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Lowering the bar to protect the border

The Border Patrol may need to lower its hiring standards to satisfy Trump

The Border Patrol may need to lower its hiring standards to satisfy Trump

In the wake of President Donald Trump’s orders to beef up immigration enforcement and seal off America’s southern border, the Department of Homeland Security is reportedly scrambling to find 15,000 additional agents as quickly as possible.

And that will probably mean lowering their hiring standards.

According to Foreign Policy, a recent DHS memo leaked to the magazine revealed that the agency plans to “immediately” and “expeditiously” add 5,000 more Border Patrol agents and 10,000 more Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents. But before the additional 5,000 Border Patrol agents can be hired, DHS must first find about 1,400 agents to fill positions that are currently vacant on what is supposed to be a force of 21,000.

As experts and union members confirmed to VICE News, DHS struggles to employ and retain Border Patrol agents, who have to pass an extremely difficult lie detector test and often must work in remote, harsh environments. According to the Foreign Policy report, the DHS memo indicated the agency is considering making it easier to become an agent by omitting the polygraph test, requiring less thorough background checks, and making an entrance exam less difficult.

“The idea that they would be able to hire 5,000 additional Border Patrol agents without lowering the standards always struck me as unrealistic,” said Stephen Legomsky, who served as senior counsel to DHS under President Barack Obama. “It would be a terrible idea to eliminate the [lie detector] test, but if they don’t, I don’t see how they could meet their hiring target.”

Border Patrol agents are required to have at least a high school degree and relevant work experience. ICE Enforcement and Removal officers must have a bachelor’s degree or three years of experience working in the federal government. ICE special agents, who conduct investigations, must have a bachelor’s degree and at least one year of graduate-level education. (As its name suggests, the Border Patrol operates along the border; ICE operates throughout the country.)

DHS recruits for the Border Patrol extensively in the border region, using billboards, high school internship “explorer programs,” and career fairs, said Todd Wilson, author of the book “Border Patrol Nation.” In 2008, when CBP was in the midst of a nine-year push in which it doubled its staff from 10,800 agents to 21,300, CBP spent millions sponsoring a NASCAR race car.

The positions draw a wide range of applicants, including a significant number of veterans. According to figures provided by DHS, out of its 19,602 Border Patrol agents, more than 10,000 are Latino, about 8,750 are Caucasian, and the rest are a mix of other minority groups. Only about 1,000 are women.

Former Border Patrol Chief Victor Manjarrez, who now directs the Center for Law and Behavior at the University of El Paso in Texas, estimated that about seven students visit his office each week to inquire about working for DHS.

“My students who are interested often have family in some kind of law enforcement,” Manjarrez said. “They don’t want to get into the military, but they have a drive to do something of service to the community.”

The vast majority of prospective applicants never make it through the process, however. Manjarrez said that when he recruited in 2007 throughout the Midwest, his outreach efforts reached about 100,000 people — 100 of whom completed the application, 22 of whom were hired.

The polygraph is a major roadblock to hiring new agents: About 65 percent of applicants fail the test, a much higher portion than in other law enforcement polygraphs. The DHS Inspector General is currently reviewing the polygraph process, but the administration of the test has come under fire in the past for being too long and too aggressive. For Stuart Harris, vice president of the Border Patrol Union, eliminating the polygraph test altogether would be the best-case scenario.

“We’re hoping for a change so we can hire more people,” said Harris, who entered the Border Patrol in 1999. “I’m grateful to have an administration that will at least listen to what we have to say.”

The application process for both Border Patrol and ICE includes an entrance exam, which CBP Acting Commissioner Kevin McAllenan has reportedly proposed making easier. Already about 85 percent of applicants pass the exam, a five-hour multiple-choice standardized test, Manjarrez said. The test features logic-based reasoning questions presenting scenarios an agent might encounter in the field, English grammar questions, and basic arithmetic. One example in an online practice test presents the following scenario:

When an illegal alien is being “removed,” the alien’s passport in U.S. Government possession is returned to the issuing government, not to the illegal alien. If the illegal alien’s departure is voluntary, the passport is allowed to be returned to the alien. The U.S. Government holds the passport of H.B., an illegal alien who must leave the country.

From the information given above, it CANNOT be validly concluded that

  • A) H.B.’s departure is not voluntary if H.B.’s passport is allowed to be returned to H.B.
  • B) if H.B.’s passport is not returned to the issuing government upon H.B.’s departure, then H.B. is not being removed
  • C) H.B.’s departure is not voluntary unless the passport is allowed to be returned to H.B.
  • D) if H.B.’s passport is not allowed to be returned to H.B., then H.B.’s departure is not voluntary
  • E) if H.B. is being removed, then H.B.’s passport is to be returned to the issuing government

(The answer is A.)

Other parts of the application include an in-person interview, a medical exam, a physical fitness test, a drug test, and a background check requiring 10 non-family references. Each step is currently spaced out by a few weeks. Once applicants are accepted, they attend a 66-day Border Patrol Academy in Artesia, New Mexico and receive an additional 40 days of Spanish-language training if they’re not already proficient in Spanish, according to CBP spokesperson Greg Moore. He said that the agency has created a more thorough 117-day training program that will be implemented later this year.

Moore said that CBP has created a more thorough 117-day training program that will be implemented later this year — but that plan was put in place before Trump took office. When CBP was in the midst of doubling its force in the 2000s, training was actually shortened, a move that caused concerns at the time among even agents; a National Border Patrol Council report warned in 2008 that the compressed schedule was “likely resulting in a greater number of unsuitable candidates being sent to the field.”

In 2013, the DHS Office of Inspector General found that CBP agents were using force far more often than they had in the past and did not understand when the use of force was appropriate.

“Any law enforcement agency will experience shortcomings,” said ACLU border policy strategist Brian Erickson, “if it rapidly expands the force.”

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