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Photo by Jim West, Alamy Stock Photo

Border Burnout: Patrol Struggles with Hiring and Retention

Walls or no walls, U.S. border security cannot function without many skilled humans—more specifically, a large force of law enforcement and security agents who do the grinding and risky day-to-day work of securing the border.

There’s a lot of border to secure. The United States has approximately 6,000 miles of land borders, roughly 95,000 miles of coastline, and more than 300 ports of entry where travelers and cargo are processed. To guard these vast areas, U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) employs about 45,000 law enforcement personnel charged with stopping the unlawful movement of people and drugs across U.S. borders.

Often, these jobs are tough gigs, and CBP has been struggling to hire and retain enough border patrol agents to meet its operational goals, according to a recent report, U.S. Customs and Border Protection: Progress and Challenges in Recruiting, Hiring, and Retaining Law Enforcement Personnel, issued by the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO).

“Staffing levels for law enforcement positions consistently remain below target levels. For example, CBP ended FY 2017 more than 1,100 CBP officers below its target staffing level,” the report found.

“CBP has acknowledged that improving its retention of qualified law enforcement personnel is critical in addressing staffing shortfalls, but CBP officials identified difficulties in retaining key law enforcement staff as a result of geographically-remote and hard-to-fill duty locations,” the GAO found. “CBP officials cited location—and specifically employees’ inability to relocate to posts in more desirable locations—as a primary challenge facing the agency in retaining qualified personnel.”

The report’s findings are unsurprising, say two former agents who used to work on the U.S. southern border.

“I call it border burnout,” says Jason Piccolo, CPP, PCI, a current ASIS member who worked as a border patrol agent in San Diego, and later as a senior staff officer with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Piccolo described the process as follows: newly hired agents come to the border proud to wear a U.S. badge, with a desire to “put the bad guys in jail.” A few years later, worn down by the work, their idealism fades and they feel stuck in an isolated location, with the possibility of a transfer unlikely.

Kenneth Strange, a former FBI special agent who worked on the El Paso border for the U.S. Agency for International Development, agreed. “The quality of life in these remote locations is inferior. You can understand why they would want to move on,” says Strange, who now runs Development Fraud Investigations (DFI), a company offering investigative services and fraud-related training to nonprofits. “You can imagine how it would be going to a remote location with a young family, trying to make ends meet.”

“There are no suitable schools, and the nearest stores could be 35 minutes away,” adds Piccolo, who is also the author of the book Unwavering: A Border Agent's Journey from Hunter to Hunted.

Moreover, a few particularly challenging factors embedded in day-to-day border security work can wear agents down. One is the feeling that the incident around the corner could turn violent. “There’s always a sense of danger,” says Piccolo.

Another is the “very isolating” nature of the work, partly due to the staffing shortages and the sheer size of the border, Strange says. “It’s a unique environment. All of a sudden you’re between two cultures, in an area that is porous, with both people and drugs making their way to the border. And as you can imagine, there’s a great deal of corruption,” he explains.

And while most of the border agents Strange knew were “goal-oriented and did great work,” every so often one would slip and fall prey to bribery, prostitution, or other hazards. “There’s a lot of temptation on the border. Young people can get tripped up by money or sex,” Strange says. “Once you accept something, you’re on the slippery slope.”

Given these hardships, the border patrol’s difficulty in retaining staff is exacerbated by competition with other federal, state, and local law enforcement organizations for qualified personnel, the GAO report found. These other organizations are often able to offer more desirable duty locations, such as large cities, and sometimes higher compensation.

According to CBP statistics, border patrol agents consistently leave their agency for other law enforcement agencies, such as Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). As a result, for fiscal years 2013 through 2017, actual retirements accounted for less than a quarter of annual border patrol agent losses. And hiring new staff to replace departing agents can be a slow process; the average time to hire for officers and agents is 300 days, according to CBP estimates.

To make matters worse, the staffing challenges have been coming when CBP has been struggling with a spike in the numbers of apprehensions and migrants. “CBP is facing an unprecedented humanitarian and border security crisis all along our Southwest Border,” CBP Commissioner Kevin K. McAleenan said in a statement.

In March, for example, the agency recorded more than 100,000 apprehensions, the highest monthly total in a decade. During the same month, CBP had more than 12,000 migrants in custody nationwide in a week. The agency considers 6,000 migrants to be at crisis level; more than 12,000 is unprecedented.

“The increase is having a detrimental impact on CBP’s primary border security mission,” the agency said in a statement. “With up to 40 percent or more of CBP personnel working to care for, transport, and process vulnerable families and children, CBP’s security posture on the border is negatively impacted. The same transnational criminal organizations and smugglers that exploit and profit from migrants benefit from that reduced border enforcement presence. Smugglers and criminal organizations are using large groups of families as diversions.”

CBP is taking several steps to address this challenging situation. The agency plans to use additional funding provided in fiscal year 2019 to, among other things, augment the law enforcement force with contract support for migrant care.

CBP officials say they are also shifting up to 750 officers from ports of entry and stationing them so they can support the southwest border patrol with the care and custody of migrants. However, this will have a detrimental impact at ports of entry. “CBP will have to close lanes, resulting in increased wait times for commercial shipments and travelers,” the agency said.

Finally, in an attempt to beef up its workforce, CBP has launched the Fast Track Hiring Process, an expedited hiring program. The goal of the new program is to reduce the average time to hire from 300 days to 120 days or less. ​