Dismay rises as border agent hiring bogs down
A massive security breach and failure rates on polygraph tests are slowing down the hiring of 2,000 new Customs and Border Protection agents, sowing frustration among lawmakers and business owners who were expecting quicker results.
Most of the new hires — the largest single batch in the agency's history — are slated for jobs helping legal trade and commerce pass smoothly through the nation's airports and ports of entry, where the costs of delay are measured in millions of dollars.
A security breach last summer, when hackers broke into the computers of a company performing background checks for the Department of Homeland Security, was the first wrench in the works.
“I asked them at that time if there was going to be a delay," said U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Laredo, who was briefed on the breach last summer. "They basically said, ‘We’ll hire some, but we are not going to be able to move as fast as possible.’”
Homeland security officials had to find other contractors to replace United States Investigations Services when its contract was canceled.
A congressional staffer not authorized to speak on the record said that DHS recently awarded another contract, and now has three vendors for background checks.
But the number of applicants failing polygraph tests during the vetting process, the staffer said, is also slowing hiring.
Cuellar said he’s heard from the National Treasury Employees Union, which represents customs officers, that polygraph tests are slowing things down, but said the wait is worth it. Calls to the union were not returned.
"I've told them we have to do the polygraphs. We have to make sure the backgrounds are good on these people," he said. “We've got to make sure that we don’t cut any corners and pay for it at a later time."
The delays are adding to growing frustration among merchants who want their goods to travel quickly, and local officials who often have to take up the slack.
In March lawmakers announced that some of the additional agents will be assigned to the Dallas-Fort Worth and Houston airports, and ports of entry in Laredo, El Paso, Hidalgo, Pharr, Fabens, Brownsville, Eagle Pass and Progreso. Cuellar's Laredo district is home to the busiest inland port in the country.
Last year, DHS signed off on a pilot project allowing local governments and private funders to pay for additional CBP staffing at the country’s busiest ports themselves. The public-private partnership, which seems to be working, was seen as a local, but temporary, solution.
“The consequences of the delay is that communities like El Paso will continue to foot the bill,” said U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke, D-El Paso.
More than $100 million in economic output is lost for every minute of bridge delay at the nation’s five busiest southern ports, which include El Paso, Hidalgo County and Laredo, according to a 2013 U.S. Department of Commerce study Cuellar’s office provided.
“We’re just seeing it hit our pocketbooks left and right,” said Monica Weisberg-Stewart, the chairwoman of the Texas Border Coalition’s Immigration and Border Security Committee, a group of elected officials and business leaders who lobby for additional staffing at the nation’s inland ports. “If you’re really going to talk about facilitating trade and travel, the truth is in the pudding.”