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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