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CBP spent $5 million on lie detector tests for disqualified applicants

U.S. Customs and Border Protection spent more than $5 million on lie detector tests for law enforcement applicants, despite their previously admitting to officials that they were involved in crimes like drug smuggling and human trafficking, said a Department of Homeland Security report. 

On Thursday, the Office of Inspector General at DHS said that 2,300 applicants were given polygraph tests from 2013 to 2016, despite earlier admissions that would automatically disqualify them from becoming Border Patrol agents or customs officers. 

"CBP administered polygraph examinations to applicants who previously provided disqualifying information on employment documents or during the pre-test interview," said the report. "This occurred because CBP’s process did not stop, and is not sufficient to prevent, unsuitable applicants from continuing through the polygraph examination."

The OIG reviewed a sample of 380 polygraph tests conducted for CBP, and in 71 cases, or 19 percent, the applicant admitted to "disqualifying admissions" during a pre-test interview. Applicants admitted illegal drug use, drug smuggling, human trafficking, and having close personal relationships with people who commit these crimes, the OIG said. 

Between 2013 and 2016, CBP spent about $72.3 million on the polygraph program, testing around 32,847 applicants. 

Each polygraph costs about $2,000, the OIG said. 

In 2015, the Homeland Security Advisory Committee noted that arrests for corruption among CBP personnel "far exceed, on a per capita basis, such arrests at other federal law enforcement agencies."

In part, the inability to investigate misconduct among agents was an "inadvertent, unintended consequence" of the creation of the Department of Homeland Security in March 2003. During the reorganization, which revamped the U.S. Customs Service into CBP, the internal affairs office was "decimated," said the committee in a published report. 

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"Until this is reversed, CBP remains vulnerable to corruption that threatens its effectiveness and national security," said the committee. 

In June, a bill sponsored by Rep. Martha McSally, passed in the House allowing CBP to waive polygraph tests for military, law enforcement and veterans applying for Border Patrol jobs. 

Immigration advocates and some House Democrats opposed the bill, arguing that waiving lie-detector tests for some Border Patrol applicants during a hiring surge would led to an increase of civil rights violations and corruption in the ranks. 

"This is no time to dilute the law, especially when you’re gearing up to make that force even more prominent in the United States,"said Rep. Raul Grijalva, just before the House passed the bill. 

The OIG said that the report was part of a series on DHS hiring, as part of an ongoing department wide audit to review the agency’s "effective controls over the polygraph and complaint process." 

Last week, the OIG said that DHS may struggle to hire thousands of new agents President Donald Trump has ordered, and that the agency may not know how to deploy them. 

In January, Trump ordered DHS to hire 5,000 new Border Patrol agents and another 10,000 Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents, but the OIG said that CBP alone would need to review as many as 750,000 applicants to find the right number of agents. 

In addition to frontline agents, DHS would also need to find another 9,600 people to serve as "technical and operational support staff," said the OIG. 

Border Patrol has also shed agents over the last six years, due to attrition, including retirements and agents moving to other agencies. In 2011, the number of agents peaked at 21,444 agents, but that number has declined to around 19,828 agents, according to agency statistics. 

That’s about 1,500 agents below a floor set by Congress as part of a $1.1 trillion budget bill passed in 2014. 

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"Given its plans to hire 5,000 additional Border Patrol Agents, it is important that CBP focus its resources on the most qualified and suitable applicants," said Inspector General John Roth. "We are pleased that CBP has adopted one of our recommended changes to increase efficiency in its polygraph process."

CBP disagreed with the OIG’s findings. 

In an email, Gregory Moore, a CBP spokesman, said that the agency continually reviews and assesses its processes, and weighs applicants according to a "whole person concept," which allows officials to consider mitigating factors, allowing some candidates to remain eligible for employment despite admissions of crimes that would otherwise keep them out of the agency. 

Reviewers can consider the seriousness and circumstances of the candidate’s conduct, their age and maturity when they committed the crime, and their "potential for rehabilitation," Moore said. 

"While removing candidates from the process prior to the delivery of the polygraph may appear to save money, it could add time to the hiring process since removing an applicant for a failed polygraph exam is, many times, done more quickly than making a suitability determination, which may require extensive correspondence related to derogatory information," he said. 

"Applicants removed from the hiring process due to a negative suitability determination are first allowed due process for any information not developed directly, first-hand, from the applicant," Moore said. "This due process can extend for weeks. CBP must be sure to balance the need to remove candidates in the most fiscally responsible and timely manner; this balance is key to the efficiency of the overall hiring process."

In April, the American Immigration Council issued a report, written by analyst Josiah Heyman, criticizing the agency’s plan to quickly increase its numbers, writing that ICE and CBP are "poorly prepared to recruit, train and supervise new personnel." 

"While the Border Patrol experienced some improvements in the aftermath of its last expansion, most recommendations for reform remain unimplemented,” said Heyman. "Given this history, there are serious concerns that rapid expansion will bring about a resurgence of problems in the Border Patrol and also cause similar problems in ICE."

TucsonSentinel.com's original reporting and curation of border and immigration news is generously supported in part by a grant from the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation.

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Paul Ingram/TucsonSentinel.com

The Border Patrol checkpoint near Amado, Ariz.