In issuing its first new national strategy in eight years, the U.S. Border Patrol acknowledged this week an embarrassing but serious concern within its ranks: corruption.
“The U.S. Border Patrol is fortunate in that the documented cases of corrupt employees represent only a minute percentage of the workforce,” the 2012-2016 Border Patrol Strategic Plan says. “However, any instance of corruption within our ranks always has been – and always will be – unacceptable.”
The Border Patrol's parent agency, U.S. Customs and Border Protection, has taken steps in recent years to address corruption, misconduct and other integrity issues. With the plan, the Border Patrol has followed suit. Border Patrol officials were not available to speak on the record about the decision to address corruption in its plan.
While the Border Patrol discussed the "integrity" of the border and corruption outside the agency in two earlier national strategy blueprints dating back to 1994, the agency had not used those terms to talk about the issue within the agency itself. The newest strategy outlines the agency’s overall vision for a new intelligence-driven, risk-based approach to border security through 2016.
Mark Dankel, a retired U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement official and a consultant to the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, said the acknowledgement is not unheard of; the old U.S. Customs Service described similar efforts in its policy and strategy papers.
But the Border Patrol's decision to address corruption in a public way underscores the agency's maturation, he said. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, along with Customs and Border Protection and the Border Patrol, are agencies of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.
"They are beginning to describe the processes that reflect greater professionalism and to build a greater integrity infrastructure," said Dankel, who oversaw all corruption investigations involving border agencies west of the Mississippi before he retired in 2009. "With corruption it's much easier to confront the threat by building internal infrastructure than through external enforcement efforts."
The new overall approach for the Border Patrol aims to shift away from an agency that has thrown resources – and agents – at the border to detect and deter uninspected entries into the country. In its place, the agency wants its focus to be on using intelligence to identify and address risks as they appear along the border – from drug traffickers, unauthorized migrants, human smugglers and would-be terrorists.
The strategy comes as illegal immigration, as tracked by the apprehensions of unauthorized border crossers, has plummeted to a 40-year low. A recent Pew Hispanic Center report also found that illegal immigration has essentially stopped.
With more than 21,000 agents, the Border Patrol is larger than ever after a historic expansion over the last decade that has transformed the agency into one of the largest federal law enforcement agencies in the country. But with the hiring surge – which began after 9/11 and accelerated with the prodding of Congress – the agency and its parent, Customs and Border Protection, have seen a rise in complaints of corruption and misconduct.
Of the 137 Customs and Border Protection employees indicted or convicted on corruption-related charges since October 2004, most worked at border crossings, such as San Ysidro in San Diego South County, the world’s busiest land port. The Border Patrol polices the often rugged, remote terrain between ports of entry. Overall, Customs and Border Protection had complaints against its employees increase 38 percent from 2004 to 2011, according to the department's inspector general.
To address the issue, Customs and Border Protection has bulked up its internal affairs unit, increasing from five agents in 2006 to 203 today. But turf battles over the responsibility to ferret out corruption have plagued the Department of Homeland Security. As a result, investigations handled by the department's inspector general have languished or allegations of corruption have gone unprobed.
The new strategy, subtitled “The Mission: Protect America,” pledges to “actively reduce the potential for corruption,” charging leaders to promote integrity throughout the Border Patrol. Leaders are also extolled to immediately address issues as they arise.
The agency also establishes internal and parent agency-level integrity review committees, and hints at using analysis to identify possible red flags.
Alejandro Salas, Transparency International's regional director for the Americas, applauded the agency for recognizing the problem in a public way.
"The fact that this is clearly recognized in an official document is very good news. In a way, the agency is providing an element that they can be accountable in the future," he said. "One of the basic ABCs of eliminating corruption is to have the political leadership and political will to change things. That’s one of the most difficult things."