Political News

Border Wall Not High Priority for Front-Line Agents, Study Finds

Posted March 22, 2018 9:57 a.m. EDT

WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump has called for a wall along the border with Mexico to stop immigrants and drugs from entering the United States. But Border Patrol agents on the front lines say they need more technology and additional personnel to curb the illegal traffic, according to a report released Thursday by Democrats on the Senate Homeland Security Committee.

The report was based on internal Customs and Border Protection documents from the 2017 fiscal year. It concluded that less than one half of 1 percent of the agents’ suggestions to secure the Southwest border mentioned the need for a wall.

Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., the committee’s top Democrat, said the report reinforced what she had previously heard from border agents and leaders at Customs and Border Protection, the parent agency of the Border Patrol.

“We can’t let politics get in the way of our efforts to strengthen border security and protect our country,” said McCaskill, referring to Trump’s promises to build a border wall.

Officials at Customs and Border Protection called the report inaccurate, saying it confused how agents’ feedback about security vulnerabilities is used to develop programs to counter threats.

The documents show that the Border Patrol identified what it called 902 “capability gaps,” or vulnerabilities, on the Southwest border. The word “wall” was suggested as a possible solution for just three of those gaps.

Agents mentioned a “fence” or “fencing” as a possible solution 34 times — less than 4 percent of the 902 vulnerabilities identified, the report found.

Customs and Border Protection officials said Border Patrol agents were asked to identify “gaps” in border security, not to propose solutions. They said that Border Patrol sector chiefs, from San Diego to the Rio Grande Valley in Texas, have voiced support for a border wall.

Days after his inauguration last year, Trump ordered construction to begin immediately on a border wall. Customs and Border Protection then created a process to help decide where a wall was most needed on the border, and for how many miles.

“The U.S. Border Patrol has been very clear that a border wall is essential to gaining operational control of the Southwest border,” said Benjamine Huffman, the chief of the Border Patrol’s strategic plan and analysis directorate. “The fact is, when it comes to border security, the border walls system works. Suggestions that the Border Patrol believes otherwise are false.”

The Senate Democrats’ report comes as Trump is stepping up his calls for building a border wall. On Monday in New Hampshire, where he outlined plans to fight opioid abuse, the president again said that building a wall would block drugs from entering the United States.

“We’ll build the wall to keep the damn drugs out,” he said.

Last year, Customs and Border Protection spent $20 million on border wall prototypes near San Diego. Agency officials said they have been testing the mock-ups to decide which best curbed illegal immigration and drug trafficking.

Congressional Democrats and some Republicans, including Rep. Will Hurd of Texas, have questioned the need for a wall and instead called for more technology along the border, such as sensors and surveillance equipment. A February 2017 study by the Government Accountability Office found that Customs and Border Protection had not shown the extent to which fencing and walls have secured the border.

In its most recent budget request, the Trump administration asked Congress for $1.6 billion to build additional physical barriers in the Rio Grande Valley, the border’s busiest sector for illegal immigration.

The administration wants to spend $18 billion over the next 10 years to build a wall on nearly 900 miles of the Southwest border. Currently, there are nearly 700 miles of wall and fences on the border.

The Democratic report concluded that funding requests for a wall far exceeded proposed spending on border technology and personnel, which border agents identified as critically needed.

The president’s budget request for the 2019 fiscal year includes $43 million for remote video surveillance systems along the border and more funding for other security technology.

It also includes $255 million to hire and retain agents at the Border Patrol, which has been shedding personnel faster than it can hire. Agency documents indicate the Border Patrol must recruit 133 applicants to fill a single agent’s position. Trump wants to hire 5,000 new agents.

A program to detect drug tunnels beneath the southern border — another security priority cited by agents — was not funded in Trump’s budget request, the Democratic report noted.