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Border Patrol Easing Some Lie Detector Exam Restrictions To Boost Hirings

For the past three years, the U.S. Border Patrol has been using recruitment videos and job fairs to fill a gap in its ranks. It’s the largest law enforcement agency in the country but is still shy nearly 2,000 people from a target of 21,000.

That was the case even before President Donald Trump’s mandate that it bring in 5,000 more. Recruiters will make four stops from the Arizona border up to Phoenix this week alone. 

"We’re the nation’s sentinels. We’re on the first lines. We’re the first line of defense when it comes to patrolling the United States," said Vicente Paco, a spokesman for the Border Patrol’s Tucson Sector. He said rejection rates are high and it takes about 200 applicants to finally fill one position.

"One of the things we do: we go to job fairs. We partner up with colleges and universities to look for candidates that are within the demographic of agents that we’re looking for," Paco said.

The Border Patrol also looks for military veterans and former police officers. But some agency critics said its strict lie detector tests are part of the reason it has such a hard time filling vacancies.

Congresswoman Martha McSally told a House committee last year that decorated veterans had failed the exam, which was "... coupled with bizarre sounding behavior on behalf of polygraph examiners," she said.

One former Border Patrol agent reapplied to become an agent and failed his lie detector exam the second time around. He asked that we not use his full name because he’s applying for other federal law enforcement jobs and asked to go by Mark.

Last year, Mark was made a conditional salary offer of $39,900 and told to report for basic training in Artesia, New Mexico. Then he took the polygraph.

"This is an interrogation. The whole point of this is really to try and get something out of an applicant," Mark said. "If they’re lying about something, it’s their way to try and get them to come forward."

Mark said he was already on edge and was surprised when the examiner asked him if he wanted to leave early and try again.

"He made it sound like it was no big deal. And he convinced me because I was pretty hesitant to give up. So I cut it loose early and I expected some kind of email or phone call with a reschedule, which did not happen. Instead I was given the boot," he said.

He shared his subsequent rejection letter with the Fronteras Desk. This month, he’s in line for a polygraph with a new federal law enforcement job.

Customs and Border Protection officials said a 2010 anti-corruption law requires it to administer these exams. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement for example, doesn’t have this restriction.

By some estimates, the polygraphs squeeze out two of every three applicants like Mark.

Border Patrol union Vice-President Shawn Moran believes there’s an undisclosed quota driving the high failure rate.

"They are going anywhere from five to eight hours. Some candidates are being brought back a second day to sit in a chair," Moran said. "We had a Border Patrol agent just the other day contact us and told us that his sister who was applying to be a border patrol agent was accused of being a cartel member and that all her family members must be cartel members. And there’s really no proof as to why they make these accusations."

There’s also no proof they were wrong.

The agency does appear to be trying to ease the application process by waiving the polygraph for applicants who have already worked in sensitive jobs such as certain military positions. According to a CBP memo released by the union.

The memo was signed by Kevin McAleenan, the acting CBP commissioner. He wrote that the Border Patrol receives 60,000 to 75,000 applications a year and since 2013, has hired an average of 523 agents a year but lost 904 agents a year to attrition. 

McAleenan wrote that the agency will need to hire 2,729 agents a year to achieve the president's order within five years. 

Ultimately, the agency hopes to boost its hiring numbers from 480 to more than 917 a year at a cost of about $2 billion. 

"This assumes an increase in the yield rates for the BPA entrance exam phase, the polygraph phase and fitness test," McAleenan said.

Fronteras Desk senior editor Michel Marizco is an award-winning investigative reporter based in Flagstaff.