Trump ordered 15K new border and immigration officers, got thousands of vacancies instead
The administration has spent tens of millions of dollars in the effort but has thousands more vacancies than when it began
By Molly O'Toole
Los Angeles Times
WASHINGTON — Two years after President Trump signed orders to hire 15,000 new border agents and immigration officers, the administration has spent tens of millions of dollars in the effort -- but has thousands more vacancies than when it began.
In a sign of the difficulties, Customs and Border Protection allocated $60.7 million to Accenture Federal Services, a management consulting firm, as part of a $297-million contract to recruit, vet and hire 7,500 border officers over five years, but the company has produced only 33 new hires so far.
The president's promised hiring surge steadily lost ground even as he publicly hammered away at the need for stiffer border security, warned of a looming migrant invasion and shut down parts of the government for five weeks over his demands for $5.7 billion from Congress for a border wall.
The Border Patrol gained a total of 120 agents in 2018, the first net gain in five years.
But the agency has come nowhere close to adding more than 2,700 agents annually, the rate that Kevin McAleenan, commissioner of Customs and Border Protection, has said is necessary to meet Trump's mandated 26,370 border agents by the end of 2021.
"The hiring surge has not begun," the inspector general's office at the Department of Homeland Security concluded last November.
"We have had ongoing difficulties with regards to hiring levels to meet our operational needs," a Homeland Security official told The Times on Saturday, speaking on condition of anonymity. He described the Border Patrol's gain last year as a "a huge improvement."
Border security agencies long have faced challenges with recruitment and retention of front-line federal law enforcement -- in particular Border Patrol agents -- much less swiftly hiring 15,000 more.
In March 2017, McAleenan said Customs and Border Protection normally loses about 1,380 agents a year as agents retire, quit for better-paying jobs or move. Just filling that hole each year has strained resources.
Beyond that, given historically low illegal immigration on the southern border, even the Homeland Security inspector general has questioned the need for the surge.
But administration officials argue an immigration system designed for single, adult Mexican men has become woefully outdated.
"The number of families and children we are apprehending at the border is at record-breaking levels," another Homeland Security official said. "It's having a dramatic impact on Border Patrol's border security mission."
Since 2015, CBP officers have been required to work overtime and sent on temporary assignments to "critically understaffed" points on the southwest border, Tony Reardon, president of the union representing about 30,000 CBP officers, told the House Homeland Security Committee on Thursday.
After fighting for years for higher pay, staff and a better hiring process, Reardon said the agency needs to hire more officers for the 328 ports of entry.
"All of this contributes to a stronger border," he said.
On Jan. 25, 2017, five days after Trump was inaugurated, he signed executive orders to hire 5,000 new Border Patrol agents and 10,000 more Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers, vowing to beef up border security and crack down on illegal immigration.
"Today the United States of America gets back control of its borders," Trump said as he signed the orders.
Today, Customs and Border Protection -- the Border Patrol's parent agency -- has more than 3,000 job vacancies, according to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's office.
That's about 2,000 more than when Trump signed the orders, according to a Government Accountability Office report on CBP's hiring challenges.
Border Patrol staffing remains below the 21,360 agents mandated by Congress in 2016, which is itself 5,000 less than Trump's order, according to the latest available data.
The CBP contract with Accenture, awarded in November 2017, has drawn special scrutiny for its high cost and limited results.
CBP officials told the House Homeland Security Committee in November that only 33 new officers had been hired. Under the terms of the contract, the company is paid about $40,000 for each one.
An entry-level Border Patrol agent is paid $52,583 a year.
In December, the Homeland Security inspector general's office said Accenture and CBP were "nowhere near" filling the president's hiring order.
It warned that if problems in the "hastily approved" contract are not addressed, CBP risks "wasting millions of taxpayer dollars."
CBP subsequently scaled back the Accenture contract from $297 million to $83 million and issued a partial stop-work order. Officials said the agency will decide in March whether to cancel the rest of the contract.
Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.), chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, said the problem-plagued contract "reinforces my doubts" about CBP leadership.
