Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Friday, July 19, 2019

Institutional Collapse at the Border

Politico had an extensive article on the problems besetting the US Customs and Border Protection agency (some of them organizational issues going back nearly 18 years, some of them situational ones resulting from the recent flood of migrants trying to cross the southern border, some in between.) There are a lot of different things one could take from this article. Because I'm spending my days at the moment dealing with the struggles of setting up a new department, the things that struck me most are the organizational issues.

According to the article, the issues at the Customs and Border Protection agency began back in 2001, when after 9/11 the agency sought to more than double the number of agents, hiring more than ten thousand new staff in order to more successfully police the borders and deal with cross-border drug and weapons smuggling.
DHS’ newly created CBP, created out of the merger of multiple other agencies from across government, was primarily made up of two distinct units: The blue-uniformed officers known as the Office of Field Operations, who police the nation’s legal ports of entry and border crossings, and the green-uniformed Border Patrol agents, who patrol areas in between legal crossings and conduct interior enforcement efforts within 100 miles of an international border or seacoast, an area in which two-thirds of the U.S. population resides. (Other smaller divisions of CBP focus on more specific tasks, like intelligence and the brown-uniformed Air and Marine Operations, which houses CBP’s helicopter and boat units.)

The money pouring into Ridge’s hands paid for a more than doubling of the Border Patrol, which surged from 9,200 agents in 2001 to more than 21,000 during its peak in the first term of the Obama administration, and similarly rapid expansion at CBP’s OFO, a rate of growth that completely outstripped CBP’s systems to manage its employees. When in 2014 I wrote the first comprehensive history of that ill-considered hiring surge, the rise of what CBP called “the Green Monster,” one DHS official told me, “[Congress’] view was, ‘We’re going to field a small army and make up for decades of neglect by previous administrations.’ Almost any body in the field was better than no body.”

CBP recruited that new army by lowering its hiring standards—already the lowest among top federal law enforcement agencies—and shoveling agents through the academy and into the field before even completing background checks. “We weren’t prepared,” one former training officer told me. Agents called it “No Trainee Left Behind.” Management structures and processes failed, oversight lessened and by the end of the Bush administration, more than half of the Border Patrol had been in the field for less than two years. Already at that point, agent misconduct and criminality were on the rise—the lax hiring standards and background checks had populated the new border army with the wrong sort of person. “We made some mistakes,” Bush’s CBP Commissioner Ralph Basham told me in 2014. “We found out later that we did, in fact, hire cartel members.”
It's common to think that in order to hire a bunch of people, you just need money. The fact is, people are not an unlimited resource. If you want to hire a large number of people, you need a large number of people who want to be do the job. And if such a large pool of people does not exist, you'll have to start doing things differently. The high (but slow) road is to work hard to inspire people to share your belief that the work is important to do. The shorter term solutions are to offer more money or to lower your standards. The CBP, in good old government fashion, seems to have gone for the latter.

Lowering your hiring standards doesn't just get you some bad employees; it also sends a message to your good ones that the organization doesn't care about quality or behavior. This means that bad employees have a double effect, they're not just bad themselves, they serve to make your good people worse by making them give up (or leave.) The CPB seems to have suffered from this problem. They had high attrition, and managing bad behavior by agents was a constant problem.

Corruption among CBP’s ranks got so bad that in Obama’s first year, CBP and DHS leadership ordered the agency to change its definition of “corruption” to downplay the number of total incidents; sexually assaulting detainees was no longer considered “corruption” worthy of reporting to Congress.

The situation continued to deteriorate as the Obama administration went on. A CATO Institute study found that from 2006 to 2016, CBP and the Border Patrol’s misconduct and disciplinary infractions outstripped all other federal law enforcement. Border Patrol agents were six times as likely as FBI agents to be fired for disciplinary infractions or poor performance and “12.9 times as likely as Secret Service agents.” Moreover, CATO found “it is virtually impossible to assess the extent of corruption or misconduct in U.S. Customs and Border Protection … because most publicly available information is incomplete or inconsistent.” As I totaled up in 2014, there were 2,170 misconduct arrests of CBP officers and agents—ranging from corruption to domestic violence from 2005 through 2012—meaning that one CBP officer or agent was arrested every single day for seven years.

There were so many examples of corruption that CBP created its own internal website, called “Trust Betrayed,” featuring the stories of turncoat CBP officers and Border Patrol agents, as a cautionary warning to others. Examples from the site, released to BuzzFeed’s Jason Leopold earlier this year, include agents bribed by cartels to wave certain individuals through immigration lanes and provide documents to smugglers, and even smuggle undocumented immigrants themselves.

