Border Patrol brain drain: Agency losing more agents than it can hire

As the president renewed his call for a border wall, the agency charged with building it is facing a manpower crisis. The Border Patrol is losing agents faster than it can hire them.

The agency is already 2,003 short of what is congressionally mandated and the president ordered it to hire 5,000 more agents.

“It is an employment crisis,” said agent and Tucson union chief Art Del Cueto. “We are losing more agents than we can hire.”

According to a GAO report last year, the Border Patrol is losing 905 agents annually, while hiring only 523. Some are retiring but many with five or 10 years of experience are taking higher-paying jobs in other federal agencies in less remote areas with better schools, health care and job opportunities for their spouses.

Tucson Sector Chief Rudy Karisch acknowledged the problem.

“At the end of the day, it is about location we don’t necessarily lose agents because of pay, but the ability to transfer,” said Karisch. “Some of these locations are hard on families. We need to try to improve our retention initiatives.”

FILE - In this Nov. 13, 2016 file photo, a U.S. Customs and Border Patrol agent passes along a section of border wall in Hidalgo, Texas. The GOP-controlled House is plowing ahead on legislation to give the Pentagon a massive spending boost and deliver a $1.6 billion down payment for President Donald Trump's oft-promised wall along the U.S.-Mexico border. (AP Photo/Eric Gay, File)

The agency is already 2,003 short of what is congressionally mandated and the president ordered it to hire 5,000 more agents.  (AP)

Del Cueto said the agency needs to offer bonuses to stop the brain drain.

“Retaining agents is more important than hiring more agents,” he said. “What the agency is doing right now for retention is nothing.”

The Border Patrol’s attrition rate is twice that for other federal law enforcement agencies. But it is also having problems hiring new agents.

The starting salary of an agent is $49,000. It takes 133 applicants and nine months to put one agent in uniform, and two-thirds fail the mandated polygraph, a rate twice as high as that of other law enforcement agencies.

That’s because, says Karish, the Border Patrol draws from a larger pool of candidates and the new generation of candidates have experimented with drugs, and get caught lying on the test.

“I think our polygraph program is solid (but) are there options to adjust the test? Yes, I think there are,” he said.

One candidate who did pass was Stephen Engles, who joined the agency two years ago.

“The extreme nature appealed to me – where I am from, is pretty flat,” he said.

Raised in Terre Haute, Indiana, Engles served in the Army before joining. He spent six months at the Border Patrol Academy in Artesia, N.M. before getting stationed in Nogales Ariz., a remote corner of the U.S. where temperatures exceed 100 in the summer for months on end.

“The mission is key, we are not doing traffic stops every 30 minutes,” he said during a ride along. “It doesn’t matter why they crossed or what purpose they came here, it was illegal. We are paid to uphold the law.”

To meet the president’s executive order, the agency will have to hire 3,000 agents annually for five years, three times as many as in the recent past.