Asylum seekers from Central America wait as U.S. Border Patrol agents take them into custody on June 12 near McAllen, Tex. The families were then sent to a U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) processing center for possible separation. U.S. border authorities were executing the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” policy toward undocumented immigrants. (John Moore/Getty Images)
Columnist

With President Trump so tough on immigration, you’d think he’d have enough staff members to enforce his harsh policies.

Yet, Customs and Border Protection (CBP) remains below authorized levels despite increasing the job applications received, cutting the time to hire and boosting the percentage of applicants employed.

If you’re an overworked employee, that needs to change.

If you’re an immigration advocate, hiring should proceed cautiously, and some current agents need to change their ways.

CBP is on the front lines of the nation’s heated — and at times shameful (as in Trump’s family separation meanness) — immigration controversy. Staff members include CBP officers in the Office of Field Operations who protect points of entry, Border Patrol agents who guard territory between and relatively near points of entry, and Air and Marine Operations agents who watch over air and sea borders.

Like CBP, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, better known as ICE, also is part of the Department of Homeland Security. ICE enforces immigration laws nationwide.

At the end of fiscal 2017, CBP was more than 1,100 officers short, according to a recent Government Accountability Office (GAO) report, which did not include ICE. A long hiring process, high attrition and competition from other agencies are among the reasons.

In a letter to GAO included in the report, Jim H. Crumpacker, a DHS director, said the agency “is constantly working to strengthen its hiring capabilities to secure staffing for critical frontline operations.” A CBP statement to the Federal Insider on Friday said the agency has increased personnel staff and contractors by more than 25 percent in the past year. CPB agreed with GAO’s recommendation to analyze why officers leave and use that information to improve retention.

But it’s also a matter of political priorities.

“While we have known for years that our ports of entry are understaffed and CBP cannot hire the minimum number of officers, this Administration has decided to focus available resources and political will towards building the president’s completely unnecessary wall and enacting his cruel zero-tolerance immigration policy,” said Rep. Bennie Thompson (Miss.), the ranking Democrat on the House Homeland Security Committee. He was among four members of Congress requesting the GAO report. “If CBP was able to prioritize the staffing and infrastructure of our border, we would be able to better process individuals at the border, including those seeking asylum, and the current humanitarian crisis would not be as severe.” Another requester, Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, did not respond to a request for comment.

Time to hire is a big problem.

In fiscal 2015, Border Patrol hiring time reached 628 days. That dropped to 274 days, or about nine months, two years later. The 628 days is an anomaly, however, because there were no Border Patrol job announcements in fiscal 2014, meaning that 2013 applicants weren’t hired until almost two years later, inflating that number.

Nonetheless, hiring periods resembling the human gestation period are just too long.

The government’s general goal is hiring within 80 days. The agency says that’s not feasible for law enforcement officers.

“According to CBP officials, the agency’s multistep hiring process for its law enforcement officer positions is intentionally rigorous and involves extensive applicant screening to ensure that only qualified candidates meet the technical, physical, and suitability requirements for employment at CBP,” the GAO report said. “Even so, CBP officials across several components told us that the agency’s time-to-hire was too long and directly affected the component’s ability to recruit and hire for law enforcement positions.”

But for advocates, the problem isn’t that CBP takes too long to hire, but that staffing up too quickly, including training, leads to poor-performing officers. A 2017 American Immigration Council report by Josiah Heyman said “the last time the Border Patrol received a large infusion of money to hire thousands of new agents, cases of corruption and misconduct spiked in the agency. New hires were not sufficiently vetted, novice agents were not adequately supervised, and agents who abused their authority acted with impunity.”

Guillermo Cantor, research director for the immigration advocacy council, said it “analyzed tons of government records and showed the multiple ways in which Border Patrol agents regularly overstep the boundaries of their authority by using excessive force, employing coercive tactics and misinformation to deport migrants from the U.S., and retaining migrants’ personal belongings, to mention just a few examples.” He complained that “new hires did not receive sufficient training. All of this to say that slow growth of staffing levels is probably a good thing considering the negative impacts that resulted from the agency’s rapid growth in the past.”

Patricia Cramer has a distinctly different view. She’s a 14-year CBP officer speaking in her role as president of the National Treasury Employees Union chapter in Arizona. That includes Nogales, which, she said, is “the most understaffed port in the Southwest.”

“Officers and agriculture specialists are being forced to work 16-hour shifts day after day,” she added. “Employees are overworked and exhausted. This is the main cause of the retention issue. … The employees themselves are usually the best recruiters but with morale being so low, officers and specialists are obviously not motivated to recruit.”

“Just to give you an example,” she continued, “I had an officer that had been in for about three years call me recently to notify me that he was resigning from CBP. He explained to me that he had a wife and newborn baby but never saw them because of the amount of overtime he was working. This officer decided to resign from a federal job and take a lower-paying position at a grocery store as a warehouse worker so he could spend more time with his family.

“That is how bad the situation is.”

Read more:

[Trump aggravates immigration judges’ problems with tweet opposing Constitution]

[Federal employees and contractors trapped by Trump’s family separation policy]

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