High Attrition Rates, Application Hurdles Leave Border Patrol Short of Agents

By Mark Browne | November 16, 2017 | 5:50pm EST
A Border Patrol agent watches the Mexican-American border in Imperial Valley, Calif. (Photo: U.S. Border Patrol/Gerald L. Nino)

Mexico City (CNSNews.com) – The U.S. Border Patrol is short 1,900 agents in the field due to a high rate of vacancies and the difficulties applicants have passing a mandatory polygraph test, according to officials and a recent government study.

Earlier this year President Trump ordered the agency to hire an additional 5,000 agents, but as of May, the Border Patrol had “about 1,900 fewer agents than authorized,” according to a GAO study released this month.

The study said officials pointed to the shortage “as a key challenge for optimal agent deployment.”

It found that agents were available for deployment only 43 percent of the time, and were quitting their jobs faster than the Border Patrol could hire new ones.

Over the past few years, an average of 904 agents have left the force annually, with only 523 new agents hired to replace them.

The federal government increased border patrol staffing from a total of 9,821 agents in FY 2001 to a high of 21,444 in FY 2011, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) figures.

But the level of agents has dropped every year since to a low of 19,828 in FY 2016.

“We are well below what our staffing levels should be,” Stu Harris, vice president of Local 1929 of the National Border Patrol Council told CNSNews.com.

Harris said a polygraph test was added to the hiring process several years ago in response to allegations of corruption among new agents. The tests take between six and eight hours, he noted.

“They spend all this time trying to find a way to trick people up and they are disqualifying candidates that would otherwise be qualified.”

Harris said he knew of one applicant who had a top secret security clearance in the Marine Corps but failed the Border Patrol polygraph test which, he said, differed from the one-and-a-half to two hour test used by the DEA and FBI.

Harris said candidate recruiting needs to be improved so that fewer fail the polygraph – but first, the test itself “has to be fixed.”

The CBP did not respond to a request for comment. It has pointed out previously, however, that Congress in 2016 waived the polygraph requirement for applicants who are veterans and already have a “top secret” security clearance.

Harris also pointed to difficult work conditions that make the job less attractive for prospective recruits and contribute to the attrition of existing agents, including remote locations lacking medical and other essential services needed by families.

“We lose a lot of agents from these remote stations where there is nothing there for them,” he said. “When you have a station that maybe had 300 agents two years ago and they are down to 250 agents, that makes a difference.”

According to the GAO study, Border Patrol agents apprehended nearly two million individuals along the southwest border from fiscal years 2012-2016, and made 90,000 seizures of illegal items during the same period.

“Most of these seizures (92 percent) were narcotics, and 87 percent of narcotics seizures were marijuana,” it said.

In an article posted to the CBP website Michael Tucker, commander of CBP’s National Frontline Recruitment Command, said current attrition rates are around five percent, “which is quite high.”

“We need to hire almost 3,000 agents and officers annually for the next five years to attain our goals."

According to the article, applicants for Border Patrol agent positions must pass an entrance test, medical exam, physical fitness test, the polygraph test and a background investigation.

In 2015 the average time needed to complete the hiring process was 469 days.

The CBP has managed to cut that to 160 days by establishing centralized hiring “hubs,” where candidates can complete the process in one location, the article said.

“We are trying to make it easier for candidates to apply while maintaining our high standards,” Tucker said.

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