Everyone applying for jobs with the U.S. Border Protection agency must fill in a thick questionnaire about personal information, such as place of birth, work history, education and residences for recent years, as well as financial problems, drug use and parents with criminal records.
Page 48 has this question: “Have you traveled outside the United States in that past seven years?” If applicants answer yes, they will not be hired so quickly, even though the agency remains unable to fill 5,000 jobs ordered by President Donald Trump.
That shortage has been filled by National Guard and armed forces members deployed to the southern border in response to a wave of arrivals by families and unaccompanied minors from Central America who cross from Mexico and apply for U.S. asylum.
But despite that crisis, the border patrol agency is still giving as much weight to “limited travel abroad” when considering applicants as their lack of criminal records, debts, history of recreational drug use and passing lie detector tests.
Failing to meet any of those requirements knocks applicants out of the Fast Track Hiring Process, a pilot program established recently by the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agency to expedite its hiring process, expand its work force and step up its border patrols.
But why would the federal government give preference to applicants who have not traveled abroad?
“Fast Track is not for all applicants. With this pilot program, Border Patrol CBP is targeting applicants who have certain characteristics that make it more probable that they will be able to pass the application process with little additional processing time,” an agency spokesman said.
“For example, those with few or no medical problems, or those who can adjust their schedules to undergo polygraph exams with little notice are the candidates who should request the Fast Track jobs,” the spokesman added.
Although that answer, and others obtained by Univision Noticias, do not really clarify why foreign travel by job applicants should be so important, it's well known that international travel is part of any investigation of those who want to work for the federal government.
One federal official who asked to remain anonymous explained that applicants who answer that they have traveled abroad are not automatically disqualified. But they are put under additional checks that can last for months.
The Border Protection agency's job application asks for the last four trips abroad “for reasons not linked to U.S. government business.” It also asks for the countries visited and time spent there.
But the section also asks questions designed to determine whether the applicants had contacts with spies, criminals or terrorists. One question asks “Were you contacted, or where you in contact with anyone suspected of being involved or associated with foreign intelligence, terrorism, security or military organizations?” Another asks if anyone tried to obtain classified or declassified U.S. government information from the applicant.
Pedro Rios, director of the American Friends Service Committee's U.S./Mexico Border Program, based in in California, said those questions reflect the reason for investigating frequent travelers. He said he doubted that the CBP objective was to hire ultra-nationalists or people intolerant of other cultures.
“It's to check whether the person may be exposed to corruption, to see what kinds of contacts have taken place with relatives abroad and whether they have business abroad. It's part of a 360-degree review to get to know their interest in joining a federal police force,” Rios said.
The CBP has adopted several recent changes to expedite its hiring process, but it's not planning to eliminate the questions about foreign travel. The average hiring process now takes 300 days but the Fast Track process announced in February seeks to reduce that to 120 days.
Several reports have highlighted the challenges that CBP faces hiring and retaining its 19,500 uniformed field agents ( CBP has a total of 60,000 employees, including airport and border crossing staff). Although Trump signed an executive order for 5,000 new agency staffers soon after entering the White House, that goal has not been met.
“CBP remains short of its hiring goals,” Rebecca Gambler, director of the justice and national security team at the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO), acknowledged during an appearance before Congress last month.
Gambler said the agency closed Fiscal Year 2017 nearly 2,000 agents below its minimum level and 7,000 under Trump's orders. She added that the agency faces specially difficult staff shortages in remote areas of the border.
The staff shortages come despite increases in the number of people applying for Border Protection jobs. The agency received 27,000 job applications in 2013, and 91,000 in 2017, according to GAO figures. And on Sept. 30 it closed Fiscal Year 2018 with more new employees than retirements and other departures for the first time in six years.
“Historically, CBP has faced several challenges hiring and retaining qualified candidates. Some are unique, such as our responsibility for monitoring remote areas … Our work is not for everyone,” said Benjamine Huffman, CBP's interim executive commissioner, told Congress last month.
Long work hours, one-person patrols of isolated areas and living in rural areas are some of the job requirements that discourage agents, according to a GAO report. One example is the CBP station in Lukeville, a community of 50 residents, one gas station and one store. The nearest schools and medical services are 39 miles away.
“The officials told us that maybe agents do not want to take their families to an area without a hospital, with low performing schools or with relatively long commutes from their homes to their stations,” said the GAO report. “Other law enforcement agencies regularly offer more desirable jobs, such as in big cities and in some cases with higher salaries.”
In photos: The Border Patrol stops migrants crossing the Rio Grande