Addressing that epidemic of misconduct—and worse—proved all but bureaucratically impossible. CBP’s crime and corruption epidemic collided with the institutional trade-offs made to create DHS; obscure government job descriptions and law enforcement responsibilities, negotiated in the abstract when DHS was being created, meant that Congress didn’t grant CBP the ability or authority to investigate its own employees. Whereas any even moderately sized local police department has an internal affairs department, the nation’s largest law enforcement agency had to refer all misconduct allegations to either the DHS inspector general, the FBI or ICE—all of which soon found themselves overwhelmed by the flood of CBP problems.

Ronald Hosko, a former FBI assistant director who headed the bureau’s criminal division, told me that at one CBP meeting he attended in 2012, top agency officials estimated that perhaps as much as 20 percent of CBP’s agent and officer corps needed to be removed from the force. In response, the FBI declared border corruption—e.g., investigating another federal law enforcement agency—as its top priority in combating public corruption.

The flood continued, such that in 2013 the head of the DHS office investigating CBP misconduct in Texas’ Rio Grande Valley had fallen so far behind in investigating the rampant misconduct allegations that he began falsifying records—and ended up being indicted himself, along with another agent.

It's easy to think of this in terms of "the CBP had all bad people" but again, institutional culture is key here. They did doubtless have too many people who should not have been hired, but the way that an organization responds to people who behave badly is really important. A strong organization with a good culture clearly punishes wrongdoing and makes good employees feel that they'll be listened to if they report problems. This gives the good employees institutional strength and suppresses bad behavior. In the above quote, it's estimated that 20% of CBP agents and officers needed to be removed, and that's a large number. But think of the flip side: 80% were good. The problem is that those 80% were given every organizational signal that complaints about bad behavior would be ignored. That means that the 80% of good agents were discouraged by the organization's behavior, while the 20% of bad actors were given license. This set of factors made the behavior of the organization as a whole worse than just the 80/20 split of good and bad employees might have suggested.

These problems were made worse by a power vacuum.

Meanwhile, DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano left CBP rudderless, with a revolving door of nonSenate confirmed, acting leaders. At one point, CBP’s top post was vacant, with various officials “acting” as commissioner, for 26 months.

Amid that leadership vacuum, CBP shootings and use-of-force complaints started to rise, too. From 2007 to 2012, more than 1,700 allegations of excessive force were leveled against CBP officers and Border Patrol agents, though the exact number is impossible to reconstruct because the agency’s record keeping is so poor. There were more than a hundred shootings, leaving dozens dead, and CBP’s standard operation procedure—unlike nearly every other law enforcement agency in the country—was to keep silent about any officer-involved shootings unless specifically asked about them by the media.

As a side note, the article does occasionally slip into rhetorical formulations that serve to make problems sound bigger. For instance, this paragraph on the frequency of agent arrests sounds pretty bad:

While most misconduct allegations dropped in fiscal year 2017, criminal allegations against CBP agents and officers actually jumped 7 percent according to the most recent statistics available. There were 245 CBP agents and officers arrested in fiscal year 2017—meaning that an agent or officer was arrested every 36 hours—including seven employees arrested twice and one employee arrested three times in that single year; as a sign of just how much CBP continues to struggle with the legacy left it by the Bush and Obama administrations, most of those arrested had been brought on during the hiring surge. (Ironically, one agent last year even pleaded guilty to being an undocumented immigrant.)

However, if one said instead that about 1% of agents had been arrested, that would sound much smaller. Given the large number of agents, saying that one is, on average, arrested every 36 hours takes advantage of the large total number to make that small minority sound larger.

Another key institutional problem is changing missions without changing people and culture. The article notes:

The years of poor management and leadership from DHS, three presidents and Congress itself have been only exacerbated by CBP’s unwillingness to reckon with its modern role. Its culture and duties seem part police force, part occupying army and part frontier cavalry. None of those pieces of institutional DNA have equipped agents and management for what has become the Border Patrol’s main role over the past five years: Humanitarian relief organization.

Back during the hiring surge, the recruiting campaign and CBP’s mission emphasized fighting terrorists and the all-American nature of its work—the Border Patrol sponsored a NASCAR team, and recruited at bull-riding competitions and country music concerts. CBP spent that first decade after 9/11 recruiting and equipping what it touted would be an elite counterterrorism force—the first line of defense against Islamic terrorists and drug cartels. But this only perpetuated a message and culture that has left the agency ill-suited to confront what it actually has to do in the second decade after 9/11: Provide humanitarian aid for women, children and families amid global instability that has strained border forces worldwide.

CBP went out and recruited Rambo, when it turned out the agency needed Mother Teresa.

There is little sign that DHS leadership, particularly under the Trump administration, is willing to consider the depth of agency realignment and reinvestment necessary to match CBP and the Border Patrol with what it finds its current mission to be—nor does there seem to be any appetite inside the Trump administration to address what officials would call the “whole of government” failure to meet the migrant crisis.

