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Expanding Border Patrol nearly ruined it. Will Congress make the same mistake twice?

David McNew/Getty

It's become clear over the past few years that US Border Patrol has massive problems with corruption and excessive use of force. Current Customs and Border Protection commissioner Gil Kerlikowske, the head of the agency that includes Border Patrol, is trying to turn Border Patrol around, and there's some evidence he's succeeding.

In September, for example, an internal investigation led to a Border Patrol agent actually being charged for assaulting a 14-year-old boy in immigration detention — a big step forward for a force that has barely disciplined misbehaving agents for the past several years.

The biggest threat to Border Patrol's turnaround right now is Congress. The new Republican Congress in 2015 will likely want to strengthen Border Patrol by hiring more agents for the US/Mexico border. As it turns out, that's the worst thing it could do.

A recent feature in Politico Magazine by Garrett Graff shows what happened the last time Border Patrol underwent a rapid expansion, growing by two-thirds over the second term of the Bush Administration. The hiring surge was a major reason Border Patrol has had such massive misconduct problems: One agent was arrested nearly every day from 2005 to 2012, and the agency's been accused of turning a blind eye to hundreds of complaints about excessive force.

border memorial

An impromptu memorial to the victim of a Border Patrol shooting. (Bill Clark/CQ-Roll Call via Getty)

A bigger Border Patrol is a more corrupt Border Patrol

According to Graff, Michael Chertoff, who became Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security in 2005, came in with the goal of doubling the size of Border Patrol in two years. Eventually, he settled for the "compromise" goal of doubling Border Patrol in four years. That didn't quite happen either, but it was close: The number of agents on the US/Mexico border grew by over two-thirds from 2005 to 2009, and it's continued to grow slightly since then.

Border Patrol expansion chart

Congress had to authorize the funding increases leading to all these hiring surges, but it was happy to do so. The first Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, Tom Ridge, told Graff that "people just wanted to give me unlimited amounts of money."

Interestingly, Customs and Border Protection officials didn't welcome the funding increases for their agency — because they understood the dangers of growing that fast. The head of CBP who oversaw the hiring surge told Graff:

"I was very concerned when I was asked to grow the Border Patrol over that period of time...Normally, you'd want a chance to make a careful plan. You want to choose very carefully people who are put into a tough environment like that we had on the southwest border."

But they had to spend the money as Congress had authorized it. Congress had given Border Patrol money to recruit and hire thousands more agents. To find enough agents to hire, Border Patrol had to resort to sponsoring a NASCAR car; they put together commercials featuring agents on motorcycles and conducting SWAT-style raids. But Congress hadn't given money for closer oversight of agents; internal affairs officials later said they hadn't conducted many integrity checks on current agents from 2006-2010 because they were so focused on meeting the hiring goals Congress had mandated.

Crucially, hiring quotas made it harder to screen out problematic applicants. There's a reason that law enforcement officials whose departments don't use excessive force put a lot of emphasis on choosing new hires carefully — and on being able to fire recruits who aren't able to, for example, make good decisions under stress. A hiring surge makes it impossible to do either of those things. To the contrary, the kind of motorcycle-driving image Border Patrol needed to recruit more officers is exactly the image that warier law enforcement agencies try not to send.

Border patrol agent on ATV John Moore/Getty Images

The hiring surge also turned Border Patrol from a bunch of solitary agents out on their own, to a bunch of teams of agents working together. That was a significant change to the force's culture. But it didn't lead to a change in the rules around use of force — which had been written for an era when a Border Patrol agent was on his own. What might be a reasonable amount of force for a single lone agent might be excessive for a squad of them.

One result? A sharp rise in the use of excessive force. In 2013 — after Congress started asking questions — a DHS report identified 1,187 "possible" excessive force incidents between 2007 and 2012, including 136 involving a fired weapon. Furthermore, a companion report written by the Police Executive Research Forum found that agents often shot at fleeing cars out of mere "frustration."

Will Congress start force-feeding Border Patrol again?

Gil Kerlikowske took over Customs and Border Protection in early 2014, and one of his major goals was to fix "transparency and accountability."

For a decade, CBP's internal affairs department hadn't had real authority to investigate criminal misconduct among Border Patrol agents. In September Kerlikowske announced that CBP would finally have the authority to investigate Border Patrol abuses.

The changes haven't stopped excessive force overnight. But it really does look like agents are being held responsible. It was the work of the CBP internal investigators that led to agent Aldo Francisco Arteaga being charged with assault in September for punching a 14-year-old boy.

lone Border Patrol agent

(John Moore/Getty)

When law enforcement experts talk about changing the culture of a force, they tend to focus on hiring; there's only so much an organization can do to change its members' behavior once they're in, but it has much more control over who it lets in to begin with. So if Border Patrol's going to fix its problems, it needs to make sure new hires start getting properly vetted and trained.

Border Patrol is trying to hire a new wave of 1,600 agents in the next year — not to beef up its strength on the border, but just to fill in normal hiring needs and replace agents who've left. This is going to be an important test of whether the agency can turn its culture around. But at the same time, its parent agency is hiring 2,000 new people to work at ports of entry — the biggest expansion of port workers it's ever seen — so resources and attention are going to be strained.

And it could get worse: Congress is going to need to pass a temporary government-funding bill in December 2014, and a proper budget in 2015. There are plenty of members of Congress who are likely to use either of those opportunities to rapidly expand Border Patrol again. This was one of congressional Republicans' top ideas for responding to the Central American migrant crisis last summer.

Ironically, more Border Patrol agents wouldn't have fixed the migrant crisis. But another hiring surge could easily undo the progress that Border Patrol has made with its own crisis of agent misconduct.

It would be nice if any member of Congress who thinks that ramping up Border Patrol again is a good idea, or even a useless but harmless symbolic gesture, read the Politico Magazine piece and thought long and hard about whether a symbolic response to a high-profile crisis is worth the risk of exacerbating a slow-burning one.

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