‘Send Help’: Inside CBP’s Multi-Year Staffing Struggle

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Central American migrants look through a border fence as a US Border Patrol agent stands guard near the El Chaparral border crossing in Tijuana, Baja California State, Mexico, on November 25, 2018. (Photo by GUILLERMO ARIAS/AFP via Getty Images)

Central American migrants look through a border fence as a US Border Patrol agent stands guard near the El Chaparral border crossing in Tijuana, Baja California State, Mexico, on November 25, 2018. (Photo by GUILLERMO ARIAS/AFP via Getty Images)

January 7, 2020

Wesley Farris joined Border Patrol because of a sign. Specifically, two signs.

He remembers driving home from a construction job in Texas about a decade ago. A few years out of high school, Farris was then living in McAllen near the U.S.-Mexico border. Through the window, he glimpsed a tourism billboard advertising his hometown: “Come Home to El Paso.”

“Then the very next billboard was, ‘Border Patrol. Join Us,’” Farris recalled. “So those two billboards kind of put two and two together. I applied and, since I was so young, about five months later I was at the Border Patrol Academy.” 

The decade that followed was a crescendo of punishing hours, spiraling morale and ever-harsher immigration policies, Farris said – including the separation of migrant families, under a controversial zero tolerance policy. 

Farris talked to FRONTLINE for the new documentary Targeting El Paso. The film goes inside border enforcement in El Paso, Texas, where Farris still works as a Border Patrol agent. “We’re exhausted. Send help,” he told FRONTLINE. “If there were more of us, we wouldn’t all be so tired.” 

Agents such as Farris have experienced a sharp increase in activity under President Donald Trump. In the 2019 financial year alone, Border Patrol recorded 859,591 apprehensions – more than in the previous two years combined. Behind the numbers are thousands of migrant families, many of them seeking asylum in the United States. The administration’s crackdown has taken an especially severe toll on children swept up in the U.S. system, with reports of trauma and abuse. Some have died in custody.

Farris in his interview with FRONTLINE described flagging morale among thinly spread agents, tasked to carry out the administration’s immigration policies. “No matter what side you’re on, if it’s horrible, or if you think it’s a necessary evil … neither of those sides are actually having to do it,” he said. “I had to separate children from their parents. That was the most horrible thing I’ve ever done.” 

For years, more Border Patrol agents have left their jobs than Customs and Border Protection (CBP), its parent agency, was able to replace. The agency only recently turned the corner, said Andrea Bright, CBP’s assistant commissioner for human resources and management. Over the past two years, for the first time since 2013, hiring has surpassed attrition. “It’s been years since we’ve been in that position,” Bright said. “It’s a pretty significant accomplishment for us.”

Still, initial gains were slim. In 2018, its first year of growth in nearly a decade, U.S. Border Patrol increased staffing by just 188 people, to 19,555 agents – despite pressure from the administration to hire thousands more agents. From 2018 to 2019, hiring across CBP increased by 46 percent, bringing in 3,448 new frontline CBP personnel. Accounting for attrition, Border Patrol grew by 93 agents during the surge.

From the first week of his presidency, Trump has ordered CBP to bulk its ranks. In January 2017, five days after his inauguration, he signed an executive order that called for 5,000 new Border Patrol agents, as part of a broader effort to secure U.S. borders. 

Customs and Border Protection subsequently launched an aggressive recruitment campaign that included a $297 million contract with Accenture, a consulting firm. Over two years, CBP paid Accenture $60 million to hire one thousand people across its agencies. More than a year into the contract, just 56 people had accepted jobs through Accenture – of which 51 entered duty.

The government last year cut short its contract with Accenture after concluding it was “no longer the best and most cost-effective way to support agency needs,” according to a CBP spokesperson. Accenture did not respond to requests for comment.

The majority of Border Patrol agents, about 85 percent, are stationed in southwest border sectors, as has been the case since the 1990s. Many live and work in remote, rural locations that involve harsh conditions along desolate stretches of the border – a tough sell for recruiters, Bright said. Moreover, “there are challenges in recruiting people into law enforcement positions today,” she said. “There’s a whole political environment associated with that.”

