WASHINGTON– Optimistic internal estimates say that it could still take five to 10 years for Customs and Border Protection to hire all the additional agents President Donald Trump has ordered, even if the agency gets a wish list of requests to make hiring easier, according to documents obtained by CNN.
CBP has long struggled to even keep up with attrition in its ranks, and was staffed below currently targeted levels even before the President’s January executive orders called for 5,000 more agents.
CBP’s acting commissioner spelled out a series of steps the agency would need, either from other agencies, its parent DHS or Congress, in order to hire more agents in a memo for the deputy secretary last month, according to a copy obtained by CNN.
But even those measures would only help so much, the memo makes clear.
The hurdles are just the latest practical difficulty faced by Trump’s attempts to substantially increase immigration enforcement in the US. His moves to vastly increase the number of undocumented immigrants detained and deported have rankled Democrats and spread fear in immigrant communities. In addition to his long-promised border wall, Trump has ordered a substantial increase in personnel, including the CBP surge.
Some contents of the memo have been previously reported, including CBP seeking to alleviate some hiring requirements, but the full contents had yet to be released.
In the memo’s conclusion, acting Commissioner Kevin McAleenan wrote that if the requested changes were implemented, CBP “optimistically” would project a hiring increase of fewer than 450 border agents per year, from 485 annual hires to 917 annual hires.
“This assumes an increase in yield rates for the BPA entrance exam phase, the polygraph phase and the fitness test,” he wrote.
Trump has requested 5,000 more agents be hired, and McAleenan said the agency is already struggling with attrition. Given current staffing levels, CBP needs to hire 6,743 agents to reach Trump’s new goal.
But McAleenan said attrition was 6% a year, meaning it would take 2,729 border patrol agents being hired annually to reach full staffing in five years.
If there were no attrition, based on CBP’s projections, it would take more than five years to hire the nearly 7,000 additional agents at the optimistic rate, and CBP does not suggest it can do more than slow attrition.
When the memo’s existence was first reported, a spokesman said standards would be maintained.
“US Customs and Border Protection will maintain our current high standards of recruiting the best America has to offer,” spokesman Michael Friel said. “To meet our critical hiring needs, we are exploring ways to recruit individuals that the federal government has already vetted to work in sensitive positions, such as military and federal law enforcement officers while also working to omit redundancies in the hiring process.”
CBP declined to comment further on the memo.
Some of the requests in the memo include steps like having direct hire authority, self-regulating the mandatory polygraph that is one of the biggest obstacles in hiring agents, greater salary and pay authority, greater cooperation with the Department of Defense to hire veterans and authority to establish social media accounts for recruitment.
From Congress, CBP would want legal authority to hire federal, state and local law enforcement officers who are in good standing and already have a polygraph from those agencies as well as veterans or members of the US Reserves or National Guard who have held a Secret-level clearance or hire, have had a background investigation and are otherwise in good standing.
The agency has struggled for years to hire enough agents for its mission. In 2010, Congress passed an anti-corruption bill that requires all agents to pass polygraph tests to combat the possibility that they could be blackmailed, bribed or compromised by gangs, cartels or criminals.
Congress has given CBP some flexibility, letting them hire veterans with a Top Secret-level clearance or higher, but CBP feels that has not been helpful enough.
CBP estimated that the hiring plan would cost $328 million in fiscal year 2017 and $1.9 billion in fiscal year 2018.