President Trump, flanked by Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.), left, and Rep. Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.), speaks during a meeting with lawmakers on immigration policy at the White House on Tuesday. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

Shortly before President Trump again trumpeted his desire for a border wall during a White House meeting with legislators, a congressional panel grappled with a more urgent and long-standing hole in border security — people.

Union representatives complained at a House Homeland Security subcommittee hearing Tuesday that there are too few people protecting the border, causing employees to work too long in often-hazardous conditions.

The labor leaders were not exactly on the same page, however. Three of the hearing witnesses were from the National Border Patrol Council, which endorsed Trump, while the fourth is president of the National Treasury Employees Union (NTEU), which did not.

That makes a big difference to Trump, who likes to boast, as he did at the White House meeting, about endorsements from the Border Patrol union and the National Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) Council. In backing Trump, the two unions bucked the American Federation of Government Employees and the AFL-CIO, which endorsed Hillary Clinton and to which both councils belong.

“They endorsed me for president, which they’ve never done before — the Border Patrol agents and ICE,” Trump bragged. “They both endorsed Trump.”

The Border Patrol and ICE unions certainly have received some return from their investment in a man who based his immigration policy on a fear of Mexicans and Muslims. Yet, even those union leaders are not happy with all of Trump’s positions.

Border Patrol and ICE labor leaders support his call for an additional 5,000 border agents and 10,000 ICE officers. But Brandon Judd, president of the National Border Patrol Council, complained that “the president has only proposed and Congress is slated on funding for only 500 new agents this year. At this rate, the agents we hire this year will be half way to retirement before we meet this goal in 2028.”

But are those agents and officers even needed?

Tony Reardon, president of NTEU, which endorsed Clinton for president, cited a November Department of Homeland Security inspector general’s report and said that “there is no workload staffing model justifying this increase” in Border Patrol agents.

While separate Trump executive orders in January called for the Border Patrol and ICE staffing increases, Reardon pointedly noted that the White House “does not ask for one additional CBP (Customs and Border Protection) officer new hire, despite the fact that CBP officers at the ports of entry in 2017 recorded over 216,370 apprehensions and seized over 444,000 pounds of illegal drugs, and over $96 million in illicit currency, while processing over 390 million travelers and $2.2 trillion in imports through the ports.”

Reardon, who represents CBP officers, said there is a “critical staffing shortage at the ports of entry, and this staffing shortage is staggering,” adding that “there is a total CBP Officer staffing shortage of 3,700 today.”

The inspector general’s report Reardon mentioned said, “Neither CBP nor ICE could provide complete data to support the operational need or deployment strategies for the 15,000 additional agents and officers they were directed to hire.”

Judd’s reaction: “I completely disagree.” He also disagreed with the Trump administration’s reported plan to freeze the pay of Judd’s members and federal employees generally. The plan was described by budget document summaries released by Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), the top Democrat on the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.

“I would be disappointed in a pay freeze,” Judd said after the hearing, “but, again, I’d have to understand why he’s doing the pay freeze. I’d have to see what it looks like.” The potential pay freeze, however, hasn’t diminished Judd’s praise for Trump. “President Trump has done more for border security than any other president I’ve ever seen,” Judd said.

The National ICE Council continued to voice support for Trump, even as it released a bitter November letter to him. The letter from National ICE Council President Chris Crane said the “corruption and gross mismanagement” at the ICE agency is “a stab in the back to the men and women of law enforcement who we know you support wholeheartedly.” Crane suggested firing Thomas D. Homan, the acting ICE director, whom Trump has nominated for the full-time position, a suggestion the White House rejects.

In addition to the need for more personnel, NTEU and the Border Patrol Council representatives agreed that employees work too much overtime, they have too many supervisors and too many recruits fail polygraph tests.

Because of staffing shortages, “CBP officers nationwide are working excessive overtime to maintain basic port staffing,” Reardon said. “All CBP officers are aware that overtime assignments are an aspect of their jobs.  However, long periods of overtime hours can severely disrupt an officer’s family life, morale and ultimately their job performance protecting our nation.”

Jon Anfinsen, a Border Patrol Council member from Del Rio, Tex., complained that the agency’s polygraph failure rate for applicants is twice the rate of most law enforcement departments, meaning something is wrong with the test.

“Above all,” he said, “the single biggest hindrance to hiring is the polygraph.”

Rosemarie Pepperdine, a Border Patrol Council representative from Tucson, said the average large police department has one supervisor for every 10 officers, while the Border Patrol has one supervisor for every four agents.

“Why do we have twice as many supervisors as other large law enforcement agencies?” she asked. “Your guess is as good as mine.”

Read more:

ICE fires back at pro-Trump union leader who bashed agency and president’s pick for its chief

Democrats say Trump to seek federal pay freeze and cuts to domestic security

Two federal unions cling to Trump, despite everything