In-Depth: Rep. Xochitl Torres Small (D-NM) introduced this bill to address staffing shortages in the most rural regions of the U.S.-Mexico border:
“Some of the most remote stretches of our southern border are in New Mexico’s Bootheel. In this region, and regions like it, the retention and hiring of CBP agents and officers is a significant challenge. In order to ensure that CBP can properly adapt to the changing circumstances along the remote sections of our southern border, we must ensure it has the resources to do so, and that starts with personnel. Yesterday’s subcommittee hearing and bill are my first steps towards addressing this issue, which is critical to the safety of families, communities, and agents.”
In an interview with the Albuquerque Journal, Rep. Torres Small added that additional CBP agents are needed to process asylum-seekers crossing into the U.S. and stop illegal activities across the border:
“We don’t have the manpower to process asylum seekers. We don’t have the manpower to stop the illegal activities coming across the border… In order to ensure that CBP can properly adapt to the changing circumstances along the remote sections of our southern border, we must ensure it has the resources to do so, and that starts with personnel.”
Rep. Will Hurd (R-TX), an original cosponsor of this bill and the member of Congress who represents the largest stretch of the U.S.-Mexico border, adds:
"We must hire more agents to help fill 2,000 empty positions in border and fix retention problems so we have enough manpower to keep Americans safe along our border. The brave men and women that serve are our most important border security resource. I am proud to join Rep. Torres-Small to introduce this bipartisan bill that makes important strides towards addressing some problems within border patrol by creating an enhanced recruitment strategy and partnerships so we can recruit, hire and retain agents for years to come.”
This bill passed the House Homeland Security Committee with the support of two Republican cosponsors.
Of Note: From 1994-2011, CBP grew steadily, reaching a peak of 21,444 agents in 2011. However, it’s been shedding agents ever since 2011, decreasing in size from 2011-2017 until a small increase in 2018 (when it hired 118 new agents, including three at the southern border). As a result of these recruitment issues, CBP hasn’t met its congressionally-mandated hiring goals since FY 2014, and it’s short 6,927 Border Patrol agents and roughly 1,000 CBP officers. When she introduced this bill, Rep. Torres Small estimated that CBP currently has 1,117 unfilled positions, and U.S. Border Patrol has 1,993 unfilled positions.
On March 7, 2019, the House Oversight, Management, and Accountability Committee’s first hearing of the year addressed CBP’s workforce challenges and sought solutions to improve CBP’s recruitment and retention. In their joint testimony, Benjamine “Carry” Huffman, Acting Executive Assistant Commissioner of Enterprise Services at CBP and Rodolfo Karisch, Rio Grande Valley Sector Chief of U.S. Border Control and CBP, identified rural duty stations as a hiring challenge unique to CBP:
“The public scrutiny of law enforcement in general, combined with the requirement to work variable schedules, long shifts, and in remote locations are some of the reasons why individuals may be reluctant to apply for law enforcement positions. In addition, societal views and changing generational values make it more difficult to attract qualified and suitable candidates. Other recruitment and hiring challenges are unique to CBP. Our agency is responsible for managing risks and threats along 7,000 miles of northern and southern border, 95,000 miles of shoreline, and 328 ports of entry. As a result, some of our duty stations are in extremely remote areas, a significant distance from amenities and services such as medical care, child care and schools, and employment opportunities for spouses. Geographically remote locations are often accompanied by extreme environments and harsh weather conditions. Difficulty in staffing these locations may also be affected by a lack of affordable housing choices, consumer goods and services, and local infrastructure. Some hard-to-fill and geographically remote locations are sometimes associated with a higher cost of living… The challenges CBP faces with hard-to-fill and remote locations include the limited pool of qualified and suitable candidates interested in working and living in these locales. While CBP has the ability to offer incentives for individuals to apply for, relocate to, or remain at these locations, incentives cannot solve basic, fundamental needs of our workforce and their families, such as readily accessible medical facilities, schools, and potable water.”
In his testimony to the House Oversight, Management and Accountability Committee, National Treasury Employees Union (NTEU) president Anthony Reardon identified past government shutdowns and the furloughing of federal employees as major hurdles to CBP hiring and retention:
“For years, NTEU has been working with the Administration and Congress to try and improve recruitment and retention at federal agencies, especially those individuals with hard to find critical skills and areas with critical staffing needs. However, shutting down the government and making federal workers go without pay while implementing a pay freeze does nothing to help with this effort. For 35 days, over 800,000 federal employees, including 27,000 at CBP OFO missed two paychecks that jeopardized their families’ financial stability. Those who were required to work without pay had limited to no ability to earn additional income with part-time work and were unable to get unemployment benefits. Furthermore, some who worked unpaid were required to make prompt payments on official government purchases made on their government-issued credit cards while the federal government was shut down and unable to reimburse them. This 35- day shutdown was hard on all employees, but especially so for those with the least means, who could not float government purchases or live on savings while they went without their paychecks. This was an unconscionable way to treat the dedicated employees who serve the American people.”
Reardon suggests that CBP could borrow ideas from the military in order to solve its hiring challenges. He points out that military services frequently attract new candidates to remote locations by finding work for their spouses and opportunities for their families.
In the past, CBP’s hiring process has been criticized for being overly onerous. In 2017, the DHS Office of Inspector General (OIG) estimated that the agency had to screen 750,000 applicants to hire 5,000 new agents. To address this, CBP instituted a “fast track” hiring process to streamline the hiring process by shortening its entrance exam from four to three hours, changing medical screenings to reduce the number of applicants requiring medical follow-up, and waiving a polygraph exam requirement for some veterans. However, in a July 2018 report, the DHS OIG reported that the polygraph is likely needed to filter bad applicants out: over the period 2013-2016, about 41 percent of applicants failed the polygraph, and another 26 percent admitted to disqualifying behavior, including illegal drug use, molestation, domestic violence, and even being an accessory to murder.
CBP formed a National Frontline Recruiting Command in 2016 to coordinate and strengthen its officer recruiting efforts. In June 2018, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) reported that this tripled the number of applications that CBP received for law enforcement positions across the agency.
Summary by Lorelei Yang(Photo Credit: Steve @ the alligator farm via Flickr / Creative Commons)