President Trump wants to get more manpower on the border by deploying the National Guard, but there is another option: He could tell the Border Patrol to get agents out from behind their desks and into the field on patrol duty.
On one Sunday last month in a key stretch of the border in Texas, just 12.5 percent of the agents on duty were patrolling along the border, according to numbers reviewed by The Washington Times. At one point during the day shift, that worked out to 16 agents patrolling more than 55 miles — and five of them were on the waters of the Rio Grande, leaving just 11 agents — one for every 5 miles — to watch the land.
Those numbers were detailed in a letter sent to the Border Patrol’s chief by National Border Patrol Council President Brandon Judd.
In the letter, seen by The Times, Mr. Judd — who is an agent himself — said there are too many managers and too many agents on duty stuck on administrative tasks, leaving too few people out stopping illegal immigrants, drugs and other contraband that smugglers are attempting to sneak into the U.S.
“President Trump promised we would see an increase in the number of agents on the border, but as of today, that promise hasn’t materialized. Not just in hiring, but also in the proper deployment of very limited resources,” Mr. Judd said in the letter, challenging the agency to make good on the president’s expectations.
The Border Patrol was already facing a manpower shortage before the staffing bungles.
A Government Accountability Office report in November said the agency was hiring an average of just 523 agents a year, while it lost about 900 a year to resignations, retirements and transfers to other departments. That cut the agency from a peak of 21,444 agents in 2011 to 19,437 last year.
That is nearly 2,000 fewer agents than the Border Patrol is funded for.
One agent said to expect a massive round of retirements later this year and early next year. That agent said the Border Patrol could soon drop back to Bush administration levels, making it even tougher to patrol the 1,954-mile southern border and the nearly 4,000-mile northern border.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection, the branch of Homeland Security that oversees the Border Patrol, insisted things are getting better.
Acting CBP Assistant Commissioner Michael Friel said the spending bill Mr. Trump signed into law last month allocates money to try to keep agents from leaving. He also said they are actively recruiting and have cut the attrition rate to 4 percent.
“In short, we’re gaining momentum in recruiting and hiring,” he said.
One challenge for the Border Patrol is moving agents to counter the latest hot spots. A decade ago, the action was in Arizona, but as migration patterns have changed and Central Americans overtake Mexicans as the chief source of border jumpers, the Rio Grande Valley Sector in southern Texas is the nexus of activity.
At its height, it accounted for about half of all apprehensions on the southwestern border. Mr. Friel said that has dropped to about 38 percent and that other sectors are beginning to see increases.
Staffing levels are critical. All sides agree that manpower is a major part of what helped cut the number of illegal immigrants from the record highs of more than 2 million a year at the turn of the century.
President George W. Bush and President Obama went on hiring sprees, pushing the Border Patrol from about 9,000 agents in 2001 to more than 15,000 in 2008, and topping out above 21,000 agents at the peak in 2011.
Despite the drop in numbers, Rep. Martha McSally, Arizona Republican and chair of the Homeland Security Committee’s border subcommittee, said agents’ morale is up under Mr. Trump, and she said she has confidence in the top-level leaders he has appointed.
But she said she has seen firsthand during an unannounced visit to a Border Patrol station in her state the problems Mr. Judd described: too many agents on administrative duty and not enough on the border itself.
“From my perspective, it was far too few agents mustering to go patrol the border as a percentage of total number of agents assigned,” Ms. McSally said.
During visits to the border, she said, she could go miles without seeing an agent and that ranchers in her district report the same thing.
“Their No. 1 request is they want to see more agents patrolling at or near the border,” she said.
Farther east, at the Border Patrol’s McAllen Station in Texas, Mr. Judd described in his letter exactly how the staffing was skewed.
He said a little more than 700 agents are assigned to the station and when leave and other time off duty are included, that leaves about 400 agents per day who show up at work. Of those, only about 50 — or 12.5 percent — are assigned to patrol duties.
During the day shift on March 18 — a Sunday — only 16 agents were deployed to the field, Mr. Judd wrote: 11 of them on land and five on water. He said the station is divided into four zones, each covering about 14 miles of the border. Two of those zones had just a single agent assigned.
Mr. Judd said the manpower problems were also leading to bad record-keeping, distorting the agency’s count of “gotaways” — border crossers known to have eluded agents. On March 18, he said, officials reported 237 apprehensions and 118 gotaways — but according to numbers he saw, at least 31 gotaways weren’t included.
“Right now RGV is reporting approximately an 80 percent effectiveness rating but agents are telling me that the sector is lucky if the effectiveness rating is 50 percent. To our agents this is a huge issue,” he wrote to the agency chief.
An agency official said they are working to authorize overtime and find “internal efficiencies” to get more agents into the field in the Rio Grande Valley Sector.
It remains to be seen whether Mr. Trump’s National Guard deployment will be able to help.
Ms. McSally said she backs the plan and gives the president credit for pushing for more manpower.
“Right now, we need both things to happen. We need the National Guard to be deployed; I fully support it. We’ve been talking to ranchers in my district. … They are looking forward to this happening,” she said. “But the midlevel management needs to take a fresh look at how we’re deploying the agents we have. So we need to do both.”
Details of the guard deployment are still being hashed, and much depends on the agreements that the border state governors sign. But Mr. Trump said Thursday that he expects 2,000 to 4,000 troops to be part of the effort.
Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen said the Guard would be playing support roles such as fleet maintenance and aerial surveillance. Some of those duties could free agents from those tasks, allowing them to patrol the border.
In 2006, when Mr. Bush ordered 6,000 National Guard troops to the border to help with intelligence-gathering and construction, it freed up several hundred Border Patrol agents. But since the troops weren’t allowed to engage in immigration enforcement, several hundred agents were assigned to be near them — what agents called “nanny patrol” — which they said effectively negated the additional manpower.
A CBP official familiar with the planning said they don’t expect to have those hiccups this time and that the Guard troops will free up more agents to do patrolling, interdiction, arrest and processing.