For as long as he can remember, Danny Smith has wanted to be a U.S. Customs and Border Patrol agent. The 29-year-old Texan says he can’t imagine a better opportunity to serve his country with pride.
“It's a career like no other,” Smith told Univision News, “to go to sleep at night knowing I helped keep my country safe.”
His dream came true from 2010 to 2015, when he served as a CBP agent in Laredo, Texas. But when he and his wife moved to Dallas in 2015 for her job, he put his career on what he thought was a temporary hold. When he sought to return to the agency just weeks later, he was forced to take a polygraph, a new requirement for all CBP agents that had been introduced by Congress in 2010.
After a five-hour exam, Smith was informed he had failed.
“I was devastated,” he said in a phone interview. “It really affected me, depressed me. I didn’t have anything to hide. I wasn’t even told why I failed.”
As President Donald Trump seeks to enlist 5,000 more border agents to enforce his promise of curbing illegal immigration, he has proposed to waive some of the employment requirements that CBP union leaders and legislators say make it too hard to hire new agents, including the polygraph test.
The Trump administration’s plan—outlined in the Department of Homeland Security’s 90-day progress report on immigration enforcement, which was leaked by the Washington Post earlier this month and delivered to the White House on Tuesday—would waive the polygraph test for certain applicants, including former law enforcement officers and veterans. Two-thirds of applicants now fail the polygraph exam.
Making it easier to hire border agents is just one of several priorities in Trump’s beefed up enforcement plans. He’s facing widespread pushback from Democratic and Republican lawmakers who don’t want to pay for his proposed border wall, which could cost upwards of $70 billion. A number of polls show the majority of Americans don't want the wall.
Critics of the proposed changes argue that the polygraph test was put in place to curb a wave of corruption and misconduct that CBP faced after its last hiring surge. They caution against what the American Immigration Lawyers Association described as “plans to water down hiring standards” within CBP.
Tom Jawetz, the Vice President of Immigration Policy at the progressive organization Center for American Progress, told Univision it’s not the time to ease standards.
“If you want to staff up, do you do that by trying to find more qualified agents or reducing the standards?” he asked. The fact that many people don’t pass the test is “not necessarily a reason to scrap it.”
Between 2006 and 2009, under President George W. Bush, the Border Patrol added some 8,000 new agents, from a total of 12,349 to 20,119, making it the largest law enforcement agency in the nation. Multiple subsequent corruption cases at CBP led Congress to pass the Anti-Border Corruption Act in 2010, which introduced the lie-detector test for applicants, calling it “a more streamlined and cost-effective process for bringing new applicants on board.”
“What we’re found is that many agents brought on beforehand who had not gone through a polygraph were cooperating with cartels and subject to corruption,” Jawetz said. “The polygraph has served a function to weed out people in the beginning.”
Critics of Trump’s proposals liken removing the polygraph to a “loosening of standards.”
Jay Ahern, CBP deputy commissioner when the agency doubled in size, told Foreign Policy last month: “if you start lowering standards, the organization pays for it for the next decade, two, or three.”
But border patrol union leaders say the polygraph is flawed.
“If there are ways to prevent corruption, we’re all for it,” said Art del Cueto, the president of National Border Patrol Council Local 2544 in Tucson. “None of us want to work with corrupt agents, none of us do. But the polygraph is not accurate.”
'Horror stories' and 'interrogation'
CBP union officials point out that the 65 percent failure rate for the polygraph exam is far higher than the rate at other federal agencies. A January Associated Press investigation found that the failure rate is more than double the average rate at eight law enforcement agencies. As of February, CBP was already 1,768 agents short of its floor.
Del Cueto says the test is now used as a sort of shortcut, in place of the much more comprehensive background check used previously, and is intended to trick people into failing. The tests can last up to eight hours, and nervousness is often mistaken as lies. He says he’s heard countless “horror stories” from perfectly qualified agents, and others who don’t even venture to apply for fear of hurting their chance to work in the federal government later on.
“Veterans with top secret clearance are failing,” he said, comparing the test to torture. “It’s an interrogation. The only thing missing is waterboarding. That’s how awful these have become.”
According to a report by the Government Accountability Office, more than 2,000 CBP agents were arrested for misconduct between 2005 and 2012, including for DUIs, domestic violence and false imprisonment. Corruption often went unpunished. In 2014, a CBP agent in McAllen, Texas, was under suspicion for misconduct when he kidnapped three Honduran women he had detained. After raping them and attempting to kill two of them, he shot himself.
Before he became an agent in 2010, Smith says he underwent a rigorous two-year application period, involving a full FBI background check. He also went through an entrance exam, medical checks and academy training. He says an agent should always “self-police” and speak up if they see anything suspicious involving another agent.
Now at the Bureau of Prisons, Smith has become an impassioned advocate against the polygraph requirement and often visits forums, such as AntiPolygraph.org, where people discuss their experiences.
“I believe the polygraph is designed to keep you out, at least the way it’s being administered,” he said. “I think it can work as a deterrent for bad applicants but I feel they need to use some common sense when it comes to individuals with proven track records. Your accolades, credibility and work history are what should determine your eligibility.”
The polygraph test is just one element of the application process. CBP data show a 50 percent Border Patrol candidate failure rate on the written test, 15 percent failure in an oral interview, 25 percent medical failure test, 15 percent failure on the physical fitness test, and 56 percent failure on the background check, according to a report from the American Immigration Council.
DHS is also proposing to remove the Spanish language proficiency test, allow for remote testing, and loosen physical fitness requirements. It also proposes continued outreach, including to millennials, and expedited hiring.
Unlike many of the report’s proposals, the polygraph requirement would need to be changed by congress. In March, Arizona Republican Senators Jeff Flake and John McCain proposed legislation to do that.
A new era on the border
CBP is consistently ranked one of the worst government agencies for workers, and del Cueto says retention is a major issue. “In hiring 5,000 more agents you need to retain as well as recruit,” he said.
But he’s hopeful. He says border agents finally feel a sense of “respect” since Trump’s been in office.
“There’s definitely a different feel at the stations, among the agents,” he said. “Morale changed overnight when Donald Trump was elected.”
“You need to respect the sacrifices agents take on a day to day basis,” he added. “We’re dealing with heat, cold, chasing dangerous criminals trying to come in, working long hours. Border patrol agents are the most assaulted and isolated, living in the most remote areas of the country in small communities.”
Some residents of those communities tell a different story. Christian Ramirez, the director of the Southern Border Communities Coalition, says residents already fear border agents.
“We get racially profiled on the way to school. I have to go through checkpoint if I want to take my child to a family member’s house. Trump describes border communities as ground zero of an imaginary war. We do not want more troops in our communities,” he said.
The notion that border communities need more agents is “false and unjustified” at a time when illegal border crossings are down, he added. “People want to live in peace, dignity and have resources invested in infrastructure, not in building useless walls and deploying more agents.”
And the cost of Trump’s proposed expansion is dramatic. The entire long-term plan for 5,000 Border Patrol agents and 10,000 ICE officers would increase DHS’ existing budget by over $ 3.14 billion.
In spite of the challenges, Smith is committed to doing whatever it takes to become an agent again.
He has family in Mexico, and understands why people would choose to leave their countries for the United States. But for him, the task is about keeping the country safe.
“Everyday I saw harm on the border,” he said. “I saw crime, cartels, traffickers, people with possible ties to terrorism. I had a sense of pride knowing I was helping my country. That’s what you sign up for, to stop all that.”
Damia S. Bonmati and Melvin Felix contributed to this article.