Almost a decade ago, as it struggled to fulfill the Bush administration’s then-unprecedented hiring mandate, Customs and Border Protection spent a reported $1 million to plaster its agency’s green-and-white logo on the hood of a NASCAR race car.
They also aired television ads during Dallas Cowboys games. They entered into a partnership with the Professional Bull Riders association, asserting the “skill, courage, and determination” required to sit tight on a furious, bucking animal would be well-applied to keeping “illegals” out of America.
This was 2008, the same year the National Border Control Council issued a report summarizing what had happened when it was stretched to recruit 10,000 agents over the last two-and-a-half years. Through the mid-2000s, the administration made throwing money and bodies at the border a central part of its post-9/11 homeland security project; between the Bush and Obama years the number of border patrol agents more than doubled.
The 2008 report claimed education requirements had been dropped to the point where some in the agency couldn’t read above a middle school level. Government and personal property was going missing more often, too—which might suggest that newly hired agents’ background checks were being rushed through. (Or, one could assume, not being done at all.)
In interviews at the time, agency spokespeople said it was increasingly hard to find qualified candidates to bloat the ranks. The problem was bigger than missing office equipment. Between 2005 and 2012 an officer was being arrested for misconduct on average once a day.
Recently, the American Immigration Council released a report recounting this culture of violence and corruption. “The Trump administration wants to repeat history,” it said. The rapid-fire expansion of the border control is the only reference point we have for February’s executive order, which mandated in addition to the hiring of 5,000 border patrol agents some 100,000 additional personnel for ICE.
In its effort to “take the shackles off” immigration and customs agencies, the administration reportedly plans to siphon upwards of $5 billion out of the TSA, the Coast Guard, and FEMA. Anticipating another hiring spree, BCP is already seeking to relax its hiring standards, according to leaked memos. Already it’s had trouble retaining agents: Around the time the order was initially issued, the agency had 1,600 empty jobs.
Such scrambles to put more troops on the ground in the past have created what is, by many accounts, a vicious and unstable agency resistant to oversight. The majority of violent abuses and deadly uses of force pass quietly: In 2015, the ACLU of Arizona published some of the 6,000 pages of complaints and arrest records it received after suing DHS for access—in many cases it appeared officers hadn’t been disciplined.
Occasionally, high-profile cautionary tales will been litigated under public scrutiny. Most recently, it was the story of teenaged sisters from Guatemala who, with the assistance of the ACLU, issued claims against DHS: They said when they flagged down an agent in California 2016, one of the sisters was sexually assaulted in a closet.
A few years ago that story was about border patrol agent Esteban Manzanares, who kidnapped a Honduran woman and her two teenaged daughters after they peacefully surrendered, raped them, and left them for dead before killing himself. Manzanares had already been under suspicion for prior incidents, but the backlog of such cases kept his particular investigation stalled.
Some who have been close to the U.S. Customs and Border Protection are anxious about the Department of Homeland Security’s inflation, as well. Officials from the Obama and Bush administrations have given recent interviews questioning how useful “throwing more human resources at the issue” will be. James Tomsheck, a former secret service member and until a few years ago the head of internal affairs at U.S. Customs and Border Patrol, has been particularly vocal about the department’s culture.
Agents coming in during his tenure, he has said, “were assured they were not law enforcement but part of a military agency tasked with securing the border.” In an interview with the Center for Investigative Reporting in 2014, he suggested agents considered themselves “the Marine Corps” of United States policing. In light of Trump’s order to expand the agency, Tomsheck has repeated his favored solution: a screening process that includes a lie detector test, weeding out those with criminal histories or drug problems. (ICE currently does not use the test.)
But even if lie detector tests were a foolproof method—which it is not—a series of polygraphs won’t change the agency’s sense of self, or prevent a similar culture from festering among the 10,000 new ICE recruits. As Tomsheck told told the New Yorker earlier this year, the border patrol’s attitude has always been “us against the world.” The cowboy mentality probably worked well when the border patrol consisted of 75 former lawmen and bandit-hunters riding in and out of El Paso.
That point of view is a little harder to justify when the country spends more on its immigration enforcement divisions than on all other federal law enforcement agencies combined. Or when you find yourself in a sitting president’s favor.
Recently, a Los Angeles Times reporter profiled “The Green Line,” a podcast for border patrol agents produced by a handful of agents and prominent Border Patrol Union members. In interviews, they expressed relief at “finally having a seat at the table” after being, in their estimation, ignored and oppressed by other administrations. “I would blame the agency for backing down every time there’s a protest or an immigrant rights group complaining about something we’ve done,” said Shawn Moran, until recently the union’s head.
There will likely be certain types of people to whom this culture appeals, and pro-immigrant groups have issued reports suggesting collaboration between members of CBP’s union members and hate groups like the Federation for Immigration Reform. Such a blurring of the boundary between citizens with guns and a federal agency with an annual bottom line of $18 billion creates some pretty dire potential scenarios. In a study released this week, the right-wing Center for Immigration Studies suggested that instead of vetting and training more officers the agency should simply employ a civilian force. (And, well, there already sort of is one.)
Not all of the new recruits will end up as a gruesome news item, like the border patrol agents who assaulted the two sisters in California. In a lot of places these are simply good jobs: In Del Rio, Texas, where the average income is around $41,000, the U.S. Border Patrol is holding a recruiting event in a few days. It says the starting salary is $52,583, with a guaranteed $97,486 after four years.
By the time anyone who joins up is making that kind of money, even the people who are supposed to know can’t say what America’s immigration agencies will look like. If history is any indication, it won’t be good.