The Homeland Security Department has been reluctant to send helicopters on nighttime missions to aid the Border Patrol, leaving agents to face drug smugglers and illegal immigrants without critical air cover, the chief of the agents’ labor union told Congress late last month.
Brandon Judd, an agent who is also president of the National Border Patrol Council, said that unless President Trump can solve that kind of bureaucratic bungling — and is willing to oust the Obama administration figures who botched the policies — he will struggle to secure the border.
The helicopters are one example of that, Mr. Judd said.
Mr. Judd said that when the Border Patrol controlled its own helicopters, it got the air support it needed. But after the Homeland Security Department was created more than a decade ago, the helicopters were turned over to the Office of Air and Marine, which has been reluctant to fly the nighttime hours the agents need.
“Right now the Office of Air and Marine, they fly very little at night,” he told the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee. “In fact, in [the Rio Grande Valley sector], we had to use Coast Guard to fly sorties in certain areas. And when their apprehensions became so great, it’s my understanding the officer at Air and Marine asked them not to fly anymore at night in RGV because it was making them look bad.”
Officials at U.S. Customs and Border Protection, the agency that oversees both the Border Patrol and the Air and Marine division, declined to comment.
But Mr. Judd said it’s just one example of a bureaucracy erecting hurdles — what he called “kingdom-building” — that he said could stymie Mr. Trump’s immigration goals.
“We talk about securing the border, and the border — we can absolutely secure it, but it cannot be secure if our operations are not sound,” Mr. Judd told The Washington Times.
“What’s very concerning to Border Patrol agents is, to this point, we still have the same people who gave us all of the failed operations, who were the authors of the catch-and-release program. They’re still in charge — even under this current administration,” the union chief said. “That’s head-scratching, especially since the president said we’re going to drain the swamp.”
Mr. Trump’s early changes to enforcement policy, freeing agents to carry out the law enforcement duties they signed up for, has helped boost morale, said Mr. Judd and Chris Crane, the head of the union for the Immigration and Customs Enforcement Council.
But they said the agencies’ leadership needs attention.
Mr. Crane said “a good ol’ boy network” pervades ICE, which he said is too heavy on managers who get in the way of agents trying to enforce immigration laws in the interior. He said agents are eager to enforce laws against employers who hire illegal immigrants, but their hands are tied.
The complaints of bureaucratic bungling struck home with both Democrats and Republicans on the homeland security committee, who said they are eager to find bipartisan areas where they can help the agents get things going.
One challenge is the polygraph test, which all Border Patrol applicants must pass. The agency’s 75 percent failure rate is higher than that of any other law enforcement department, but the top brass say they are committed to it — even as they prepare to try to hire 5,000 more agents to comply with Mr. Trump’s executive orders.
Even police officers who have passed polygraphs for their current jobs but who are looking to transfer can end up failing, Mr. Judd said.
Both Democrats and Republicans said they are eager to clean up the immigration agencies within the Homeland Security Department and would like to find common ground with the agents and officers.
Sen. Claire McCaskill, Missouri Democrat, said the panelists want to know the names of bureaucrats who are standing in the way of smart enforcement — though she said the ICE and Border Patrol unions, which endorsed Mr. Trump in the election campaign, may have a greater claim to the president’s ear.
Still, one Democrat, Sen. Kamala D. Harris of California, said she worries that the agency is expanding too quickly, without training to protect illegal immigrants from overzealous enforcement. She wanted to make sure agents weren’t going after lesser-priority targets.
“When troops on the ground have not been trained, it leads to dysfunction because there is a lack of consistency and accountability and direction,” she told Mr. Crane, the chief of the union for ICE agents and officers.
Mr. Crane told her she misunderstood how agents in the field carried out their priority targeting.
Mr. Crane and Mr. Judd also said the government needs to be careful about salaries. Because ICE agents have higher pay and often have better living options away from remote border communities, Border Patrol agents may rush to join the other force.
Part of the problem is the complicated bureaucratic web.
ICE and the Border Patrol are separate law enforcement divisions within Homeland Security.
That bureaucratic mess also helps explain the problem with helicopter patrols along the border.
The Border Patrol used to have its own helicopters, but after CBP was created as part of Homeland Security, the Air and Marine division was created as a separate agency within CBP. Now, when agents want the assistance of eyes in the sky, they have to go outside their own chain of command.
Mr. Judd said the helicopters are a perfect illustration: Most illegal crossings are attempted at night, and air support is critical for maintaining visibility.
Just as important, when those attempting to sneak in hear a helicopter overhead, they are less likely to run — making the apprehension easier and less dangerous for agents.
Mr. Judd said the air division has dedicated most of its resources to the Border Patrol, but not at the right times, leaving the agents without night cover.
“We expected to see a huge change in the way CBP operates. There’s been no change to this point,” he said.
CBP has long faced questions about its use of air resources. The Homeland Security inspector general has been particularly withering in its evaluation of the drone program, saying CBP has a tough time keeping its aircraft aloft and in scheduling missions and can’t demonstrate the worth of the program.
CBP officials have said the inspector general is using suspect calculations.
Flights themselves can be dangerous.
In 2015, a helicopter was called in to assist local police who were trying to stop a drug smuggling attempt near Laredo, Texas. As the helicopter was making its second pass, it took fire from the Mexican side — perhaps as many as 15 rounds, two of which struck the aircraft.
CBP officials later said the man who fired on the helicopter was a specialized contractor whom the smugglers used to provide cover for their operations. Mexican authorities caught the man.
But in hopes of sending a message to the cartels, CBP sent to the region several Black Hawk helicopters, which can be armored to withstand enemy fire while continuing to fly.
• Stephen Dinan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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