Lawmakers want more agents, better technology at border crossings

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Officers are pulling double shifts while bureaucracy keeps new hires waiting for nearly a year

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EL PASO, Texas (Border Report) –What will it take to stop drugs and criminals from coming across America’s borders? Better technology and more agents say two members of a House subcommittee that came to the border Monday pitching high-tech inspections of all private cars and commercial trucks at land ports of entry.

The Securing America’s Ports Act calls on the Department of Homeland Security to develop a budget and a timetable to implement non-intrusive inspection (NII) systems at border crossings and to carry out a one-year pilot program. Right now, CBP agents scan only 15 percent of the truck traffic and only 1 percent of the cars coming across the border. The rest are only subject to visual or physical inspections.

Bill cosponsors Xochitl Torres-Small, D-New Mexico, and Dan Crenshaw, R-Texas, said Congress earlier this year approved $579 million for NII technology, some of which is already being spent on a pilot program in South Texas. More of that money should be spent once the program’s results are analyzed.

U.S. Rep. Xochitl Torres Small, D-New Mexico, and U.S. Rep. Dan Crenshaw, R-Texas, lead a field hearing of a House subcommittee Monday in Santa Teresa, New Mexico. (photo by Julian Resendiz/Border Report)

The two lawmakers on Monday hosted a field hearing of the Oversight, Management and Accountability Subcommittee of the Homeland Security Committee, at the New Mexico Border Authority building next door to the Santa Teresa port of entry.

“As the frontline of defense against terrorists and traffickers, Customs and Border Protection has an incredibly important job and it’s our job as members of the Homeland Security Committee to ensure CBP has the resources it needs to do its job,” Crenshaw said.

NII technology allows CBP inspectors to “see” the inside of a vehicle as it enters the inspection area without actually touching it. This “non-intrusive” technology can cut individual inspection times from an eight-minute average to one minute, he said.

Both Crenshaw and Torres Small say most illicit drugs and contraband sent over from Mexico to American cities comes through established ports of entry, as opposed to remote areas with or without a border wall. That’s why they say the fight against the drug cartels and human smugglers must become more efficient at border land crossings.

Torres Small, who described herself as a “native of the border,” added that high-tech inspections will also benefit the U.S. economy by speeding up the entry of legitimate goods manufactured in Mexico — a multi-billion dollar industry on which many Fortune 500 companies have a stake.

However, both lawmakers stressed that technology alone won’t do the job. Torres Small pointed out to a shortage of border agents — 1,600 to 3,500, depending on the metrics used. “Although technology can be a great asset, it is no substitute for hard-working men and women,” she said.

The reason for the shortage is twofold: the current CBP workforce is doing more work than it should (agents often work double shifts) that the agency is having difficulty recruiting new agents, and the agency waits nearly a year to get them in a uniform and working, Crenshaw said.

“It’s hard to hire officers, either in the Border Patrol or the Customs side. It takes too long to get them processed even if you can recruit them. It’s a hard job and it can be a thankless job. You see that over and over in the media,” he said. “These people are being vilified for doing their job. We should take not of what kind of toll that takes on the men and women who serve on CBP and their families.”

Crenshaw was referring to how border agents were accused by activist organizations and some lawyers’ groups of neglect and cruelty at detention and processing centers during the height of the migrant surge earlier this year.

“They often work remote locations, many in areas where they’re not from. They go down there and do their jobs — that’s all they’re trying to do — and they get vilified in the media for that. … It’s no wonder that they’re hard to hire,” the lawmaker said.

And once the new border agent is recruited, the average wait time for the hiring to be completed is 300 days. He said he’s working on legislation to exempt former law-enforcement officers and veterans with previous access to classified information from some of the bureaucracy of becoming CBP officers, like a polygraph test that is much longer than that other agencies require.

Hector Mancha Jr., director of field operations in El Paso for CBP, said the migrant surge did force the agency to reassign officers from border crossings to migrant processing centers.

“I would tend to agree that there are certain applicants that already have been either in a law-enforcement position or coming from administrative and so forth that perhaps would give rise to giving them a waiver of that polygraph requirement. But I just find it very beneficial that we do the screening to make sure we have the right people coming in,” Mancha said at Monday’s field hearing.

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