Op-Ed

Even with 5,000 new agents, it won't be easy to Make the Border Great Again

Customs and Border Protection last year awarded a $297 million contract for assistance in recruiting and hiring the 5,000 border patrol agents President Trump believes we need to combat “the recent surge of illegal immigration at the southern border with Mexico.”

Those bold numbers may please the Make America Great Again crowd, but it will be exceedingly difficult to find qualified agents, or to deploy them effectively since the border is actually quieter than ever.

Under the Clinton administration, it took 27 applicants to yield one Border Patrol officer. And the hiring ratio has gotten worse. This spring, when Customs and Border Protection requested bids for private contractors to help fulfill Trump’s order, it wrote that it now takes 133 applicants to hire one full-time employee.

A private contractor may improve on those figures by designing a new recruitment strategy and implementing it in labor markets that Customs and Border Protection hasn’t previously tapped. The contractor may not repeat the agency’s past mistakes, like spending millions on polygraph tests for applicants who have already admitted to disqualifying offenses like human trafficking. Still, it’s a tough task. The contractor needs to find men and women who will be willing to work in remote areas, can pass the physical fitness requirements and haven’t touched marijuana in at least two years.

But let’s imagine that Customs and Border Protection succeeds in hiring, training and equipping all 5,000 of new officers and manages to hang on to the roughly 20,000 agents it already has (which hasn’t been easy up to this point). Are they as urgently needed at the border as the executive order would have us believe? The best evidence available tells us the answer is “absolutely not.”

In 2017, the number of people apprehended at the border fell 26% compared with the previous year, and they haven’t been this low since the Nixon administration. The “recent surge of illegal immigration at the southern border with Mexico,” the president’s basis for his border security push, reflects only a temporary rise in apprehensions from 2015 to 2016. If you zoom out, that’s a blip in a long, downward trend, from more than 111,000 in 2004 to fewer than 30,000 last year.

Besides, Customs and Border Protection doesn’t even seem to know where it would be optimal to deploy additional personnel or whether they’re needed at all. According to a special report from the Department of Homeland Security Office of the Inspector General, “Neither CBP nor ICE could provide complete data to support the operational need or deployment strategies for the additional … agents and officers they were directed to hire.”

A suddenly larger law enforcement agency, with numerous new recruits and without a clear deployment strategy, isn’t just a financial liability, but a safety risk.

Another Homeland Security Inspector General report found numerous problems with DHS agencies keeping track of and securing their equipment. Customs and Border Protection, for instance, did not have an accurate firearm inventory and one agent left his gun in a backpack at a gym, where it was stolen.

Adding an enormous number of employees to an agency that faces administrative dysfunction and has no coherent plan to detail new agents will create a scenario in which costs will be high and benefits may be quite low.

There’s negligence and inefficiency, and then there’s actual malfeasance. In the spring of 2016, around the time Trump was starting to make inflammatory speeches about immigrants, the Homeland Security Advisory Council cautioned that Customs and Border Protection’s disciplinary process was “broken.” It urged CBP to hire an adequate number of internal investigators and described serious dysfunction in the handling of complaints and disciplinary cases. For major areas of concern like domestic violence and alcohol abuse, it found that the agency lagged behind standard law enforcement practices. A host of harmful activities, from bribery to alleged sexual assault, have come to light and caused problems for Customs and Border Protection in the past.

The risk is that Trump’s hiring surge at the border will make the news and please his base, while accomplishing little and increasing the possibility of policy failure.

Christine Stenglein is a research assistant at Brookings. John Hudak is a senior fellow in governance studies at Brookings.

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