The dramatic increases in migrant encounters and traffic at the Southwest border have magnified existing staffing challenges at Department of Homeland Security components, the Office of Inspector General (OIG) says.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) support complex and intersecting missions related to immigration, trade, and travel. Since 2019, shifts in U.S. immigration and border security policies, migrant surges, COVID-19, and the overall rising number of migrant encounters along the Southwest border have placed additional strain on the CBP and ICE workforce. Increasing gang violence and stagnant economic growth in migrants’ countries, along with political instability further fuel the migrant surge. Despite greater workloads, staffing levels have remained the same, with CBP and ICE using details and overtime to temporarily address the rising number of encounters along the Southwest border.
To put this into perspective, roughly the same number of officers who processed about 6,300 migrant encounters per month in FY 2021 processed nearly 14,400 encounters per month in FY 2022. According to CBP personnel, Border Patrol stations and ports of entry are severely understaffed and running with a “skeleton crew” to ensure migrants are processed and port lanes remain open. The problem inevitably negatively impacts workforce health and morale.
This is by no means a new problem. Numerous OIG as well as Government Accountability Office reports over the years describe struggles with employee morale, proper management of resources and planning during migrant surges, and difficulties recruiting and hiring. For example, in 2017, OIG reported that after a presidential Executive Order directed DHS to hire an additional 15,000 law enforcement officers, CBP and ICE experienced difficulties recruiting and hiring that number of officers.
Now, a new OIG audit has found CBP’s and ICE’s current method of managing law enforcement staffing to be unsustainable.
OIG surveyed CBP and ICE law enforcement personnel for their perspective on whether their current work location is adequately prepared and staffed during normal operations. Seventy-one percent (4,303 of 6,093) of CBP respondents and 61 percent (1,936 of 3,198) of ICE respondents said no. Even more respondents, 88 percent (5,362) of CBP respondents and 88 percent (2,810) of ICE respondents, indicated that in their opinion, their current duty locations are not adequately staffed during migrant surges.
One reason OIG heard in the field for why staffing has not increased is that the authorized staffing levels appear, in theory, to be sufficient. However, authorized levels do not represent the actual number of staff available to work. Staff assigned to a station or port may, for example, be detailed to other stations, off duty, or assigned other duties.
Additionally, in OIG’s survey and during discussions with law enforcement personnel, multiple staff explained that when there are visitors to Southwest border stations or ports, local management will require more staff to work, creating the impression that they are sufficiently staffed. CBP law enforcement personnel indicated that in these instances visitors “are not shown how conditions are in reality.” For example, some Border Patrol agents said that local management would transport migrants out of the facility before a visit and return them after the visit ended. One Border Patrol agent wrote that every time a visit took place, they would transport migrants away “and make this place look fit and proper to code.” Once the visit was over, the agent wrote, “[W]e go right back to over filled pods and lack of staff and equipment to handle the situation.”
Based on interviews and the survey responses from law enforcement personnel, details and overtime have negatively impacted the health and morale of law enforcement personnel, who feel overworked and unable to perform their primary law enforcement duties. “Officers are getting burned out,” one respondent commented. “We need more staff and better shifts that allow for more time off with families. Divorce rates and suicides are rampant in the agency. We want to feel like we are respected and not a cog in the machine that can be easily replaced.”
Although CBP and ICE annually assess their staffing needs, OIG found neither has assessed how using details and overtime has affected the workforce and operations. One survey respondent explained that one location “very seldom” has agents patrolling the border because they have been detailed elsewhere. And ultimately, heavier workloads and low morale are likely to lead to higher turnover and earlier retirements, further worsening staffing challenges and degrading CBP and ICE’s capacity to perform their mission. Approximately one in four CBP and ICE survey respondents indicated they plan to leave within the next year.
OIG also found potential security vulnerabilities as a result of staffing levels. During site visits at six ports of entry, many CBP officers and supervisors told inspectors that maintaining the flow of traffic and minimizing wait times at ports of entry were prioritized by CBP leadership over security. CBP personnel at two different Border Patrol Stations told OIG that they felt pressured to process and release migrants as quickly as possible to move them out of the facilities.
In 2011, Congress required Border Patrol to submit a workforce staffing model, which would help Border Patrol assess whether it is allocating its workforce efficiently. Eight years later, in 2019, OIG reported that Border Patrol had not completed or submitted the staffing model. CBP then drafted a staffing model, which was approved by Border Patrol leadership in July 2022 and submitted to multiple entities, including DHS and the Office of Management and Budget, for review and approval. As of August 2022, it was still awaiting approval before it could be completed and implemented.
It is worth noting that in February 2022, DHS established the Southwest Border Coordination Center (SBCC), to “support DHS-wide coordination and unity of effort” along the border, coordinating CBP and ICE staff to help alleviate pressures with processing and detention when surges occur. But OIG said that while the SBCC is promising, it faces hurdles of its own. SBCC officials told OIG that the center is carrying out its efforts without any additional appropriated funds.
As a result of its findings, OIG has recommended that the CBP Commissioner and the ICE Director coordinate with the DHS Secretary to contract with an independent, federally funded research and development center to complete a full assessment of the staffing needs at the Southwest border and strategically implement recommendations based on the assessment. DHS did not agree with this recommendation and stated that CBP and ICE have internal models for staffing requests. Additionally, DHS indicated there is no funding available for contracting an assessment of the staffing needs and that it would be a duplicative effort to Border Patrol’s staffing model and CBP’s Office of Field Operations workload staffing model. OIG clarified that its recommendation does not call for developing a new staffing model and that the intent is to identify solutions by reviewing existing staffing models as part of an overall assessment reviewing the factors within and outside DHS’ control that are affecting workloads and exacerbating staffing challenges.
OIG also recommended that the CBP Commissioner and the ICE Director complete after-action reviews of the SBCC’s completed priorities to determine whether its efforts are working as intended, and communicate the duties and responsibilities of the SBCC more effectively to frontline staff. DHS concurred and explained measures already underway such as a planned messaging campaign to include videos and frequently asked questions for the workforce.