"CBP cannot simply farm out its hiring and spend hundreds of millions without addressing systemic problems at the agency," Thompson said.
Deirdre Blackwood, Accenture's spokeswoman, told The Times, "We remain focused on fulfilling our client's expectations under our contract."
The first Homeland Security offical defended the contract. "You've got to be willing to innovate and try things. ... In no way, shape or form was there fraud, waste or abuse."
Immigration and Customs Enforcement canceled a solicitation for a hiring contract with a similar pay structure to Accenture's last May, citing delays in its hiring timeline and limited funding from Congress.
ICE said at the time it would restart the contracting process by the end of 2018 to help it meet Trump's hiring order. It has yet to do so.
Homeland Security officials declined to say how much has been spent or how many people have been hired since Trump's executive orders, saying the partial government shutdown prevented them from accessing the data.
The hiring surge foundered from the start.
In July 2017, six months after Trump signed his executive orders, the Homeland Security inspector general's office said the agencies were facing "significant challenges" and could not justify the hiring surge.
Officials could not "provide complete data to support the operational need or deployment strategies for the additional 15,000 additional agents and officers they were directed to hire," the inspector general's office wrote.
On Friday, Trump signed a bill to reopen the government until Feb. 15, ending the longest shutdown in U.S. history. Tens of thousands of Border Patrol agents and CBP officers, among others, worked without pay.
Experts warned that previous attempts at a hiring surge led to greater corruption, a perennial problem for law enforcement on the border.
Drug cartels and other criminal groups target Border Patrol agents, offering bribes or even sexual favors to allow migrants, drugs and other contraband to cross the border.
To help fight corruption, the Border Patrol set strict vetting requirements, but those measures have slowed the hiring process.
Border Patrol applicants must pass cognitive, fitness and medical exams. They also must provide financial disclosure, undergo drug tests and pass a law enforcement background check and a polygraph test.
ICE doesn't require the lie detector test, pays its agents more and places most of them in cities, not at isolated posts along the border.
Supporters of the CBP requirements call them necessary safeguards to prevent the scandals of past hiring surges. Critics view them as an impediment to putting more boots on the border.
CBP's rigorous hiring requirements, including the polygraph test, were put in place by Congress in 2010 after the agency had doubled in size and Border Patrol notched an increase in corruption and a spate of deadly incidents.
The FBI still leads 22 border corruption task forces and working groups nationwide.
In recent years, some lawmakers tried to help CBP get rid of the polygraph test. In 2017, the agency got the green light to waive the requirement for certain military veterans and began to test a version that improved pass rates.
Partly as a result, CBP has increased hiring of "frontline personnel" by nearly 15% and increased its applicant pool by 40% in the last three years, according to a Homeland Security 2019 budget document.
The agency has also cut the time it takes to hire from roughly 400 days to about 270 days. The government's goal for hiring is 80 days, but CBP has said that's not feasible.
Part of the problem stems from the Trump administration's funding disputes with Congress over border security.
"We have to hire to the money that we're appropriated, at the end of the day," the first Homeland Security official said.
After Trump signed his executive orders in 2017, ICE requested $830 million to hire about 3,000 new officers and build capacity to ultimately bring on 10,000, according to a Government and Accountability Office report.
Instead, Congress last year gave ICE $15.7 million for 65 new agents plus 70 attorneys and support staff.
Over the past two years, ICE has brought on 1,325 investigators and deportation officers, according to the agency. The agency typically loses nearly 800 law enforcement officers each year, so it has not kept pace and remains far behind the president's order.
For its part, CBP requested $330 million to hire 1,250 Border Patrol agents and build capacity to ultimately hire 5,000, according to the GAO report.
Congress gave CBP about $65 million in 2017 to improve hiring practices and to offer incentives for agents to transfer to understaffed sites. In 2018, it provided $20 million more than the agency sought for recruitment and retention.
"CBP faced high attrition rates even before the Trump administration made it a polarizing organization," said Thompson, the House Homeland Security chairman.
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