SAN DIEGO - The Border Patrol's parent agency would exempt many veterans and law enforcement officers from a hiring requirement to take a lie-detector test under a proposal to satisfy President Donald Trump's order to add 5,000 agents, according to a memo released by the agents' union.
The memo by Kevin McAleenan, acting Customs and Border Protection commissioner, calls the polygraph a "significant deterrent and point of failure" for applicants and a recruiting disadvantage against Immigration and Customs Enforcement, a separate agency that is responsible for deporting people settled in the U.S. ICE is under Trump's orders to hire 10,000 people, and it does not require lie detectors.
The Associated Press reported in January that about two-thirds of job applicants fail CBP's polygraph, more than double the average rate of law enforcement agencies that provided data under open-records requests. Those failures are a major reason why the Border Patrol recently fell below 20,000 agents for the first time since 2009. Many applicants have complained about being subjected to unusually long and hostile interrogations.
The undated memo lays out a plan for the agency to build a force of 26,370 agents in five years, which would deprive Trump of hitting his target during his current term.
Any waiver of the lie-detector mandate may require congressional approval due to a 2010 law that introduced the requirement to root out corruption and misconduct after an earlier hiring surge doubled the size of the Border Patrol in eight years. McAleenan's memo is addressed to the Homeland Security Department deputy secretary for approval, suggesting that the Trump administration may not yet back the plan.
CBP officials did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Wednesday. Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly, who oversees both CBP and ICE, told reporters Tuesday in Dallas that he still thinks the polygraph is "a good idea," while acknowledging that it has hindered hiring.
The National Border Patrol Council, which represents Border Patrol agents, received the memo Tuesday and has been working closely with the agency on hiring plans, said Shawn Moran, a union vice president. He called the changes to the polygraph "a more commonsense approach" and said current failure rates are "ridiculous."
"Obviously we want to get the best candidates. We want to make sure that we have stringent background checks, but when it comes to the polygraph, that thing, I think, has been far too excessive in weeding out potentially good candidates," Moran said.
A former official who played a key role introducing the polygraph said Wednesday that the hiring plan was "a roadmap to further compromise the current and future integrity of CBP."
James Tomsheck, who was the agency's internal affairs chief from 2006 to 2014, said McAleenan "is attempting to degrade the vetting" to accommodate a political mandate.
"Ultimately this data-deprived decision will greatly reduce security at our borders," Tomsheck wrote in an email.
The memo said the Border Patrol gets 60,000 to 75,000 applications a year and has hired an average of 529 candidates during each of the last four years, which translates to a hiring rate of less than 1 percent. It has lost an average of 904 agents a year through attrition, lowering its workforce to 19,627 in January.
The acting commissioner estimated that the Border Patrol would need to hire 2,729 agents a year to hit Trump's target in five years, accounting for attrition.
The hiring plan at the nation's largest law enforcement agency would cost $328 million during the fiscal year that ends Sept. 30 and $1.9 billion the following year. McAleenan said the changes would need to take effect within six months for maximum effect.
The Border Patrol is clearly worried that ICE will poach agents to reach its own highly ambitious hiring requirements. Aside from not requiring a lie detector, McAleenan notes that ICE hires in major metropolitan areas, while Border Patrol jobs are often in remote regions far from medical care, schools and job opportunities for spouses. ICE employees are also often eligible for more overtime pay than Border Patrol agents.
The proposed waivers would exempt state and local law enforcement officers in good standing who have successfully completed a polygraph with their employers. Federal law enforcement officers who have passed certain types of background checks would also be exempt, and the number of military members and veterans who can skip the test would be expanded.
McAleenan said CBP is also considering a six-month experiment with an alternative polygraph test that takes less time to administer.
The memo calls for the Rio Grande Valley in south Texas - the busiest corridor for illegal crossings - to get 800 to 1,000 more agents, the largest increase under two proposed scenarios. The Laredo, Texas, sector would get 700 more agents.
Taking a polygraph became a hiring requirement at CBP after the hiring surge led to more agents getting arrested for misconduct. A Government Accountability Office report in 2013 said the lie detectors flagged applicants who wanted the job to smuggle drugs or engage in other crimes.
A panel of law enforcement experts appointed during President Barack Obama's administration last year called CBP's polygraph "an important integrity tool" in hiring and recommended employees be periodically tested, as the FBI does. It called corruption "the Achilles' heel of border agencies."
Kelly testified in Congress last month that he did not think the Border Patrol or ICE would hit hiring targets "within the next couple of years."
"We will add to the ranks of the ICE and Border Protection people as fast as we can, but we will not lower standards and we will not lower training," he said.