On April 25, 2018, U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) Commissioner, Kevin McAleenan, testified before the House Homeland Security Committee’s Border and Maritime Security Subcommittee regarding his vision for the future of CBP. The subcommittee has oversight over aspects of travel visas, the U.S. border, and port and maritime security. Its oversight covers about 51% of the Department of Homeland Security’s budget. The Subcommittee is chaired by Representative Martha McSally (R-AZ).
Ranking Member Filemon Vela (D-TX) and Subcommittee Chairwoman McSally emphasized the importance of the Agency’s duties in securing the border while ensuring the legitimate flow of commerce and travel. The chairwoman also acknowledged CBP as having significant challenges in staffing, bureaucratic inertia, and a shortage of resources. She concluded by emphasizing the importance of technology as a force multiplier to CBP’s staff, as well as the benefit of the National Guard to support CBP in historically understaffed locations.
Committee Chairman, Congressman Mike McCaul (R-TX), in his statement directed attention to increasing illegal immigration in recent months, concerns with catch and release policies, and congressional provision of billions of dollars for technology investment and barrier replacement along the U.S.-Mexico border.
Committee Ranking Member Bennie G. Thompson (D-MS) concluded the opening statements by emphasizing the complexity of CBP’s mission at the border, and encouraged Commissioner McAleenan to use his many years of experience to inform and guide the agency. He stated that border security operations are more “nuanced than simply building a wall”. Congressman Thompson questioned recent administration actions in deploying the National Guard and authorizing the development of a wall when DHS illegal entry data does not support these actions. He also emphasized the importance of resolving CBP’s staffing problems, but specifically the shortage of officers manning U.S. ports of entry.
Commissioner McAleenan’s Testimony
In his testimony, Commissioner McAleenan envisioned a CBP that is the “most effective, most innovative, and most trusted and transparent law enforcement in the United States, while remaining the premier border security and management agency in the world”. To accomplish his vision, Commissioner McAleenan committed to five priorities: attracting, retaining, and developing qualified candidates; accelerating the adoption of innovative technologies; building and strengthening partnership across government and with international counterparts; transforming the interaction between stakeholders and CBP; and developing the CBP culture to unite under a common purpose.
The Commissioner discussed the current progress made within CBP to enhance its operations, citing increased narcotics seizures and refinement of internal programs as examples. Despite current progress, the Commissioner emphasized the importance of continued investment in technology and staffing to address new threats which are more difficult to apprehend or interdict. He concluded by emphasizing that border security is national security, and a non-partisan issue.
Questions for the Record
The hearing was dominated by four specific concerns: CBP’s staffing and hiring challenges, CBP investment priorities, immigration, and the recent national guard deployment.
Representatives Val Demings (D-FL) and Nanette Diaz Barragán (D-CA) asked Commissioner McAleenan about CBP staffing priorities and criteria for selecting which U.S. ports of entry receive Officer staffing, for both permanent assignments and temporary duty during highly trafficked periods. McAleenan stated CBP selects officers for temporary assignment based on a matrix that takes into consideration the capacity of their currently assigned port of entry, and the needs of high trafficked ports of entry. The Commissioner also discussed the CBP Workload Staffing Model, which considers multiple threat vectors, as the tool that justifies hiring and staffing requirements for all U.S. ports of entry.
Representative Lou Correa (D-CA), Rep. Demings, and Rep. Vela questioned Commissioner McAleenan on CBP’s hiring challenges and what is being done to address CBP’s attrition rate. Rep. Correa was concerned with CBP hiring issues resulting from false polygraph readings. Commissioner McAleenan discussed CBP’s pilot of a new polygraph protocol, which has resulted in an increased pass rate.
Commissioner McAleenan said the first way to decrease attrition rates is to expedite hiring of new agents, which will reduce workload burden on the collective agency. Additionally, CBP is working on defining career paths and creating more predictable mobility for Officers and Agents; in response to complaints about CBP Officers’ inability to relocate and consequently leaving the agency. Ranking Member Vela questioned CBP’s policy to hire agents for duty at ports of entry that are further away from their home locations, mentioning that this policy seems to hamper CBP’s hiring efforts. Commissioner McAleenan stated that the policy to hire agents for duty at ports of entry further away than their home locations is an anti-corruption measure, but that CBP is developing a policy to help agents relocate to ports that align with their familial or personal needs later within their careers.
CBP Investment Priorities and Spending
The issue of CBP’s current investment priorities prompted numerous questions from Representatives Mike Rogers (R-AL), Lou Correa, Ranking Member Vela, and Chairwoman McSally.
Regarding CBP’s procurement process, Commissioner McAleenan stated the process is two-fold: long-term planning for large-scale investments, such as an integrated fixed tower, and short-term procurements of emerging technology for testing and quick application.
In response to concerns from Rep. Rogers, McAleenan confirmed that the procurement of fiber optic cable remains a core component of the Border System that CBP intends to build, which will integrate multiple sensors and equipment. In response to Chairwoman McSally’s question on the procurement of adequate technology to interdict fentanyl, McAleenan responded that CBP has launched advance data pilots and purchased testing technology, which is helping identify and interdict fentanyl.
Representative Correa pressed Commissioner McAleenan on what investments he would prioritize when given a choice between border wall infrastructure, x-ray machines, K-9 units, and other investments. The Commissioner responded that all those investments are important and require a balanced approach to tackle various challenges, but that for drug interdiction, non-intrusive inspection (x-ray) is the most effective investment.
McSally and Vela were concerned with CBP investment in updating U.S. ports of entry. The Commissioner stated CBP conducts a feasibility study to determine what investment ports need for sustainable system operations. Vela also asked how much funding is needed for modernizing U.S. land ports of entry, and whether the Donation Assistance Program is adequate. McAleenan stated that CBP has a $4 billion deficit in funding at U.S. land ports of entry.
Subcommittee Chairwoman McSally asked Commissioner McAleenan to explain the legal loopholes in the process of returning apprehended migrants who have crossed the border illegally. McAleenan explained that legal loopholes exist in the process for returning unaccompanied children, a member of a family unit, and migrants claiming fear of return due to violence in their home countries. He gave an example of a member of family unit, which, if apprehended, is allowed entry into the United States on a work authorization pending a court hearing which could occur many years out. The Commissioner emphasized that these loopholes, which allow for temporary access pending a court decision far in the future, cause a backlog of immigration enforcement cases that must be processed. Additionally, the Commissioner stated the loopholes are a pull factor for other migrants looking for entry into the U.S. and burden CBP Border Patrol Agents.
National Guard Deployment
Chairwoman McSally and Ranking Member Vela asked Commissioner McAleenan about the status of the National Guard Deployment and whether CBP expects more National Guard agents to arrive to assist CBP in securing the border. The Commissioner stated that 607 Guardsman have been deployed and more are expected. Currently, these Guardsman are assisting CBP with non-interdiction duties, which frees up Border Patrol Agents from administrative duties allowing them more time to patrol the border. Commissioner McAleenan confirmed that the Department of Defense is funding the deployment.