Polygraph tests at heart of CBP hiring quandary
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.