Even today, recruiting ads continue to make the Border Patrol look like an action movie, with stirring music and fancy toys, from helicopters to canines to ATVs, and lots and lots of weapons. On CBP’s website, “counterterrorism” is listed first under the agency’s mission—ahead of “customs” and “immigration,” and the first item on the agency’s own job description for officers states a “typical assignment” is “detecting and preventing terrorists and terrorist weapons from entering the United States.” In its first sentence of the agency’s “About” listing, CBP says it “is charged with keeping terrorists and their weapons out of the U.S.” Nowhere in its recruiting material does it list anything having to do with “providing humanitarian assistance,” “rescuing migrants,” or “aiding families and children fleeing drug violence,” the tasks that have over the past 10 years have consumed more and more of the Border Patrol’s time.

The photo last month of a drowned migrant father and daughter in the Rio Grande drew global attention to the human toll of the migrant surge, but to agents along the border such drama is a near-daily occurrence. Just days later, one of CBP’s Twitter accounts posted video of agents aboard a boat performing CPR on a teen pulled from the Rio Grande. In fact, today, its most elite unit, the agency’s equivalent of the SEALs or Delta Force, primarily is tasked with rescuing migrants in medical distress.

People typically do not like to be assigned to do things other than what they were hired to do. They like it even less when they are not given the training and the resources to adapt to the new job. Telling employees to do something significantly different from what they were recruited for will often result in loss of morale. In this case, it's easy to say that the work that needs to be done caring for refugees is good work and thus that any good person would want to do it. However, people tend to have a strong sense of mission and even if they have a sense that work is good, if it's significantly different from what they signed up for they will often be upset about having their job changed without notice. If they also haven't been given the training and resources to help them through the change, this just makes people more upset at the idea of the change being forced upon them. And this too can result in people checking out or becoming cynical, accepting the lack of resources or direction without trying to make things better, because the employees are just trying to get by from day to day.

This is useful context in that while there are some stories that are clearly accounts of agents doing actively bad things which should be the cause of disciplinary proceedings, what seems to be causing the most harm is more a result of inaction in the face of escalating circumstances.  A massive increase in the number of migrants, combined with a shift in the demographics of migrants (fewer young men looking for work, far more women and children looking for new places to live) would require significant shifts in how agents deal with detainees and how they run their facilities.  In an organization beset with leadership problems and in which agents have been implicitly given the message time and again (not just in the last couple years but for decades) by their organization's behavior that the government does not care and will not make things better, many agents seem to have accepted the situation fatalistically and simply continued doing the same things even as the conditions have shifted around them so that those same procedures result in neglect and near collapse. 

The article notes:
These looming problems were apparent even in 2016 to the hard-nosed leaders of the union. Sitting in his office in McAllen, Texas, local union leader Chris Cabrera told me then how many lives agents saved everyday. “You won’t find anyone who rescues more people, saves more aliens’ lives, aids more drowning victims or recovers more dead bodies than the Border Patrol,” Cabrera said. “If you look at the Border Patrol, we’re the largest humanitarian organization on the Southwest border.”

It was a remarkable statement then—coming amid Trump’s heated, racist anti-Mexico campaign rhetoric, as the Border Patrol union became the first union to endorse his candidacy, followed later by ICE’s union. Yet that statement today captures the myriad complexities and contradictions rolled into the Trump administration’s modern immigration policy.

On the one hand, surely the Border Patrol saves more lives of migrants crossing than any other organization—yet its own inability and failure of leadership and resources to respond to the flood of asylum-seekers means that migrants’ lives remain in deadly jeopardy even after crossing the border. At least 12 migrants have died in CBP custody since September, including a Nicaraguan last week. In the decade before, not a single migrant died in CBP custody.
Near the end it offers a hint of the kind of organizational change which might provide the kind of change needed to meet current circumstances.
Kerlikowske, who led CBP through that UAC crisis in the Rio Grande Valley, says it’s worth considering a wholesale shift in CBP’s workforce—one that enlists a civilian workforce alongside the agents to aid and process migrants, leaving the armed law enforcement to focus on the Border Patrol’s mission of combating drugs and human trafficking—what patrol parlance calls the “runaways,” rather than the “give-ups.”

“Over these last number of years, it’s people turning themselves and looking for someone in a green uniform,” Kerlikowske says. “Is that something you need an armed, trained Border Patrol agent? Could you hire a civilian workforce to do the majority of that review and processing?
It's thinking like that which could serve to make things better in the long term.

1 comment:

Anna said...

Wait, no one had died in CBP custody in the past decade, but they had a bunch of officer-involved shootings? So that counts as "no one died in custody" because... they just went ahead and killed them first?

I will say that I spent most of the Obama administration spluttering in fury about the media fawning all over the Dreamer *rhetoric* while turning a blind eye to the *actions* going on. Anyone at Casa Juan Diego in Houston can tell you lots about the failure of administration after administration to address the border problems; it has not been one party or the other's fault, it's been very consistently terrible for decades. (And the Catholic Workers there are also the ones who might have real ideas for what needs to change, rather than just grandstanding.)