Audit: As border cases go up, staffing stays the same and morale falls

The number of Customs and Border Protection and Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers has hovered around 27,000 for the last three years, a time when encounters with migrants at the border jumped from 458,088 to almost 2.4 million. (Photo by Mani Albrecht/U.S. Customs and Border Protection)

Homeland Security Inspector General Joseph Cuffari testified to a House Oversight subcommittee, where he delivered a grim assessment of morale among Customs and Border Protection and Immigration and Customs Enforcement employees. (Photo by Jasmine Kabiri/Cronkite News)

WASHINGTON – Staffing shortages and a surging workload at the southwest border have depleted morale among customs and border officials, who feel overworked and misused, leaving many ready to quit, a Homeland Security official testified Tuesday.

DHS Inspector General Joseph Cuffari appearance before a House Oversight subcommittee hearing followed the release last month of an audit that was sharply critical of management at the agency.

“Law enforcement personnel feel overworked and are assigned to duties not germane to their primary mission,” Cuffari said in his written testimony.

But Democrats on the committee and the department itself pushed back, saying Cuffari’s findings were based on a flawed survey and that he overlooked efforts the agency is making to support its personnel at a historically challenging time.

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“The IG’s report relies on a single inadequate survey and ignores the significant strides DHS has taken to support our workforce,” a DHS spokesperson said in a prepared statement Tuesday.

Rep. Robert Garcia, D-Calif., was more blunt, saying the inspector general might as well have relied on a Twitter survey to get its results.

“This report is a disservice to our law enforcement personnel and instead of working to actually identify and solve issues affecting morale, our attention is now forced to correct mistakes and correct a report that is deeply flawed,” Garcia said.

Calls to the union representing Border Patrol agents were not immediately returned Tuesday.

The hearing comes as the number of migrants stopped at the southern border remains near record highs, and the Biden administration has ended Title 42, the pandemic-era policy that allowed border officials to turn away immigrants on public health grounds.

The May report said that staffing has remained around 27,000 combined for Immigration and Customs Enforcement and for Customs and Border Protection for the last three years. During the same period, border apprehensions jumped from 458,088 in fiscal 2020 to just under 2.4 million in fiscal 2022. More than 1.4 million migrants had already been encountered in the first seven months of fiscal 2023, according to CBP data.

Despite department efforts to surge workers to the border, they are still required to put in high levels of overtime, and being forced to handle what Cuffari called administrative jobs that they were not trained for and did not sign up for.

(Video by Shelly Garzon/Cronkite News)

“They’re doing some law enforcement but they’re also providing care and welfare services to the detained and those individuals who they’re processing,” Cuffari said.

He said CBP and ICE’s reliance on overtime, and their policy of temporarily moving officers from coastal and northern border posts, are unsustainable solutions.

The audit surveyed 57,000 CBP and ICE employees and got 9,311 responses. It said that common themes in the responses were “frustration over lack of work-life balance as well as fatigue caused by the pressure of managing overtime, details, and frequent changes in immigration policies.”

That was echoed Tuesday by Rep. Andy Biggs, R-Gilbert, who said agents he has heard from “feel like they’ve been abandoned by this administration.”

“I ask them how things are going. They tell me it ain’t going good,” Biggs said. “I say, ‘Well what do your colleagues feel? Well they feel like they’ve been abandoned by this administration.'”

One in four of the CBP and ICE workers who responded to the survey said they planned to leave their jobs within the year, decisions they said were influenced by difficulties in carrying out their assigned tasks and low morale in the workplace. Close to 90% said their locations were unprepared for migrant surges.

Rep. Andy Biggs, R-Gilbert, echoed Homeland Security Inspector General Joseph Cuffari’s testimony, saying he has see low morale firsthand on trips to the border. (Photo by Jasmine Kabiri/Cronkite News)

The audit recommended that DHS bring in an outside reviewer to assess staffing needs at the southwest border, review actions by the Southwest Border Coordination Center to determine if its efforts are successful and communicate SBCC tasks more clearly to frontline staff.

DHS agreed with the last two recommendations, but rejected the call for an outsider reviewer. It said the audit failed to note all the efforts it has taken to improve staff morale – listing more than five pages of “initiatives DHS has implemented to support its personnel” – and did not consider the hiring in 2023 of 1,000 processing coordinators, and funding to hire 300 more border patrol agents.

The agency also criticized the inspector general’s office for relying too heavily on the survey “given the low response rate” and its failure to account for nonresponse bias.

“DHS believes these results are generally misleading and not necessarily representative of the workforce issues that frontline law enforcement personnel may be experiencing,” the agency said in its response.

-Cronkite News reporter Shelly Garzon contributed to this report.

Jasmine Kabiri jaz-min kah-bee-ree (she/hers)
News Reporter, Washington, D.C.

Jasmine Kabiri expects to graduate in May 2024 with a bachelor’s degree in journalism, a minor in political science and a certificate in international studies. She is a managing editor at ASU’s student-led newspaper, The State Press, and has interned for The Daily Camera in Boulder, Colorado.

Shelly Garzon shell-e gar-zone (she/ her)
News Reporter, Washington, D.C.

Shelly Garzon expects to graduate in August 2023 with a master’s degree in mass communication. Garzon will be covering Capitol Hill at the Cronkite News Washington, D.C., bureau.