Misbehavior at the Border: Are Those Who Control Immigration Out of Control Themselves?

November 1, 2012

November 2012

In the summer of 2012 the trial of former U.S. Border Patrol (USBP) agents Raul and Fidel Villarreal began in San Diego. The two are accused of bribery and of smuggling hundreds of migrants in Border Patrol vehicles across the southern border in exchange for tens of thousands of dollars.[1] Just days later, another Border Patrol agent deployed along the southern border was arrested by the FBI for allowing unauthorized immigrants into the county in exchange for tens of thousands of dollars.[2] In July, the second documentary of 2012 to focus on improper conduct of border agents aired on PBS.[3] This series of documentaries alleges that border agents have engaged in excessive use of force, sexual abuse, destruction of evidence, and use of offensive language towards immigrants.

These allegations are some of the astonishing number of recent corruption cases among Department of Homeland Security (DHS) agents stationed at our borders and some of the “string of such embarrassments since doubling its [USBP’s] size over the past seven years to more than 21,000 agents.”[4]

 CBP Corruption – the Numbers:  

Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officials and their subordinates at USBP have faced a wide range of corruption challenges. Indeed, between October 2007 and April 2012, employees of CBP have been handed as many as 232 criminal indictments.[5] Many of the cases brought to light have involved CBP employees in not only drug-related offenses but also fraud, misuse of government resources and databases, and theft.[6] Indeed, in exchange for bribes or other favors (including of a sexual nature), corrupt agents may allow for contraband or humans to flow freely

through inspection lanes at ports of entry, they may leak sensitive enforcement information or even protect smuggled goods and people as they move across the border.[1]

In the last years six years, CBP—the agency to which USBP belongs—has roughly doubled from a $6 billion agency in FY 2006 to a more than $11.7 billion agency in FY 2012.[2]. This has also correlated in a near doubling of the number of border agents during this same time period from around 12,000 in 2006 to over 21,000 today. This rapid rate of growth has created problems for the agency.

At a March 8, 2012 Congressional hearing before the House Department of Homeland Security Subcommittee on Oversight, Investigations and Management the Acting Inspector General of DHS testified that there are over 200 active investigations into CBP officers for corruption. Further, in FY 2011, 403 CBP officers were arrested for various crimes.[3] Since 2004, at least 132 CBP officers have been convicted of corruption-related charges and a total of 141 have been arrested or indicted for acts of corruption, of which 102 were considered mission-compromising, meaning that the employee’s illegal activities were for personal gain.[4] Also since 2004, 2,000 employees have been charged in other criminal misconduct, including “off duty behavior that serves to undermine the confidence of the public that we serve.”[5] Separately, through a Freedom of Information Act request in 2010, it was discovered that 50 CBP employees over a five-year span were in “possession, use, sale, or distribution of illegal drugs or substances.”[6] Of these 50 CBP employees, 19 were fired and 25 were allowed to retire with a pension or resign with no criminal charges being brought against them.[7]

Funding and Focus – the State of training and Internal Investigations:

In recent years, Congress has allocated significant resources for CBP’s Office of Internal Affairs and its Conduct and Integrity Oversight Initiative. The President’s budget for FY 2013 designates $74.1 million for agent training between the ports of entry and $34.8 million for agent training at the ports of entry, which includes conduct and integrity training. While significant, this budget request represents a sixteen percent reduction in training between the ports of entry and an eight percent reduction in training at the ports from what was enacted in FY 2012 funding levels. It is also not explicitly clear how much of this funding would be dedicated to training on conduct and integrity issues.

Despite increased pressure from national legislators and oversight committees in Congress, and the rapid growth of DHS to some 60,000 employees, the OIG’s Office of Investigations which investigates corruption of DHS employees has grown much slower in comparison. Consequently, in 2011, the office’s Acting Inspector General, Charles Edwards, lamented the gap in hiring and funding rates. In 2009, while CBP grew by 34% and complaints lodged against CBP grew nearly 50% from the previous year, the Inspector General’s office grew by only six percent. Significantly, in its appropriations bill for FY2013, the House reduced the OIG’s funding from $141 million to $133 million, against the President’s request for a funding increase.[1] As of August, 2012, the OIG Office of Investigations (INV) had 219 full-time criminal investigators deployed at 33 offices around the country—which is only an increase of six investigators since June 2011 despite a 25 percent increase in complaints from fiscal year 2010 to 2011 and 622 open criminal investigations against CBP personnel (the highest of any DHS agency).[2] This number, Edwards laments, is not enough to keep up with the needs of a department that now has more than 225,000 employees.[3]

Border security policies in recent years have led to the Border Patrol’s rapid size increase. Today, Congress mandates that the Border Patrol maintain a minimum of 21,370 agents, up from 14,923 in FY 2007.[4] This unprecedented increase combined with high attrition rates has impacted the agency’s recruiting and training. A new law requiring that all new hires undergo polygraph tests goes into effect in January 2013. Until then, only one fourth of new Border Patrol hires today are being tested.[5] This is concerning, given indications by DHS itself that Mexican cartels have infiltrated law enforcement ranks.[6]

Beyond an initial screening, training should be ongoing and should recur during key stages of an officer’s career including basic academy, in-service and advanced training. The role of training combined with an early intervention plan is also vital, as investigations into corruption or unethical behavior usually take place too late in the process, and methods to address them such as polygraph testing have yielded limited success. The need for robust training on ethics, conduct and integrity is pressing given the rapid growth in Border Patrol staffing and the relative inexperience of a large portion of the force.

