The Trump administration recently ordered the speedy hire of 5,000 new Border Patrol agents to deploy at the southern border—a move that is alarming for some critics. The last time an administration ramped up the ranks at U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), it was accompanied by an outbreak of corruption and excessive use of force. Some new agents took bribes from drug cartels or human trafficking operations, while other applicants already associated with illegal operations, applied in order to infiltrate CBP.
We must prevent the mistakes that led to corruption and abuse the last time we quickly expanded the number of CBP agents. In the parlance of our times, we need extreme vetting for border patrol agents.
Corruption was endemic following the mid-2000s hiring boom. The Center for Investigative Reporting found more than 150 cases of corruption among CBP agents, most of whom were convicted. Officer Raquel Esquivel was caught colluding with smugglers and advising them how to avoid detection. Officer Michael Gilliland accepted tens of thousands of dollars in cash bribes. Agent Cindy Moran-Sanchez pled guilty to taking part in a conspiracy to smuggle drugs into the U.S. Agent Ricardo Montalvo purchased military-type rifles, high-powered pistols, flare launchers (to be converted into grenade launchers), and tens of thousands of rounds of ammo as part of a conspiracy to sell firearms to Mexican cartels.
Excessive use of force also accompanied the hiring surge. Over a dozen border patrol agents beat immigrant Anastacio Hernandez to death in 2010. The incident followed seven other deaths at the hands of Border Patrol agents in the preceding two years. None of the officers in any of the cases faced any charges.
CBP commissioned an external review of use of deadly force in 2013. The final report found 67 cases of the deadly force used by CBP agents/officers in less than two years. It also concluded that “too many cases do not appear to meet the test of objective reasonableness with regard to the use of deadly force.” In other words, agents are too quick to turn to deadly force.
In response to the disturbing swell of corruption, abuse, and deadly shootings, Congress convened hearings and thereafter adopted stricter screening procedures for CBP employees, most notably, by requiring a pre-employment polygraph examination.
CBP’s polygraph exams have come under criticism for irregularities—a failure rate twice that of other agencies and exams that take many times longer than at other agencies. Along with anecdotes of highly-qualified veterans getting turned away after stressful and hostile polygraph exams, these irregularities may be screening out good applicants or deterring qualified applicants from applying altogether.
However, the polygraphs have stopped dozens of applicants who have admitted to participation in human trafficking, defrauding the government, links with cartels, and intent to infiltrate CBP—even a shocking number of murders. This comes from the Credibility Assessment Division’s “Significant Admissions Summary,” a report of crimes applicants freely admitted to during polygraph exams. It may be heavily redacted, but it still speaks volumes about hundreds of criminal applicants who were only thwarted by the polygraph standard.
It is against this background that the “Boots on the Border Act” was proposed in the Senate earlier this year. While it was widely reported as a bill to relax hiring standards across the board for CBP employees, it actually grants only a targeted exemption to the polygraph exam. The bill allows CBP’s commissioner to waive the polygraph requirement for law enforcement officers in good standing who had to take a polygraph exam for their current position, and for military veterans who underwent certain military background investigations and held at least Secret-level clearance.
The actual effects of this policy are fairly difficult to predict. On the one hand, we might expect that any relaxation of the rules could compromise the integrity of CBP. But on the other hand, the waiver might improve the applicant pool.
James Tomsheck, the controversial and contentious former head of Internal Affairs at CBP, pointed out that some of the “most significant corruption cases and excessive use-of-force problems were CBP officers or Border Patrol agents who had been in the military and had served in combat.” Luis Alarid, for example, who served in the Army and the Marines, was paid $200,000 to turn a blind eye to drug smuggling and illegal border crossings in 2008.
But even if polygraph failure rates among veterans and among civilians were equal, as Tomscheck claims, the question Congress needs to consider is whether the targeted waiver still could shift the composition of new applicants and hires towards people less likely to engage in corruption.
When asked to review corruption at CBP, the GAO recommended back in 2012 “expanding the polygraph exam to incumbent officers and agents.” But CBP has had trouble finding the resources to do that. A targeted waiver exempting the best applicants could free up resources for post-employment polygraph exams.
Indeed, most cases of corruption at CBP involve agents who weren’t affiliated with cartels when they were hired, but who were later compromised. While a pre-employment polygraph may reveal potentially compromising information, a post-employment exam casts a wider net, more likely to pick up misconduct that has occurred than predict misconduct that may occur in the future. If the targeted waiver were accompanied by a requirement for random and targeted post-employment polygraphs, we could get more bang for the buck, and we could be more confident the waiver is a good idea.
Congress already has waived the requirement for veterans with Top Secret Clearance without reported problems so far, but it is still likely too early to tell what, if any, the effects are.
The addition of a large number of new agents in such a short time threatens to create security problems where they were less likely beforehand. This symbolic gesture recklessly risks the integrity of our immigration enforcement program.
If a hiring surge is inevitable—and it looks like that is the case—then Congress has the responsibility to ensure the surge does not compromise the CBP or contribute to the spread of corruption or abuse.