From the Atlantic this week comes an article about Customs and Border Patrol, the chilling rates of corruption within the agency, and what this means for Donald Trump’s plan to hire thousands more CBP officers — while possibly lowering the bar for the applications process, including loosening polygraph test requirements.
The article is centered around a former CBP agent named Joel Luna, one of 140 Customs and Border Protection agents arrested or convicted on corruption charges in the past dozen years, according to an analysis by the Center for Investigative Reporting and The Texas Tribune. According to the article:
“Mr. Luna is not one bad apple,” said James Tomsheck, a former senior official at CBP. “He is part of a rate of corruption that exceeded that of any other U.S. federal law-enforcement agency.”
Though the number of corrupt agents represents less than 1 percent of CBP’s 44,000 sworn officers—the largest police force in the U.S.—“any amount is bad, and one person alone can do a lot of damage,” John Roth, the inspector general at the Department of Homeland Security, told The New York Times. “It doesn’t have to be widespread.”
The article delves into how a CBP hiring surge after 9/11 led to an applications process that wasn’t as diligent as it could have been, resulting in possibly thousands of corrupt agents who take bribes, are part of smuggling operations, or are paid by cartels:
Customs and Border Protection traces much its corruption problem to a rapid hiring surge in the years after 9/11.
CBP doubled its ranks from 9,821 agents in 2001 to 20,119 in 2009. In order to inflate its force that quickly, CBP relaxed its hiring standards. Border Patrol sent some agents into the field before background checks were complete, and unlike other federal law-enforcement agencies, they didn’t use polygraphs to vet applicants.
During the hiring surge, some veteran agents worried about the quality of the new recruits, and mocked what they dubbed the Bush administration’s “No Trainee Left Behind” policy.
Corruption and excessive use of force complaints spiked, and James Tomsheck was hired to help clean up the Border Patrol. As the agency’s head of internal affairs, he testified to the Senate in 2010 that drug cartels “are doing all that they can to infiltrate CBP through our hiring initiatives.”
Tomsheck decided to take a closer look at the hiring process. During his decades at the Secret Service, he’d used the government’s standard polygraph test to vet agents. The FBI, Drug Enforcement Administration, and Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives also use the test. Tomsheck began to pilot the polygraph on CBP applicants. “What we found was shocking,” Tomsheck said.
During the piloting process, Tomsheck and his team uncovered about 30 applicants sent by cartels to infiltrate CBP, he said. “That made the hair on the back of my neck stand up.”
In response, in 2010, Congress mandated polygraph testing for all new Customs and Border Protection hires. But the agency didn’t retroactively test those hired before the reforms, like Joel Luna, who joined one year before the Anti-Border Corruption Act passed.
“Polygraphs have made it so we don’t hire people with significant problems,” former CBP commissioner R. Gil Kerlikowske told The New York Times last year. “The bigger problem is what happens to people who are already on board.”
Today, Tomsheck says it’s “conservative to estimate that 5 percent of the force”—or “about 1,000 agents”—could be corrupt.
The Department of Homeland Security also concluded that the anti-corruption reforms haven’t gone far enough. A 2015 report says “the true levels of corruption within CBP are not known.”
The true levels of corruption within CBP are not known. But it’s this agency (along with ICE) that Trump wants to bolster with more manpower — while watering down the rigor of the applications process. Considering how much discretion and power CBP agents have over immigrants’ lives, this sounds like a recipe for serious trouble.