Dismay rises as border agent hiring bogs down

Dismay rises as border agent hiring bogs down

Brad Doherty 

(U. S. Customs and Border Protection Officer, Robert Zuniga, a member of the color guard stood at attention during the presentation of the colors, Wednesday Sept. 17,2014. A National Hispanic Heritage Month celebration was held at the Veterans Memorial Bridge in Brownsville. 

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…..read more.

 

JULIÁN AGUILAR | THE TEXAS TRIBUNE

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