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Border Patrol offers raises to keep agents as staffing falls below goals

'Political & economic environment makes it very difficult to compete' to fill jobs

Some Border Patrol agents will receive a "retention incentive" worth up to five percent of their salaries, as the agency strains to increase the number of staffers to meet tough recruitment demands set by a 2017 executive order. 

In a widely distributed email to staff and personnel at U.S. Customs and Border Protection, John P. Sanders, who is serving as acting commissioner after a shakeup in the agency two weeks ago, said that the agency was continuing to shift 545 officers from U.S. ports to Border Patrol stations, and that CBP "must also take immediate action to retain experienced Border Patrol agents, while we recruit and hire additional agents."

The Border Patrol was nearly 7,000 agents short of staffing goals this winter.

The agency will offer a retention bonus for Border Patrol agents including those in supervisory roles a five-percent bonus paid out on a quarterly basis if they agree to stay with the agency for another year. "Service agreements" will be available in May, and incentives will begin to accrue in June, and agents should see incentive payments in their paychecks by September, Sanders said. 

In his statement, Sanders thanked the chief of the Border Patrol, and the members of the National Border Patrol Council union for agents "for their efforts on this initiative." 

"This is the business thinking the American public thought we would get when President Trump was elected," said Art Del Cueto, a Tucson Sector agent and vice president of the the union for BP agents. "We have an untenable attrition rate and the administration knows Congress won’t act, so using his current authorities, the president is addressing the issue." 

"Investing in the men and women of the United States Border Patrol continues to be my top priority," said Carla Provost, U.S. Border Patrol chief, in a written statement. "Their experience and expertise is critical to successfully accomplishing the border security mission."

The agency has struggled to recruit and retain Border Patrol agents since staffing peaked in 2011 with 21,444 agents. 

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Over the next six years, the agency shed more than 2,000 agents. In fiscal year 2018, the agency finally began clawing back to 2011 levels, gaining exactly 118 agents, according to agency data. 

In November, a CBP spokeswoman said that the agency typically loses three to five-and-a-half percent of "frontline" Border Patrol agents and customs officers each year. 

"For the first time since FY 2013, hiring for Border Patrol Agents is outpacing attrition. CBP is also experiencing an even greater net gain for Customs and Border Protection Officers. The significant investments made by CBP in strengthening our hiring processes are taking hold and producing results," she said.

Recruitment fall short

Shortly after taking office, the president signed an executive order calling on CBP to hire an additional 5,000 agents, but the agency has yet to meet that goal. A later demand to hire 2,750 agents, law enforcement and staff has also not been met. Congress has provided funding for 21,370 agents, but the agency is more than 1,800 short of that mark. 

The agency has not reported how many agents will be on duty for FY 2019, however, a Government Accountability Office report from March said with the president's directive included, Border Patrol is aiming for a staffing level above 26,370 agents, and as of February 2019, the agency was 6,927 agents short. 

This means that the agency may have shed 112 agents between fiscal year 2018 and 2019.

The GAO noted that this has happened even as CBP has offered relocation opportunities and financial incentives and other payments to retain people in "hard-to-fill locations," and that agents often shift to other agencies that are "often able to offer more desirable duty locations—such as major cities—and, in some cases, higher compensation." 

During a phone call with reporters in April, a DHS official told reporters, "The political and economic environment makes it very difficult to compete for the people we need to do these jobs." 

Meanwhile, a program to hire agents collapsed earlier this year after CBP cancelled a $267 million contract with a consulting company after a federal watchdog sharply criticized the program. 

The company, Accenture Federal Services won a contract in 2017 to hire up to 7,500 people over five years, including Customs and Border Protection officers, Air and Marine Interdiction agents, and Border Patrol agents. In a scathing conclusion, DHS's Office of Inspector General wrote that CBP's contract with Accenture has "already taken longer to deploy and delivered less capability than promised."

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On April 4, CBP cancelled the contract "for convenience," ending a program that after 10 months and nearly $14 million had processed just two successful job offers. "CBP concluded the contract is no longer the best and most cost-effective way to support agency needs," a spokeswoman said.

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Paul Ingram/TucsonSentinel.com

A Border Patrol agent patrols the fence line near Lukeville, Ariz., on Monday.

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