an investigative tool,” and to allow some applicants — such as former members of the military or other law enforcement agencies — to skip it.

“We’d like to have the flexibility to make those decisions, instead of having every single person who applies be subject to the polygraph,” McAleenan said. “But we’re going to make those decisions very carefully in balancing the risk against the benefits.”

Yet those tough standards, including a mandatory polygraph, were put into place by Congress in 2010, after Customs and Border Protection suffered acute growing pains during the Bush administration, when CBP doubled in size. Some Border Patrol agents didn’t complete background checks before they deployed to the frontlines, officials reported, and the agency saw an increase in cases of internal corruption, and questions over its use-of-force training following a spate of deadly incidents.

And problems have persisted. According to rights group Southern Border Communities Coalition, between 2010 and 2015, media reported 40 deadly incidents involving CBP, and only one agent was prosecuted. The former head of internal affairs at CBP, James Tomsheck, who declined to comment for this story, claims he was pushed out in 2014 because he fought against a “paramilitary” mindset and a culture of evading accountability for abuses. This week, the Supreme Court is hearing a case to determine whether parents of a Mexican teenager shot and killed by a CBP agent can sue.

The administration’s rush to beef up border security comes as illegal crossings into the United States from Mexico have sunk to their lowest levels in four decades; among Mexican immigrants, the flow has in fact reversed since 2009. Still, “we have not reached the level where we have more people than we need for the crossings,” McAleenan said.

The additional agents would primarily be placed in the Rio Grande Valley in Texas, where the bulk of border traffic is today, as well as the Tucson and Yuma sectors in Arizona, but also at the northern border with Canada.

“In many ways, you know, the border is more secure than it’s ever been, we have fewer people trying to cross,” McAleenan said of the southern line. “But we still have significant risks, and we need to address them across the entire border.”

The moves, especially the staffing plans, have made Mexico nervous, even beyond the public pronouncements of President Enrique Peña Nieto and other officials, who rejected the new directives as “unilateral” and “inappropriate.”

The Mexican government reached out to CBP immediately after Trump’s Jan. 25 executive order with a number of questions over how carefully the agency selects, recruits, and trains agents, according to a separate series of emails obtained by FP.

While some former officials said Mexican and American counterparts frequently communicate over new directives, others described the correspondence as atypical, and indicative of increased tensions between the U.S. and Mexico over Trump’s rhetoric.  

“It’s a bit unusual, but it’s a really unusual transition,” said David Martin, a former counsel for DHS and the Departments of State and Justice, and now a professor emeritus at the University of Virginia law school. “Particularly with the focus on immigration so early and so vehemently in the new administration.”

Photo Credit: John Moore / Staff

Molly O’Toole is a senior reporter at Foreign Policy, covering immigration, refugees, and national security. She was FP’s sole 2016 presidential campaign reporter, on the trail from New Hampshire to Nevada. Previously, she covered the politics of national security for Atlantic Media’s Defense One, where she reported from Congress, the White House, the Pentagon, and the State Department. Before that, she was a news editor at the Huffington Post. Molly has also reported on national and international politics for Reuters, the Nation, The Associated Press, and Newsweek International, among others, from Washington, New York, Mexico City, and London. She received her dual master’s degree in journalism and international relations from New York University and her bachelor’s from Cornell University and in 2016 was a grant recipient of the International Women’s Media Foundation. She will always be a Californian. @mollymotoole

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