White House Orders The Hiring Of 15,000 New Immigration Agents
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Trump administration officials have acknowledged one huge obstacle as they work to tighten border enforcement. It's a basic reality. Although the president once promised to remove all 11 million people in the United States without documents, there is a limited number of border guards, limited number of immigration agents, limited number of immigration judges. That reality helps to explain why this White House, like the last White House, is not trying to remove everyone at the moment. They've acknowledged that's impossible. White House spokesman Sean Spicer did say yesterday the president is hoping to change that over time.
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SEAN SPICER: This includes immediately identifying and allocating all sources of available funding for the planning, design, construction and maintenance of a wall along our southern border - and hiring of additional personnel, including 5,000 additional CBP border agents.
INSKEEP: Five thousand new Border Patrol officers along with new immigration agents - thousands of them as well - these are meaningful increases on the current force, although it is also an approach that's been tried before, as James Tomsheck knows. He headed Customs and Border Protection's internal affairs department until about two and a half years ago, and he's in our studios.
Good morning, sir.
JAMES TOMSHECK: Good morning, Steve.
INSKEEP: Didn't the Border Patrol try to double its strength in the last couple of decades?
TOMSHECK: Exactly that. Between the period of August 2006 to December 2012, the Border Patrol was actually doubled in size from...
INSKEEP: From about 10,000 to about 20,000?
TOMSHECK: About 21,000.
INSKEEP: Twenty-one thousand - how'd that work out?
TOMSHECK: Certainly, there were problems along the way. I came from an environment in the U.S. Secret Service where pre-employment polygraphs were a part of how we determined suitability.
INSKEEP: Lie detectors. Is someone lying about their background? OK.
TOMSHECK: Exactly, a standard, federal law enforcement polygraph exam designed by the Center for Credibility Assessment, used throughout the federal law enforcement community - at FBI, Secret Service, DEA, ATF, etc. That was not the case at Customs and Border Protection. With the support of Commissioner Ralph Basham, we received authorization to institute a polygraph screening program and ran those first exams in February of 2008, towards the end of the initial Border Patrol hiring.
INSKEEP: And what did you find?
TOMSHECK: The results were shocking. More than half of the applicants failed to clear the exam, with the overwhelming majority giving us detailed admissions as to why it was they failed the exam. It was what these applicants had done in their past that most concerned us. They included serious felony crimes, active involvement in smuggling activities and several confirmed infiltrators who actually were employed by drug trafficking organizations who had been directed to seek out positions within Customs and Border Protection to advance ongoing criminal conspiracies, essentially be spies in our midst.
INSKEEP: I want to underline what you're telling me because you're talking about border enforcement agents who may be working alone or in small groups in remote areas. They're doing sensitive things. They're fighting against drug traffic. They're fighting against human trafficking. And you're saying you found a very large number of people who were - based on their backgrounds, they could be compromised.
TOMSHECK: They were certainly very vulnerable to being compromised, absolutely unsuitable to serve as federal law enforcement officers. And the worst, again, were persons who already had an ongoing relationship with a criminal organization.
INSKEEP: And I want to mention something else because our colleague John Burnett has reported on this a lot - there was a number of cases of shootings along the border of civilians being shot by border agents. And some people connected that to the increase in the Border Patrol. It was just hard, it was said, to find thousands of competent, capable people that you wanted to be Border Patrol agents with guns.
TOMSHECK: That's exactly the case. We're asking these new Border Patrol agents and CBP officers to accept postings in some very difficult environments along this southwest border. As a matter of fact, the vast majority of applicants from other-than-border communities are reluctant to move to southwest border communities.
INSKEEP: The best people don't want to do that work.
TOMSHECK: Not necessarily the best people, but...
INSKEEP: Some of the best people. OK, yeah.
TOMSHECK: Exactly that. But the reality is the hiring initiative, time and time again, visited southwest border communities over the course of those two years and four months that that initial hiring initiative moved forward. At some point in time, the quality of the applicant pool sharply declined. And yet, the mandate to double the size of the Border Patrol remained in progress.
INSKEEP: And we should be fair - you've been along the border; I've been along the border. You meet lots of capable people, dedicated people doing really hard work. But when you hear the Trump administration say we're going to hire 5,000 more people - we're going to really ramp this up, what goes through your mind?
TOMSHECK: The first thing that I want to hear the rest of is the next sentence is - over a period of time that allows for proper suitability determinations that doesn't compromise the current and future integrity of the organization.
INSKEEP: What could possibly go wrong here?
TOMSHECK: If there's an effort to hire too many people too quickly, it would certainly stress the personnel security determination process to the point that it would inject errors and deeply concern that there may be an initiative at DHS or CBP to dilute the effectiveness of the polygraph program or, in some instances, actually obtain waivers.
INSKEEP: Could the United States actually make itself less secure by rapidly hiring more people?
TOMSHECK: I don't think there's any question that if we hire people that are grossly unsuitable for the position and place them in critical, sensitive positions along the southwest border, not only would it not enhance security, it would likely compromise security.
INSKEEP: In a couple seconds - from what you've heard, does the administration seem aware of this danger?
TOMSHECK: I don't know that. What I do know, again, is that there have been efforts on the part of CBP leadership to remove some of the questions from the polygraph - something that is beyond my comprehension, something that actually they're not allowed to do.
INSKEEP: OK. James Tomsheck, thanks for coming by.
TOMSHECK: Thanks for having me, Steve.
INSKEEP: He's a former inspector general for Customs and Border Protection.
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Correction Feb. 22, 2017
A previous headline on this story said the White House ordered the hiring of 15,000 new border agents. The order is for the hiring of 5,000 new Border Patrol agents and 10,000 new Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents, who work in the interior of the country.