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Migrant flow intensifies Border Patrol’s staffing crunch

In January 2017, President Trump signed an executive order to hire 5,000 additional border patrol agents. Two years later, only 118 have joined the agency. USA Today reporter Alan Gomez talks with Hari Sreenivasan about how changing schedules, remote locations with few amenities, increasing workloads and stress have made recruiting, deploying and retaining agents a challenge.

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  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    While the president continues to demand walls, border closings and action from Mexico and Central American countries to manage immigration on the U.S.-Mexico border, there has been little mention recently about his 2017 executive order to hire 5,000 new Border Patrol agents. Joining us now from Miami is USA Today reporter Alan Gomez who is reporting on Customs and Border Patrol hiring and staffing issues at the border.

    So two years ago 5000 was the goal where are we at now?

  • Alan Gomez:

    118 is all that they've added over the last couple of years. We went through a whole series of of inspector general reports and realized just that the agency is at crisis levels right now. For six straight years, they lost agents every single year. They peaked that over 21,000 agents back six years ago, they're now under 20,000 agents and they're going about, they're trying to do everything they can to try to recruit and retain more agents. But they're having trouble fielding them so that makes you know, that makes it more difficult to patrol that southern border and they're even having problems just managing what their agents are doing to figure out how to best deploy them to try to stop what is becoming some record breaking numbers of people trying to cross.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    So let's talk a little about the challenges. I mean,the challenges with recruiting might be because of how hard the job is. What are some of the challenges that the Border Patrol agents are facing that are causing more of them to leave and fewer of them, fewer potential people to join?

  • Alan Gomez:

    It's a very, very difficult job. You're forced to patrol these incredibly vast desolate stretches of that southern border. I mean, when we think of the border, we picture places like San Diego, some of these bigger border crossings. But for the most part it's these vast desolate stretches in between. And so trying to recruit somebody to go work in these communities, all the time your schedule is constantly shifting, it's a very dangerous job over 41 Border Patrol officers have died over the past 17 years. Over 100 have committed suicide over the past 13 years because it is such a difficult job in and of itself but also asking people to live in these areas can be very difficult. The inspector general actually focus on one city called Lukeville, Arizona where there's a border patrol station there, that's a community of 50 people, one gas station, one grocery store the nearest school is 39 miles away and the groundwater has traces of arsenic in it. So try to convince your spouse to bring their children to move to that community, it's obviously a very tough thing to do. So that's sort of some of the built in difficulties that they have.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    And finally the role is changing considering that now they're having to deal with families and children.

  • Alan Gomez:

    Yes so you already have just the daily stress of being a border patrol agent. And now they're being asked more and more to not sort of act as law enforcement but as processors of these tens of thousands of family units that are coming from Central America. So where before, illegal immigration the U.S. was predominantly single Mexican males coming over here trying to work and trying to evade border patrol when they get across the border, now what's happening is we're seeing these groups of 100, 200, 300 migrants at a time crossing the border and actively seeking out a Border Patrol agent to request asylum. And so now that agent, instead of going out there doing what he's trained to do as a law enforcement official, is forced to make medical assessments of these folks and process them and make sure they have enough water and food until they can get them and transfer them over to another facility that can better take care of them. So that just adds another layer of stress because there have been four Border Patrol, four deaths of migrants in Border Patrol custody over a period of four months recently. And so they feel that pressure. They know that that pressure is on top of them. And so it's very difficult to see now kind of service as people who are just taking care of these people instead of trying to track them down and arrest them.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    All right. Allan Gomez of USA Today thanks so much.

  • Alan Gomez:

    Thank you.

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