Government Watchdog Sounds Alarm on Staffing at Immigration Enforcement Agencies
FAIR Take | May 2023
Last week, the Inspector General for the Department of Homeland Security issued a report raising red flags about the “unsustainable” methods of staffing at Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and their impact on morale.
Since 2016, the Inspector General (IG) had issued multiple reports on the challenges CBP and ICE face along the Southwest border, many of which describe struggles with employee morale, proper management of resources and planning during migrant surges, and difficulties recruiting and hiring. Since these reports were issued, as the IG noted, the number of encounters of illegal aliens at the Southwest border has risen from approximately 978,000 in FY 2019 to 2.4 million in FY 2022, breaking previous records.
These dramatic increases, according to the Inspector General, have magnified existing “staffing challenges” at CBP and ICE. The Inspector General, therefore, conducted the audit to determine: (1) whether CBP and ICE are properly managing law enforcement staffing resources; and (2) the turnover rates for CBP and ICE, and whether the agencies have an effective plan to replace departing officers.
Notably, as part of the audit, the IG sent surveys to 57,000 law enforcement officers and received 9,311 back (16%). The IG used the results of this survey throughout his report to support his findings.
Overall, the Inspector General found that CBP’s and ICE’s workloads “have outpaced their current staffing” and described the agencies’ current management of staffing needs “unsustainable.” The workload has grown tremendously, the IG wrote, yet despite the greater workloads, “staffing levels have remained the same, with CBP and ICE using details and overtime to temporarily fill staffing gaps along the Southwest border.” [A “detail” is a commonly-used term in the federal government to describe a temporary reassignment of a staff person.]
First, the IG explained how the huge increase of migrants surging across the southern border has dramatically increased the workload of CBP and ICE agents.
In FY 2019, Border Patrol and [Office of Field Operations (OFO)] encountered approximately 81,000 migrants per month on average. In FYs 2021 and 2022, encounters rose to approximately 145,000 and 198,000 per month, respectively. As with migrant encounter trends, travel volume along the Southwest border continues to outpace the prior year. In FY 2021, OFO processed about 183 million vehicles and travelers entering the United States through the 30 ports of entry along the border. By the end of FY 2022, OFO processed nearly 249 million vehicles and travelers entering the United States.
The IG also pointed out that the flow of migrants and traffic into the U.S. has far outpaced the number of CBP and ICE agents, which has consistently hovered around the number authorized by Congress. These graphs provided by the IG provide one example of how the work has increased relative to the number of border agents.
The IG warned that “[u]nless CBP and ICE assess and make strategic changes to how they manage staff at the border…heavier workloads and low morale may lead to higher turnover rates and earlier retirements among these employees.” This could further worsen staffing challenges along the southern border and impede CBP’s and ICE’s ability to carry out their missions.
The IG’s report then used the results of his survey to illustrate the problem both agencies have with staffing and overall preparedness. Seventy-one percent of CBP agents/officers who responded said their current work location was not adequately prepared and staffed during normal operations. Sixty-one percent of responding ICE agents said the same. In addition, 88 percent of CBP agents/officers and 88 percent of ICE agents said that their duty locations are not adequately staffed during migrant surges. “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.”
Sadly many agents and officers also told the Inspector General that the priorities at work had changed. Officers at six ports of entry told the IG that CBP leaders prioritized “maintaining the flow of traffic and minimizing wait times” over security. Border patrol agents at two different stations told the IG that they felt pressure to process and release migrants as quickly as possible to move them out of the facilities. Nearly half of CBP respondents and over half of ICE respondents said they had to take on additional work outside their traditional responsibilities.
In addition, 20 percent of CBP agents said they felt unable to perform their primary law enforcement duties of securing the border. One border patrol agent said that all of the manpower in his station was being delegated to do processing instead of deterring or apprehending illegal aliens. A combined 24 percent of CBP and ICE respondents said they plan to leave their agency within the next year.
The IG explained that while CBP’s and ICE’s staffing models provide useful information for planning, they do not take into account unplanned or unexpected staffing needs. Moreover, the agencies are not incorporating the expected attrition of a large number of agents in 2028.
The IG also described how the agencies have been relying on overtime and shifting personnel through details to fill staffing gaps at the southern border. CBP, in particular, continues to reassign people from location to location as needed to address exigent circumstances as they arise, but leaving their home stations understaffed. CBP has also been taking in a large number of details from ICE, further depleting its own workforce. One HSI supervisor told the IG that when he was deployed to a Southwest border office, the amount of work far surpassed anything that he had imagined.
Finally, the IG explained in detail how overtime was typically forced on agents, rather than being voluntary. This resulted in many agents working double shifts and, over the course of a year, several extra weeks of work. Some agents told the IG that they had reached the statutory limit for how much overtime they could submit early in the year.
According to the IG, neither ICE nor CBP has assessed how these methods have impacted their operations and staff morale. However, the IG found:
A common theme of our interviews and survey responses was frustration over lack of work-life balance as well as fatigue caused by the pressure of managing overtime, details, and frequent changes in immigration policies. As a result of the staffing challenges and the use of details and overtime as short-term solutions, survey feedback suggests morale among law enforcement personnel at the border is declining. CBP and ICE survey comments indicated low morale in 3,037 (or 46 percent) of respondents. With the possibility of attrition increasing during the next 5 years, addressing poor morale is crucial to retaining law enforcement personnel.
Finally, the IG noted that the change in immigration policies during the Biden Administration has also hurt morale at the agencies.
“Since FY 2019, immigration policies have shifted significantly as the United States experienced the COVID-19 pandemic and transitioned from one administration to another….Our interviews and survey comments showed staff frustration and lower morale related to changing policies, especially when the respondents felt the changes were inconsistent with their law enforcement duties. In the view of some law enforcement personnel these policies have made it difficult for them to enforce the laws and carry out their mission; one said they felt as if they were doing their job “with one hand tied behind [their] back.”
The IG did credit the Biden Administration with taking some proactive steps to mitigate the situation, mainly establishing the Southwest Border Coordination Center (SBCC) in February 2022 to help coordinate needs and actions along the border across the Department of Homeland Security. The IG added, however, that the SBCC faces its own hurdles—such as no funding– and that more needs to be done.
At the conclusion of its audit, the Inspector General made three recommendations:
- CBP and ICE should coordinate with the Secretary of Homeland Security 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 stemming from it.
- CBP and ICE complete after-action reviews of the Southwest Border Coordination Center (SBCC) completed priorities to determine whether its efforts are working as intended.
- CBP and ICE communicate the duties and responsibilities of the SBCC more effectively to frontline staff.
The Biden Administration agreed with recommendations 2 and 3, but not surprisingly, opposed recommendation 1. In response to the recommendations, DHS wrote CBP and ICE have staffing models which are sufficient. DHS also wrote that the IG”s report “did not recognize all the DHS initiatives to support its personnel” and also called into question the IG’s methodology.