Numerous scandals have engulfed the agency in recent years. ProPublica last year exposed a secret Facebook group in which current and former Border Patrol agents exchanged disturbing and sometimes racist messages about migrants. One post, about a 16-year-old Guatemalan boy who died in custody, garnered comments such as “oh well” and “if he dies, he dies,” ProPublica reported. FRONTLINE and the Associated Press investigated conditions for thousands of migrant children held in detention in Kids Caught in the Crackdown.

Brandon Judd, a longtime agent and president of the National Border Patrol Council union, says the media coverage has focused on transgressions by a handful of “bad people.” But the resulting public distrust is corroding morale among agents, Judd said, adding that the political gridlock over Trump’s immigration agenda only exacerbates the situation.

Anthony Reardon, head of the National Treasury Employees Union, which represents CBP officers and others with the office of field operations, said that despite the agency’s recent hiring gains, officers still frequently complain about a lack of resources and unsustainable overtime. “You might be able to have human beings that can withstand that for very short periods of time, but this has gone on for years and it’s starting to have a major, major impact,” Reardon said. “All of these things add up to a really negative and harmful brew. I’m extremely concerned.”

More people than ever are using CBP’s Employee Assistance Program (EAP), which offers confidential support through a behavioral health company called Espyr, according to a 2019 contract filing. The filing noted that Espyr reported an increased use of its suicide prevention tool and counseling services. The document also emphasized the critical and mounting need for mental health services within CBP, citing “unanticipated critical incidents and other emerging crises,” including employee suicides and the influx of migrant caravans.

“The unanticipated and unprecedented situation at the southern border over the past 12 months resulted in a significant increase in EAP activity and it is expected to continue while the migrant crisis is ongoing,” the document says. 

In its attempt to triage southwest border demands, Customs and Border Protection has tried to incentivize Border Patrol agents to work in certain areas by paying up to 33 percent additional of an agent’s salary, with the largest incentives offered along the southern border. 

They’ve also resorted to temporarily relocating hundreds of CBP officers, straining those who must leave home on short notice, and those left behind to pick up their shifts, Reardon said.

Despite its challenges retaining agents, Bright says Customs and Border Protection doesn’t usually struggle to attract applicants that might replace them. But the hiring process takes nearly a year on average, and a polygraph test weeds out roughly two thirds of the people who take it.

Sen. Martha McSally (R-AZ) last year introduced a bill to streamline CBP hiring by eliminating polygraph tests for applicants with certain military or law enforcement backgrounds. McSally, a military veteran, says the test is superfluous for CBP applicants who have already been vetted by military or law enforcement. “They should be good enough to be serving in CBP,” McSally said. “They have proven themselves.”

Customs and Border Protection recently shifted the polygraph test to later in its hiring process, which will save the agency both time and money by reserving the costly test for only the most promising candidates, Bright said. Each polygraph, regardless of its outcome, costs about $2,200, according to a 2017 report by the Department of Homeland Security.

Though military and law enforcement are both obvious and popular recruiting destinations for CBP, the agency also targets private organizations that attract specific “personas,” Bright said – people “who are looking for a cause” and “a mission that connects to them.” Among its most successful recruiting partners: the Professional Bull Riders (PBR) organization, which recently renewed its contract with the government to promote U.S. Border Patrol to its fans.

“We have an exceptional base for them to recruit from,” said Sean Gleason, the organization’s CEO. “It’s a lot about values … cowboy values.” 

USBP Keyshawn Horse Agent Laredo
Keyshawn Whitehorse (right), 2018 PBR Rookie of the Year, joined a promotional Border Patrol ride-along in 2019. Courtesy: PBR

The organization has 82 million fans in the U.S. alone, many of them young and raised in rural communities “by people that have a very strong patriotic love for America,” Gleason said.

Border Patrol is among PBR’s primary sponsors and features heavily at its events. During a special ride-along promotion last summer, two top riders joined a CBP horse patrol unit at the southern border. One of them, Keyshawn Whitehorse, 2018 PBR Rookie of the Year, was so enthusiastic about the experience that some of his fans believed he had joined Border Patrol.

 “You’ve got to do that to get people to consider it as a career,” Gleason said. “So, we show ‘em as heroes.”


Zoe Todd

Zoe Todd, Abrams Journalism Fellow, FRONTLINE/Columbia Journalism School Fellowships

Twitter:

@ZoeHTodd

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