Tomorrow, the House will vote on HR 2213, which would allow Customs and Border Protection to waive the polygraph test requirement for certain new hires, while a Senate committee holds a hearing for an equivalent bill — the Boots on the Border Act authored by Sen. Jeff Flake (R-AZ). Both reflect Donald Trump’s plan to quickly bolster the ranks of CBP and ICE officials by lowering application standards, including waiving the polygraph test.
Currently, some two-thirds of CBP applicants fail their polygraph exam, at least some presumably because they could not demonstrate that they would be fair agents who couldn’t be bought, bribed, or corrupted. In 2015, the Department of Homeland Security’s own CBP Integrity Advisory Panel recommended expanding polygraph tests to include post-employment interviews. Yet the Boots on the Border Act wants to remove this safety check – even though arguably no single law enforcement agency needs more scrutiny than Customs and Border Protection.
CBP’s long, ugly history
CBP agents, just like their ICE counterparts, are given enormous discretion and little oversight over their job duties. This includes dealing with the men, women, and children who cross into the US – as well anyone they feel like accosting anywhere within 100 miles of the border. Historically, they’ve not handled this responsibility well. Here are some things CBP has made headlines for in recent years:
- At Newark airport, CBP officers are being investigated for a sexually assaultive “hazing” ritual that involves a “rape table”
- CBP agents are reportedly turning away asylum seekers at the border, which is a violation of international law
- According to a recent report, some 140 CBP agents have been arrested or convicted of corruption charges in the past dozen years, a rate of corruption that a former CBP senior official said “exceeded that of any other US federal law enforcement agency”; the Texas Observer has written about how multiple other agencies have had to investigate CBP officers
- A Border Patrol agent was recently accused of sexually assaulting a young asylum seeker and her sister. Between 2010 and 2016, there were 33,126 complaints of sexual and/or physical abuse against DHS agencies, 31% of which were filed against CBP.
- In January, the government settled a $1 million case where a teenager died after CBP told him to drink liquid meth – the agents involved still work for the agency
- CBP in the Trump era has been searching the phones of US citizens, detaining travelers until they unlock their phones, demanding access to sensitive materials, giving coding interview questions to a traveler they didn’t believe was an engineer, and asking passengers to show ID after a domestic flight
- In 2015, the ACLU sued DHS “for its failure to produce records related to the abuse and mistreatment of children in the custody of” CBP
- In 2014, the Los Angeles Times reported that just “13 of 809 abuse complaints sent to the [Border Patrol] agency’s internal affairs unit between January 2009 and January 2012 led to disciplinary action.”
- A Politico expose on CBP from 2014 called Border Patrol “America’s most out-of-control enforcement agency”
- A 2014 independent review found that CBP agents would deliberately step into the path of cars to justify shooting at the drivers
- CBP officers have shot and killed teenagers for throwing rocks, then been cleared of wrongdoing by the agency’s internal affairs office
- A 2013 report from the Office for the Inspector General for DHS found that CBP has been lodging so many complaints of excessive force – and recording them so poorly – that a proper tally couldn’t be identified.
If these are the headlines that CBP is generating at its current hiring standards, we should shudder at the thought of what might happen if those standards are relaxed.
What CBP looks like without polygraph tests
Recent history provides a window into what that might look like. As the Atlantic wrote recently, CBP underwent a rapid hiring surge in the years after 9/11, similar to the kind of hiring surge Donald Trump wants today. At the time, CBP didn’t use polygraph tests to vet applicants, and some agents were sent into the field before background checks were complete, leaving veterans to mock the recruiting program as George W. Bush’s “No Trainee Left Behind” policy.
When CBP decided to clean up its house after corruption and excessive use of force complaints spiked, a polygraph exam was piloted – and immediately uncovered 30 applicants sent by cartels to infiltrate CBP. Though the polygraph is now administered for all new hires, it was not retroactively tested on those hired before the exam was required – and today, officials conservatively believe that 5% of CBP (about 1,000 agents) could be corrupt.
Apparently, Republicans in Congress and the Trump Administration want to repeat history.