The Senate Homeland Security Committee approved a bill Wednesday to speed up hiring of Border Patrol agents by grandfathering in longtime military troops and law enforcement officers who have already passed background checks.
As President Trump calls for a new surge of agents to patrol his proposed border wall, experts say the requirement for a polygraph test trips up too many good candidates, and causes 18-month delays in getting agents on board.
The Boots on the Border Act, written by Sen. John McCain, would allow officers in other federal, state or local law enforcement departments to get a waiver on the requirement for a polygraph test, as long as they have served continuously for the last four years and have kept a good record. American troops who have the right level of security clearance could also be waived in.
“It’s crazy to say to somebody who has served their time in the military that they’ve got to wait 18 months to get their clearance,” Mr. McCain said.
The Border Patrol is already more than 1,500 agents shy of its mandated level of manpower, and Mr. Trump has ordered an additional 5,000 agents be hired in future years. Customs and Border Protection officers, who guard the ports of entry, are also short on staff by 1,400 officers.
But bringing on new agents and officers and retaining the current workforce has proved difficult — as the manpower shortage underscores.
CBP officials have said the polygraph test ends up being a major hurdle for new hires.
Up to three-quarters of Border Patrol applicants end up being weeded out by the polygraph — a rate twice that of another law enforcement agency, the Drug Enforcement Administration, according to a 2013 McClatchy report.
Immigrant-rights advocates are trying to head off the new changes, saying that agents are already feeling emboldened under Mr. Trump and Homeland Security Secretary John F. Kelly, and worrying that without the polygraph test bad actors will be able to sneak into the force.
“Now is not the time to in any way to loosen hiring standards so that the president and Secretary Kelly can rush to build a deportation force. We must be judicious and measured in our approach,” said Sen. Kamala D. Harris, a California Democrat who fought the legislation.
She and other critics say that corruption is a danger for border agents and officers, particularly with their work in policing the drug cartels that dominate illegal activity along the U.S.-Mexico border. Nearly 200 agents and officers have been arrested for corruption since 2004, James F. Tomsheck, a former CBP official, said in an op-ed published this week in the Hill.
Mr. Tomsheck said other agencies’ background checks aren’t the same as CBP’s review, and shouldn’t be taken as a substitute.
Ms. Harris pushed for a one-year pilot program to test the waiver, and asked for more reporting on who is apprehended by border agents.
The Homeland Security Department opposed her changes, and they failed to gain committee approval.
An amendment to up the service time required for law enforcement to qualify for the waiver from three years to four years was approved.
The bill then cleared the committee on a 9-2 vote.
Backers said the legislation has the support of a diverse group of advocates, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the National Treasury Employees Union, which represents CBP officers.
“CBP is the only federal agency with a congressional mandate that all front-line officer applicants receive a polygraph test,” said Tony Reardon, national president of the union. “NTEU does not seek to reduce the standards used by CBP in their hiring process, but believes that there is a problem with how the polygraph is currently administered.”
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