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Why It's So Hard To Recruit And Retain Border Patrol Agents

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

As lawmakers debate funding for border security over the next three weeks, one subject sure to come up is staffing the Border Patrol. When President Trump took office two years ago, he signed executive orders to hire thousands more border agents and immigration officers. The agency got tens of millions of dollars for new staff, but they have not hired anywhere near the number they were supposed to.

Molly O'Toole writes about this in the Los Angeles Times. Welcome.

MOLLY O'TOOLE: Thanks for having me.

SHAPIRO: How big is the gap between the aspirations and the reality? I mean, how many were supposed to have been hired, and how many actually were?

O'TOOLE: So 15,000 total - 5,000 Border Patrol agents, about 10,000 for ICE. And what we know is, basically, they're nowhere close to that. In fact, they're still under the minimum staffing levels that were required by Congress. So we're talking about thousands of vacancies beyond the order that way exceeds that that the president issued two years ago.

SHAPIRO: There's been all of this attention at the border. There's been all this money put into staffing up. Why hasn't it gone that way? Why hasn't it worked?

O'TOOLE: Well, there's a lot of factors in this. There are problems with hiring and retention at Border Patrol and ICE that pre-exist the Trump administration. Especially for Border Patrol, it's really difficult for them to hold on to the agents that they have. They're incredibly low-paid. They're stationed often at these isolated places along the border. In terms of sort of morale or how people view it as an agency to work for within the federal government, it's one of the lowest-ranked.

And they're uniquely targeted by cartels. There's a lot of corruption issues because they're sort of low-paid, in the middle of nowhere. They can be offered a lot of money to sort of look the other way as drugs or people, other things are smuggled. So those are pre-existing problems for the Border Patrol. So that's one of the factors.

And then when you look at that, if they're supposed to then go from, essentially, you know, 19,000, 20,000 agents and then add on 5,000 more Border Patrol agents in just a few years, if they already have these pre-existing problems, then how are they going to meet that?

SHAPIRO: The consulting firm Accenture was hired to help staff up Customs and Border Protection, Immigration and Customs Enforcement. That relationship did not work out. What went wrong?

O'TOOLE: I think the thinking was that the government has, for a long time, had trouble doing this, so let's go into private industry. Let's go outside and see if they can do it better. And so they awarded this contract in November 2017 to Accenture, which is sort of a multinational management consulting firm. It was for almost $300 million. They had pledged to hire 7,500 new officers for CBP within five years.

Instead, what we have is, from November 2017 to now, only 33 people have been hired under that contract, about 60 million has been allocated for it.

SHAPIRO: So tens of millions of dollars to hire thousands of people, and 33 were actually hired.

O'TOOLE: Exactly. That has been the result. And the inspector general for the Department of Homeland Security raised all sorts of issues with this contract. What they found is that Customs and Border Protection was actually having to step in and do the work that they had agreed or already paid Accenture to do.

So there've been a number of problems with this contract to the extent to which there's now a partial stop work order. And then in March, they'll decide whether they're going to kill the contract completely.

SHAPIRO: Right now, a bipartisan group of lawmakers is talking about border security and how much money to spend on what. What does this lesson tell you about the challenge of staffing up at the border?

O'TOOLE: Well, I think that's part of what's really interesting about the record-breaking shutdown that we had. We didn't hear all that much. Actually, the White House had sort of tucked into its demand from Congress. Yes, 5.7 billion for the border wall, which has sort of been the main sticking point.

But they also had tucked in, you know, another 800 million to hire more Border Patrol and immigration officers. And the Democrats have suggested that hiring more - giving more money for hiring is something that they'd be willing to consider.

SHAPIRO: Except it sounds like they can't even spend the money that they have to hire more.

O'TOOLE: Right. So then that, I think, is a legitimate question that people are raising. DHS has said, and in our article, they were quoted sort of pushing back, saying, look; we're supposed to meet this hiring surge; we're supposed to get to minimal staffing levels beyond this hiring surge, but we can only hire to the amount that we're appropriated.

And it is right that they've basically requested hundreds of millions to hire thousands of officers since the executive order, and Congress has mostly not really provided them that money. Lawmakers' argument is, you haven't justified the need for this surge, and you aren't responsibly spending the money that you've already been given, with the Accenture contract being a key example. So that's sort of where things stand.

SHAPIRO: Molly O'Toole, thanks so much.

O'TOOLE: Thanks for having me.

SHAPIRO: She's an immigration reporter at the LA Times. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


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