To Fix the United States’ Corrupt Border Agency, Defeat Its Union

Immigration reform is likely to be a high priority for the Biden Administration, and while most of the attention will focus on substantive reforms and enforcement strategy, the agenda should also include rooting out corruption in U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), the agency charged with protecting the United States’ land borders. CBP is the nation’s largest federal law enforcement agency. It is also among its most corrupt. Border Patrol agents and CBP officers are regularly arrested—at a much higher rate than other federal law enforcement personnel—for a variety of corrupt activities, including accepting bribes, smuggling drugs, collaborating with organized crime groups, and selling government secrets. (In one case, a Border Patrol agent even gave a cartel member a literal key to a border gate.) All told, U.S. border guards accepted an estimated $15 million in bribes over the 2006–2016 period. Senior CBP officials have estimated that as many as 20% of CBP employees may be corrupt, and almost half of CBP personnel say that they’ve witnessed four or more acts of misconduct by their colleagues in the preceding three years.

The story of CBP’s corruption has been well told, including in voluminous investigative reporting, an advisory panel report, and congressional hearings. Yet little has changed. And this is not because nobody has figured out what policy reforms could make a difference. Indeed, experts who have studied the problem have laid out, clearly and consistently, a package of recommendations that would make a substantial difference. That package includes two main elements. First, CPB must devote more resources to monitoring and investigating CBP personnel. For example, the agency should hire substantially more internal affairs investigators; subject exiting personnel to regular reinvestigations (including periodic polygraph examinations); and equip all officers and agents with body cameras and mandate their consistent use. Second, leadership must reform CBP’s culture, which too often tolerates bad actors and punishes whistleblowers, and must provide better training in how to respond to misconduct.

The failure to address the CBP’s corruption problem, then, has not been due to a lack of viable, feasible reforms. The main problem is political—perhaps most importantly, the entrenched opposition of the National Border Patrol Council (NBPC), the powerful union that represents Border Patrol agents. The NBPC has systematically blocked efforts to crack down on corruption. Indeed, according to James Tomsheck, who led CBP’s internal affairs unit from 2006­–2014, NBPC leadership opposed each and every one of his integrity proposals over his eight year tenure. (For example, the union opposed CBP’s initiative to proactively identify corrupt officers and agents through polygraphing.) If the Biden Administration is serious about rooting out CBP corruption, it will need to take on the NBPC.

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A Border Patrol Surge Will Lead to a Border Corruption Surge

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: Continue reading