Five days after President Trump took office, he signed an executive order that promised a swift, sharp crackdown on illegal immigration — immediate construction of a massive border wall, quick hiring of 5,000 new Border Patrol agents and stepped-up deportation of undocumented migrants.
“Beginning today, the United States of America gets back control of its borders,” Trump declared at the Jan. 25 ceremony at the Department of Homeland Security, which controls federal immigration agencies.
Seven months later, construction of the wall has yet to begin, the number of Border Patrol officers has actually dropped by 220, and immigration agents are on track to deport 10,000 fewer people this year than in President Obama’s last year in office, the latest figures show.
To be sure, part of Trump’s crackdown is showing dramatic results. Illegal border crossings are down 22% compared with last summer. Arrests of people in the country illegally have surged 43% since January, including longtime residents who bought homes, paid taxes and raised families here.
The sharpest increase in arrests was of undocumented migrants without criminal convictions – 24,189 under Trump, nearly three times as many as Obama in the first seven months of last year.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials say the slower pace in deportations — from 240,000 last fiscal year to an expected 230,000 this year — is misleading. Sarah Rodriguez, an ICE spokeswoman, attributed the shift to fewer people being caught and sent back at the border. Removals from inside the country have surged.
But other pledges that Trump made the keystone of his campaign have stalled, or even slid backward, a reflection of the gap between his broad promises and the practical reality of remaking the government’s vast immigration enforcement apparatus.
The challenges are especially steep at the long-troubled Border Patrol, the nation’s largest law enforcement agency. Operating from boats, planes, cars and horses, the green-uniformed Border Patrol officers hold the front line to secure the 2,000-mile Southwest border.
After the terrorist attacks of 2001, Congress doubled the size of the Border Patrol to more than 20,000 to enhance border security. But hampered by poor morale, hiring problems and high attrition, as well as rampant corruption, the agency hasn’t met that goal since 2013.
Staffing has drifted downward since 2010, and the agency now has about 2,000 vacancies — with 220 fewer agents than when Trump took office, records show.
More importantly, based on current attrition and hiring rates, the agency would need to screen about 750,000 applicants to meet Trump’s goal of hiring 5,000 qualified agents, according to a July report by the inspector general at the Department of Homeland Security.
“They’re going to have a tough time because they hardly have anyone in the pipeline right now,” said Victor M. Manjarrez Jr., a retired Border Patrol supervisor who studies border issues at the University of Texas at El Paso. “They don’t even have enough to cover attrition.”
Linda Jacksta, an assistant commissioner in charge of human resources at Customs and Border Protection, parent agency of the Border Patrol, said officials are determined to reverse that slide. But she said they probably won’t do so before 2018.
The Border Patrol now has a goal of hiring 500 officers next year, she said, and is trying to recruit former military and law enforcement officers to join the ranks.
“It’s a corner that we have been trying to turn for the past two years,” Jacksta said. The low hiring numbers this year “doesn’t really reflect where we’re headed,” she added.
Getting there won’t be easy. Most applicants wash out in a gauntlet of screening reviews and tests — drug tests, fitness tests, a background criminal investigation and a polygraph test.
One reason: Drug traffickers have repeatedly bribed or otherwise compromised Border Patrol officers. More than 170 officers have been arrested and convicted of corruption in recent years, including some caught working for the Mexican drug cartels they were supposed to be fighting.
Many of the agency’s hiring troubles are of their own making, according to a series of stinging internal audit reports that describe a hiring process mired in inefficiency.
Another inspector general’s report in July found that the agency spent more than $5 million giving polygraph tests to applicants who had already admitted in their job interviews to crimes or other conduct that disqualified them.
“For example, applicants admitted to illegal drug use, drug smuggling, human trafficking and to having close personal relationships with people who commit these crimes,” said an inspector general’s report on Aug. 4.
One applicant admitted to participating in the gang rape of an unconscious and intoxicated woman, but the examiner went ahead with a five-hour polygraph exam anyway, the report said.
The government’s requirement that each applicant pass a polygraph test also has long hindered hiring at the Border Patrol. In recent years, more than 70% of applicants flunked the lie detector test.
Former agency leaders say the tests weren’t done properly, producing failure rates far higher than at other law enforcement agencies.
In response, both the House and Senate recently passed bills to allow the agency to skip the test for some applicants, including former police officers or members of the military.
Some present and former agency officials think that’s a bad idea. During the last hiring surge, in the mid-2000s, the agency had trouble maintaining hiring standards and corruption soared.
“If we had our druthers we would have hired slower,” said David Aguilar, a retired Border Patrol chief. “We were using literally every background investigator who could conduct investigations, and that was still not enough. It was a very hairy time.”
In Texas, one agent was arrested with his brothers and charged with killing and beheading a man on the orders of the Sinaloa drug cartel. He was acquitted of murder in January but convicted of working for the drug organization.
“When you have cases like that, what happens is it causes you to be a lot more cautious in what you’re doing,” said Brandon Judd, president of the National Border Patrol Council, the union representing agents. “You don’t want to make the same mistakes and let the same people in.”
A bigger problem may be keeping up with people leaving.
In a 2016 survey of job satisfaction in federal agencies, Customs and Border Protection ranked 291 out of 305 agencies, even with a slight improvement in the scores. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the group that handles deportations, came in at 299.
“We’re putting a burden on the taxpayers that is exponential because of this continual hiring,” Judd said, adding that it costs about $100,000 to hire and train an agent.
“When we lose that agent, that’s just $100,000 down the drain that we’re going to have to spend again,” he said.
Jacksta said that the attrition rate has dropped in the last two years and that other trends are moving in the right direction. The average time to hire an agent was once 469 days, she said, leading many to just bail out and get new jobs.
She said that’s been cut to about 160 days. The agency has seen an increase in applicants and lower rates of people dropping out or flunking the tests, she said.
Trump’s promised border wall, still a staple applause line at his political rallies, has become a headache for the administration.
He not only failed in his attempts to persuade Mexico to pay for the wall, as he repeatedly vowed. Trump’s request to Congress for $1.6 billion to start construction of 74 miles of barrier wall passed the House in a defense bill but probably will be stripped out or trimmed back in the Senate.
And the bulk of the massive project has been hung up in routine federal contracting delays, the kind of problems Trump said would be history as soon as he brought his experience as a real estate developer and negotiator to the White House.
Customs and Border Protection had plans for contractors to begin putting up prototypes in San Diego this summer. But the plans have been put on hold until at least November because of protest from other bidders.
Trump, at least in public, isn’t deterred. “Our borders are far tougher than ever before!” he said on Twitter on Friday.