Border Patrol is failing to hire agents fast enough to replace thousands of soon-to-be retirees, and current and former employees say overly aggressive and unaccountable polygraph examiners are disqualifying more than half of otherwise-qualified candidates.
"We're losing a lot of people, including those who have prior military service, who have active security clearances, and they fail a CBP polygraph," Jon Anfinsen, vice president of the National Border Patrol Council, told Fox News. "It doesn't make any sense."
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Polygraphs or lie detector tests are generally inadmissible in court cases, and federal law bans most private companies from using them to screen employees. But taking a polygraph has been mandatory for prospective Customs and Border Protection agents for the past decade.
The failure rates are staggering.
About two-thirds of CBP applicants who took a polygraph failed, The Associated Press reported in 2017. The FBI and Secret Service's failure rates were about half that, according to the same report.
That means, statistically, applicants aiming to join the agency responsible for protecting the president can more easily pass a polygraph requirement than those aiming to protect the border.
None of the agencies provided Fox News with more recent statistics. In a statement, CBP objected to comparing agencies due to possible discrepancies in "standards and testing" and data gathering.
"The percentage of candidates who pass to the next phase of the pre-employment vetting has increased over the years due to our refining our polygraph exam to focus on our agency's needs," the statement reads in part.
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But Anfinsen said CBP's failure rate is now closer to 50%, still well above other federal and local law enforcement agency averages. Rejected candidates often get jobs with other agencies, like the Texas Department of Public Safety, he said.
"They'll go any other place where they're not treated like a criminal during that portion of the hiring process," Anfinsen said. "We're losing a lot of really great people because of this polygraph portion."
Tracy Anderson Torres started her career with Border Patrol in 2004, long before polygraph exams were required. She was a canine handler, border community liaison agent and spearheaded a youth program. The mother of four left in 2015 when juggling childcare duties became too much to handle.
"It was either going to be, you know, my career or my family," she said. "So I chose to essentially give up my career."
Torres said she left in good standing and was told she could always return to the agency, but when she tried to do just that in 2018, there was a new application requirement.
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Her first polygraph lasted about four hours and came back inconclusive, she said. So she had to drive 300 miles to a second exam location to try again. Torres said she was shaken up from the moment she walked into the interview room and was berated for holding a cup of McDonald's coffee — even though no one warned her she wasn't supposed to drink caffeine before the test.
"It was downhill from there," Torres said. The examiner "started accusing me of all kinds of things."
He asked about her family, so she told him about her kids and how crazy that could make life.
"And he's like, 'Oh, so do you use your husband's prescription medication with wine to take the edge off?'" she recalled, adding that the examiner also accused her of skimming narcotics after drug busts.
After the instructor unhooked the sensors, he allegedly told Torres she "failed bad; like, serial killer bad."
Nearly two weeks later, CBP's human resources department informed Torres that her offer of employment had been withdrawn and that there was no appeals process.
"It was one of the worst experiences I've ever had," Torres said. "He was literally the end all to my career, to me coming back to something that I was good at."
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At the same time CBP is kicking applicants like Torres to the curb, the agency is failing to meet its hiring goals. In 2017, then-President Trump ordered Border Patrol to hire 5,000 new agents. As of fiscal year 2021, there were an additional 99 agents working for CBP.
"We have plenty of applicants," Anfinsen told Fox News while standing next to the Rio Grande as a group of migrants prepared to cross into the U.S. "They just can't get through the whole process."
CBP’s spending on polygraph examinations, meanwhile, has increased sevenfold since 2014. The Capital Center for Credibility Assessment Corporation receives the most federal money for polygraph examination services, and CBP is its number one customer, according to federal contract records.
In the most recent fiscal year, CBP paid CCCAC $7.64 million, primarily for polygraph examination services.
Staffing shortages and a continued surge of migrants across the southern border have made morale "nonexistent," Anfinsen said.
"It's been that way for a while," he said. "Every time it's a change in administration, things get better, then things get worse. And this is the worst it's ever been by far."
About 13,000 employees across all of CBP — not just Border Patrol — are expected to retire in 2028, Anfinsen said.
"We have to replace them somehow, but if we can't even meet our yearly hiring goals, we don't stand a chance," he said.
Anfinsen would like to see the polygraph become more tailored toward career-specific behaviors, rather than focusing on applicants' entire lives. He also thinks there should be more scrutiny on examiners.
"We've never ever heard of an instance where a polygraph examiner was sanctioned for their behavior or anything like that," he said. "People just don't get hired."
Ironically, Torres said she now works under a contract with CBP, conducting background investigations on people trying to get hired by the agency.
"I have my security clearance," she said. "But I'm not good enough to be a Border Patrol agent. It just it doesn't make any sense."