The United States Customs and Border Protection service (CBP) is the largest law enforcement agency in the United States—and one of the most corrupt. CBP employs 59,000 people, of whom almost 20,000 are Border Patrol agents. Every day, these agents process over a million incoming U.S. travelers, 300,000 vehicles, and 78,000 shipping containers. On any given day they might seize over 5,000 pounds of narcotics and apprehend nearly 900 people at or near U.S. borders. Yet according to “conservative  estimate[s],” about 1,000 Border Patrol agents—5% of the total—violate their official duties in exchange for bribes. To take just a handful of some of the most egregious examples: One CBP agent permitted smugglers to bring over 612 kilograms of cocaine into the U.S. in exchange for $1,000 for each kilo he waved through his checkpoint. Another allowed 1,200 pounds of marijuana to enter into the U.S. in exchange for $60,000. Yet another CBP agent permitted vehicles containing undocumented immigrants to enter the U.S. at a price of $8,000-10,000 per vehicle.
In response to this widespread corruption, the Department of Homeland Security convened an independent Integrity Advisory Panel in 2015. But the Panel’s 2016 report fell on deaf ears, as almost none of its 39 recommendations were implemented. Instead, in line with his hardline stance on immigration, President Trump signed a 2017 executive order mandating hiring an additional 5,000 Border Patrol agents and “appropriate action to ensure that such agents enter on duty . . . as soon as practicable.”
Increasing the number of agents by 25% without devoting significant resources to combat the pervasive corruption in CBP is a terrible idea, and is likely to exacerbate current corruption problems, for three reasons:First, a rapid increase in hiring will lead to weaker applicant screening. History is instructive here: In the years after 9/11, CBP’s hiring doubled under instructions from President Bush—from 10,000 agents in 2001 to over 20,000 in 2009. To facilitate the rapid increase in manpower, CBP relaxed its hiring standards and even sent some agents to work before their background checks were complete. This resulted in the corruption spike that gave CBP its bad reputation. The 2010 Anti-Border Corruption Act, which was intended to remedy the problem, made polygraph testing mandatory for all CBP applicants. This testing weeds out roughly 65% of applicants. However, since President Trump’s executive order, this extra precautionary measure is being scaled back: CBP is piloting a switch to an “alternative polygraph,” which takes less time to complete than the normal 4-6 hour test, and eliminates a number of questions related to integrity and corruptibility, such as questions about document forgery.
- Second, hiring more agents will create a backlog for monitoring existing personnel. Monitoring veteran agents may be as important as screening new hires: A 2016 study of 140 corruption cases involving CBP officials found that officers with at least five years of experience committed approximately two-thirds of the crimes. To address this concern, the 2010 Anti-Border Corruption Act requires CBP to conduct “periodic background reinvestigations” of current agents. The Integrity Advisory Panel recommended an additional measure—“periodic random and targeted polygraph examinations on a post-hire basis”—to comport with practices currently employed at agencies like the CIA and NSA, which conduct these tests every five years. But even in 2010, before President Trump’s call for an agent increase, CBP had a backlog of 19,000 reinvestigations. Hiring more agents will undoubtedly increase this number further, creating a huge gap in oversight of potentially corrupt employees.
- Third, increasing the number of agents will decrease CBP’s capacity to investigate corruption allegations. The ratio of Border Patrol agents to CBP internal investigators (as of 2017) was 89:1—while the ratio of total CBP law enforcement officers to internal investigators was roughly 107:1. These ratios are very high compared to other law enforcement agencies. (The NYPD’s, for example, is 65:1). The Integrity Advisory Panel recommended that CBP bring this ratio down to a more reasonable level by increasing the number of internal investigators from roughly 200 to 550. Although the Trump administration’s 2018 budget request would fund an additional 60 CBP investigators, this is not nearly enough: hiring an additional 5,000 Border Patrol agents, while only hiring another 60 internal investigators, would not improve the ratio by very much.
Given the fact that corruption at CBP is the result of actions by individual, rogue agents whose crimes are recorded only if they are caught, the “true levels of corruption within CBP are not known.” But putting more boots on the ground—without a strict screening process, monitoring of current agents, or an increase in the number of internal investigators—will likely increase corruption levels substantially. While helping to uphold the President’s “tough on immigration” policies, an increase in CBP agents will continue to tarnish the reputation of the very agency responsible for carrying these policies out. And since those smuggling people, drugs, or other contraband can “shop” for Border Patrol agents willing to look the other way in exchange for cash, the overly rapid expansion of CBP may actually prove counterproductive, eroding rather than improving U.S. border security on net if the increase in corruptibility of the Border Patrol outweighs the increase in total enforcement resources.