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By Sylvia Longmire
Columnist, In Homeland Security
Border security is once again in the headlines as the Trump administration tries to deal with another immigration crisis. President Donald Trump and many of his GOP counterparts have been demanding a significant increase in the number of U.S. Border Patrol agents assigned to the southwest border as a way of preventing more illegal crossings and apprehending more migrants attempting to enter the U.S. illegally. However, a recent government report indicates that Border Patrol is losing more agents than it can hire.
CBP Improved Hiring Process
This isn’t for lack of effort in recruiting by U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP). According to a June 2018 report by the Government Accountability Office (GAO), job applications for the agency’s various branches more than tripled between fiscal years 2013 and 2017, largely as a result of focused recruiting efforts. CBP also improved its hiring process as demonstrated by two key metrics—reducing its time-to-hire and increasing the percentage of applicants that are hired. Border Patrol applicants in particular have been frustrated by the long wait involved, which was taking as long as two years to go through the interview, background check, and training process.
CBP Losing Agents
But despite these efforts, CBP is losing agents faster than it can hire and train them. Field positions for the typical agent are a unique mix of both law enforcement and military-type duties. Many agents—especially those in the Border Patrol—are working in remote and austere environments. In past years, CBP established forward operating bases, or FOBs, where agents would camp out for one or two weeks at a time so they could respond more quickly to border incursions. However, this was akin to a short-term military deployment (without the military benefits), and tended to have a negative impact on morale.
These difficult assignments were addressed by the GAO report: “Officials cited employees’ inability to relocate to more desirable locations as a key retention challenge. CBP has offered some relocation opportunities to law enforcement personnel and has recently pursued the use of financial incentives and other payments to supplement salaries, especially for those staffed to remote or hard-to-fill locations.” The additional pay might be good incentive for some agents, but budget cuts within the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) make this retention tool difficult to sustain.
Border Patrol Hiring
CBP doesn’t conduct exit interviews, so it can’t really objectively quantify why more agents are leaving than coming in. Border Patrol hired nearly twice the number of agents in 2018 than it hired in 2017, but it still sustained a net loss of 400 agents last year. It doesn’t help CBP that it’s easier than ever for agents to find jobs in the private sector, and even within the federal government. According to last year, 39 percent of agents who quit left to go work for another federal agency.
This retention problem is also not new. In November 2017, both the Office of the Inspector General (OIG) and the GAO published reports indicating CBP was losing people faster than they could replace them. In a January 2017 executive order, President Trump called for hiring 5,000 more Border Patrol agents and 10,000 officers for Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). But that GAO report stated that auditors indicated the agency has fewer agents now than it is supposed to have under a 2011 congressional mandate, which required 21,370 agents.
Jon Anfinsen, a field agent in Del Rio, Texas, who serves as a vice president of the National Border Patrol Council, testified in a hearing before the House Homeland Security Subcommittee on Border and Maritime Security that the attrition rate for Border Patrol agents is 6 percent, compared to 3.2 percent across all federal law enforcement agencies. Despite the mandate and the high attrition rate, the OIG report said the agencies can’t yet justify hiring thousands more agents and officers due to “management challenges.” It stated, “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,” adding that the agencies faced “notable difficulties” in making hires.