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Homeland Security Wants To Hire Thousands More Border Agents

Feb 22, 2017
Originally published on February 22, 2017 5:58 pm
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President Donald Trump wants to hire 15,000 new Border Patrol and immigration officers who enforce his executive orders on immigration. But hiring 15,000 people isn't necessarily a simple task between finding the money, doing the background checks and getting them trained, as NPR's Brian Naylor reports.

BRIAN NAYLOR, BYLINE: Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly was blunt when asked by a member of Congress earlier this month about hiring those 15,000 new Border Patrol and Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents.

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JOHN KELLY: We will add to the ranks of the ICE and Border Protection people as fast as we can. But we will not lower standards, and we will not lower training. So the people that come - and I don't believe we're going to get 10,000 and 5,000 on board within the next couple of years.

NAYLOR: The number of Customs and Border Patrol agents doubled during the George W. Bush administration from 10 to 21,000, but there were problems. New agents were rushed through training and into the field, some without completed background checks.

SHAWN MORAN: You have to make sure that no red flags come up in someone's background before you're putting them in a position like this.

NAYLOR: Shawn Moran is vice president of the National Border Patrol Council, the union that represents Border Patrol agents. Moran says it will be difficult but not impossible to find 5,000 new agents.

MORAN: When it comes to hiring and training Border Patrol agents, we are fans of extreme vetting to make sure that we get the right people.

NAYLOR: One part of the vetting, however, Moran says, is now too extreme, namely, the polygraph exam that candidates have to undergo.

MORAN: We have an overly burdensome CBP polygraph program that is excluding more candidates in percentages than any other federal agency that has a polygraph exam. So we think that CBP really needs to look at that program very closely because we think it is flawed and is excluding qualified candidates from being Border Patrol agents.

NAYLOR: Moran says the test is grueling, taking up to eight hours. But James Tomczak, former head of internal affairs at CBP, defends the test. He told NPR's Morning Edition it weeded out candidates who had criminal backgrounds and some would-be agents who were members of drug cartels that wanted to infiltrate CBP as spies.

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JAMES TOMCZAK: There have been efforts on the part of CBP leadership to remove some of the questions from the polygraph - something that is beyond my comprehension, something that, actually, they're not allowed to do.

NAYLOR: In the past, CBP has had not just a hiring problem, but a retention problem. The agency is now down some 1,600 agents from the 21,000 it's authorized to have. Jay Ahern is a former CBP official now with The Chertoff Group.

JAY AHERN: When you recruit somebody, let's say, from Boston and that person's gone through the six month of the hurdle hiring process, and then you offer them a job in, you know, Del Rio, Texas, and they realize what it's like when they get to Del Rio, they realize - this isn't what I expected it to be.

NAYLOR: Ahern says additional Border Patrol agents are very much needed but that it's going to take time to recruit and hire them.

AHERN: When you're talking about those many different steps - from testing to the medical exam, the drug screening, the fitness and the weeks that it takes in training - to get somebody delivered on the border, it does go ahead and have a significant period of time. And, again, that's not something that should be compromised.

NAYLOR: That period of time could be a year or more to bring new agents onboard. Brian Naylor, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.