Poly­graph tests at heart of CBP hir­ing quandary

Honolulu Star-Advertiser - - NATION|NATIONAL REPORT - By Ron Nixon

BROWNSVILLE, TEXAS >> Joel Luna was just the kind of job can­di­date the Bor­der Pa­trol cov­ets. He grew up on both sides of the bor­der, in Mex­ico and south Texas. He par­tic­i­pated in the Re­serve Of­fi­cers’ Train­ing Corps in high school and served in the Army, see­ing com­bat in Iraq.

Luna joined the agency as part of a hir­ing surge un­der the Ge­orge W. Bush ad­min­is­tra­tion, pa­trolling a ru­ral area about 100 miles north of Mex­ico. But six years later, his dec­o­rated ca­reer came to a shock­ing end: He was ar­rested and charged with help­ing send il­le­gal weapons to Mex­ico and ship drugs into the United States. He was con­victed in Jan­uary and sen­tenced to 20 years in prison.

Now, as Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump plans a sim­i­lar hir­ing surge at the Bor­der Pa­trol, Luna’s case is cast­ing a large shadow. The pres­i­dent wants to make 5,000 new hires, un­der a stream­lined process that crit­ics fear could open a door to other rogue agents like Luna.

Agency of­fi­cials, some mem­bers of Congress and the Bor­der Pa­trol union say the cur­rent process has made it too hard to hire agents. It typ­i­cally takes more than a year to vet can­di­dates and get them on the job.

At the cen­ter of this no­to­ri­ously slow and strin­gent process — which Cus­toms and Bor­der Pro­tec­tion, the pa­trol’s par­ent agency, put in place af­ter a num­ber of cor­rup­tion cases — is a manda­tory poly­graph test. Of­fi­cials are con­sid­er­ing chang­ing the test, and in some cases the agency would sim­ply waive it.

“I’m not say­ing that we should get rid of the poly­graph,” said Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., who has spon­sored leg­is­la­tion to make hir­ing agents eas­ier and faster, “but we want to make sure the process isn’t an over­all detri­ment to good can­di­dates.” Three weeks ago, the agency be­gan us­ing a dif­fer­ent lie de­tec­tor test that takes less time than the cur­rent one and asks fewer ques­tions. And leg­is­la­tion mov­ing through Congress would grant the agency the author­ity to waive the poly­graph for some former law en­force­ment of­fi­cers and mil­i­tary vet­er­ans.

Top of­fi­cials said the changes would al­low the agency, which is los­ing agents faster than it can re­place them, to com­pete for qual­i­fied can­di­dates with other law en­force­ment agen­cies more ef­fec­tively with­out sac­ri­fic­ing stan­dards. Ap­pli­cants would still un­dergo a back­ground check in ad­di­tion to the shorter poly­graph test, of­fi­cials said.

“No one wants cor­rupt agents in­side the Bor­der Pa­trol,” said Jayson Ah­ern, a former act­ing com­mis­sioner of Cus­toms and Bor­der Pro­tec­tion. “What CBP is propos­ing is a sen­si­ble way to weed out cor­rup­tion but speed up the hir­ing.”

But some cur­rent and former Depart­ment of Home­land Se­cu­rity of­fi­cials said the pro­posed changes could ex­pose the agency to cor­rupt in­di­vid­u­als who could use their po­si­tion to help drug car­tels or hu­man smug­glers. Bor­der Pa­trol agents work largely by them­selves in iso­lated ar­eas and are rou­tinely tar­geted by crim­i­nal or­ga­ni­za­tions.

James Tomsheck, a former head of the agency’s in­ter­nal af­fairs di­vi­sion who helped de­sign the orig­i­nal poly­graph tests, said the new exam would not be use­ful in weed­ing out ap­pli­cants with drug prob­lems or ties to car­tels. It is “de­signed for the in­tel­li­gence com­mu­nity, not law en­force­ment pro­fes­sion­als,” he said.

Luna did not take a poly­graph test be­fore he joined the Bor­der Pa­trol in 2009. It did not be­come manda­tory un­til Pres­i­dent Barack Obama signed the Anti-Bor­der Cor­rup­tion Act into law in Jan­uary 2011.

The law was prompted by prob­lems the agency had in screen­ing can­di­dates dur­ing the Bush-era hir­ing surge. As the num­ber of Bor­der Pa­trol agents dou­bled be­tween 2001 and 2009, from nearly 10,000 to more than 20,000, dozens of agents were even­tu­ally ar­rested and charged in cor­rup­tion cases, ac­cord­ing to gov­ern­ment doc­u­ments and court records. Last year, a re­port by a Home­land Se­cu­rity ad­vi­sory panel found that cor­rupt bor­der agents “pose a na­tional se­cu­rity threat.” It called for more ag­gres­sive mea­sures to root them out, in­clud­ing in­creas­ing the num­ber of in­ter­nal in­ves­ti­ga­tors, be­cause the depart­ment was in­ad­e­quately staffed.

But Tomsheck, the former Cus­toms and Bor­der Pro­tec­tion of­fi­cial, said the agency seemed to be do­ing the op­po­site in its ef­forts to meet Trump’s hir­ing goals. “They’re just ask­ing for more Joel Lu­nas,” he said.

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