AP Photo / Rebecca Blackwell

Misconception 1:
There is a shortage of Border Patrol agents in every sector of the U.S.-Mexico border

The Trump administration is proposing to increase the U.S. Border Patrol’s personnel strength by 5,000 agents. Its 2018 Homeland Security budget request to Congress includes $100 million to hire the first 500.

Five thousand new hires would increase the agency’s size by more than a quarter. In April 2017, Border Patrol had 19,565 agents, with a funded level of 21,370. 16,717 were stationed at the U.S.-Mexico border. The Trump administration proposal would continue more than two decades of sharp growth—from 4,028 agents in 1993 to 21,444 in 2011. (We discuss the post–2011 reduction below.)

Of those 16,717 agents, 4,704 “were assigned to leadership or administration duties” at the U.S.-Mexico border, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Inspector General reported in July, leaving “about 12,013… assigned to directly engage in conducting apprehensions and arrests on the Southwest Border.” It went on, “Border Patrol officials estimated 2,000 Border Patrol Agents are actually performing intelligence work,” which would reduce the number of patrolling agents at the border still further. The Inspector General’s conclusion: “The use of Border Patrol Agents performing duties not directly tied to ‘ensuring complete operational control of the border’ calls into question the Department’s operational need for 5,000 new agents.” There may not be a “shortage” at all.

Before another across-the-board hiring surge, we need to ask whether the perceived “shortage of agents” is true border-wide. Does the border suffer from a lack of Border Patrol agents, or is the problem concentrated only in a few sectors?

Border Patrol divides the U.S.-Mexico border into nine sectors. The level of illegal activity varies across them, but the level of Border Patrol personnel does not vary as much. In the Rio Grande Valley sector, the easternmost part of the border, drug seizures—especially cocaine and cannabis—are high. The average agent there apprehended 60 migrants in 2016, or 1 every 6 days. On the other end of Texas, the average agent in the El Paso sector apprehended 11 migrants last year, or one every 33 days. That sector also ranks near the bottom for drug seizures. Yet El Paso’s 2016 staffing strength of 2,240 agents was almost three-quarters that of Rio Grande Valley (3,135 agents).

Some of the sector-by-sector imbalance in Border Patrol workloads happened because threats shift faster than personnel. Increased security operations in one sector cause increased migration to other sectors. But Border Patrol has not been agile in keeping up. Large numbers of agents remain in formerly active sectors, and few get transferred to newly active sectors.

There’s a good reason for this. Border Patrol agents are civilian law enforcement personnel. They have homes and families, and often have roots in their communities. Moving from urban sectors, with amenities and well-funded schools, to isolated rural outposts can take a toll on families. Unlike soldiers, management can’t redeploy agents en masse with a single order.

Still, they need to be where the threats are. This means spending more on incentives to entice agents to move. These include funds to cover moving expenses, bonuses and higher salaries, and a clearer path to promotions for those who go to less sought-after sectors.

The Homeland Security Department’s budget request includes $21 million to transfer about 770 agents who volunteer for it next year. One of this program’s purposes, though, is to help mid-career agents “relocate to a more desirable location,” the budget request explains. While this may improve morale, it does not address the stark imbalances in Border Patrol workloads across sectors. That would call for a different, larger relocation program.

Even if Border Patrol quadrupled the relocations account to $84 million, it would still be cheaper than hiring 500 new agents at $100 million. It costs much more to hire and train a Border Patrol agent, and to give him or her years of experience, than it does to transfer and compensate an existing, experienced Border Patrol agent from a quiet sector.