By Kathryn Casteel
As Trump tweets, government acts. Welcome to Meanwhile, our recurring look at what federal agencies are up to and how their work affects people’s lives.
President Trump signed two executive orders soon after his inauguration calling for the Department of Homeland Security to hire thousands of new Border Patrol and immigration agents. But now, two new government analyses show that there may be major obstacles to meeting those expectations. The department has not only fallen short on hiring efforts even before Trump issued his orders but also can’t provide data to show how it would use additional agents — or that there’s even a need for them.
In a memo to the leadership of the Homeland Security Department last week, the department’s inspector general said that it had “not established structure or rigorous process to determine needed staff and allocate them accordingly” and that neither of the agencies covering immigration enforcement and border security “could provide complete data to support the operational need or deployment strategies for the 15,000 additional agents and officers they were directed to hire.” For example, the memo says that U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the federal agency responsible for hiring immigration agents, doesn’t collect enough information on employee workloads from field offices to determine the appropriate assignment of staff and resources to support each office. None of the agencies named immediately responded to requests for comment.
This isn’t the first time the inspector general’s office has flagged aggressive hiring at the Homeland Security Department as a concern, and it’s not the only government watchdog to raise questions about its staffing practices. A report, also released last week, by the Government Accountability Office found that as of May 2017, the Border Patrol had failed to meet its current hiring quotient and had 1,900 fewer agents nationwide than authorized. During fiscal years 2011 through 2016, Border Patrol was statutorily required to maintain a minimum of 21,370 full-time agent positions, according to the GAO report. As of May 2017, Border Patrol had about 19,500 agents. The report also said the agency had lost more agents on average (904) each year than it hired (523) from fiscal years 2013 to 2016. The report noted several challenges that the Border Patrol faces in hiring, including the requirement that applicants take a polygraph.
Doris Meissner, who in the 1990s served as the commissioner of the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service, said the organizational issues that the reports highlighted aren’t new and that the hiring process for Border Patrol agents should remain rigorous because of previous problems that the agency has experienced. For example, a hiring surge that the agency implemented in the mid-2000s, before the more strenuous process was in place, spawned allegations of corruption and discussion of flawed vetting procedures.
Meissner, who now directs the U.S. immigration policy program at the Migration Policy Institute, a research organization, said that “when there is heavy political pressure for very aggressive hiring, it has forced or led agencies to cut corners, and generally it has come around to haunt them in the future with integrity issues.”
Kathryn Casteel writes about economics and policy issues for FiveThirtyEight. @kathryncasteel