The high rate of attrition for Border Patrol agents (30 percent of newly hired agents leave their job within the first 18 months[1]) and the increasing new agent-to-experienced agent ratio raise significant concerns regarding effective oversight and management of agents.[2] Furthermore, the integrity training programs that CBP does employ need to be scrutinized and evaluated by independent oversight agencies such as the DHS Office of Inspector General. For example, CBP Acting Commissioner David Aguilar has stated that mid-career training programs such as “Supervisory Leadership Training,” “Incumbent Supervisory Training,” the “Second Level Command Preparation” and the Department’s “Senior Executive Service Candidate Development Program”[3] prepare CBP leaders to promote personal integrity but it remains unclear exactly how effective these programs are or how many of the 21,370 agents receive such training.

Additionally, new concerns have emerged that CBP employees are not completing currently required training programs. A December 2011 Government Accountability Office (GAO) report entitled “Border Security: Additional Steps Needed to Ensure That Officers Are Fully Trained” found that CBP does not have reliable training completion records to ensure officers received required training and that over 4,000 officers had not completed required courses in immigration fundamentals, immigration law and agricultural fundamentals.[1]

This lack of adequate training is reflected in how agents carry out their responsibilities. A 2011 report by Appleseed concluded that CBP agents are not adequately screening unaccompanied immigrant children for trafficking or asylum issues.[2] Similarly, inadequacy of professional training has also led to excessive use of force in the field.

Data also indicates that agents become corrupt “down the road,” several years into their career. Periodic re-investigation of Border Patrol agents is currently severely backlogged. As of June 2011, there were as many as 15,197 periodic re-investigations pending.[3]

Acknowledging CBP’s persistent corruption problem, the Obama administration announced in early 2012 that it is considering rotating agents to other locations so as to separate them from the cartels. Rotations and relocations are a common practice among other federal law enforcement agencies, including the FBI and the Drug Enforcement Agency. However, no final decision on the matter has been made publicly.[4]

Recommendations to combat CBP corruption:

  • There should be a broad investigation into CBP’s immigration enforcement mission to make sure funding is used to improve border security through a more efficient use of funds, strengthened oversight and a renewed commitment to integrity, ethics and fiscal accountability.
  • Early and repeated training should be part of a formalized strategy for the prevention of misconduct and corruption. Ethics, conduct and integrity training programs must be standardized, systematic, integrated and regularized as part of each officer’s and agent’s career
  • Background checks and investigations, both at the point of hire and periodically throughout an agent’s career, should be implemented across the board, especially among front-line agents.
  • Permit independent review of mid-career integrity training programs.
  • The Agency should develop and adhere to a comprehensive integrity and anti-corruption system through accountability and supervision, recruitment and hiring, education and training, early intervention systems, and data collection and analysis.
  • CBP should continue to work at improving complaint mechanisms so the public can easily report agent misconduct or behavior that is irregular or abusive.


  • CBP should continue to work at improving an internal complaint mechanism so that agents and employees may be more likely and willing to discuss observed misbehavior and poor conduct. OIG presence should be increased and access to OIG investigators and other internal affairs officials should be streamlined. Likewise, agents should not be deployed by themselves in single-person posts: such single-person deployments provide greater opportunities and chances for individual agents to undertake questionable, corrupt
  • Border Patrol agents should be required to rotate between posts and sectors every several months so as to reduce the likelihood of corruptibility.

[1] Government Accountability Office, “BORDER SECURITY: Additional Steps are Needed to Ensure that Officers are Fully Trained, December 2011, available at http://www.gao.gov/assets/590/587314.pdf.

[2] Betsy Cavendish, Maru Cortazar, Appleseed, “Children at the Border: The Screening, Protection and Repatriation of Unaccompanied Mexican Minors,” 2011, available at http://appleseednetwork.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/05/Children-At-The-Border1.pdf.

[3] Homeland Security News Wire, “CBP Considers Relocating Agents to Stop Corruption,” February 3, 2012, available at http://www.homelandsecuritynewswire.com/dr20120203-cbp-considers-relocating-agents-to-stop-corruption.


[1] Luke Whitman, “CBP Chief Resigns After Less Than Two Years on the Job,” Examiner.com, December 23, 2011, available at http://www.examiner.com/immigration-in-tucson/cbp-chief-resigns-after-less-than-two-years-on-job.

[2] Elliot Spagat, “High Turnover Rate Hurts Border Patrol,” San Francisco Chronicle, August 29, 2008, available at http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2008/08/29/BA3612JFQ2.DTL

[3] Testimony of David V. Aguilar, Aug. 1, 2012. Available at http://oversight.house.gov/wp-content/uploads/2012/07/Aguilar-Testimony.pdf

[1] Department of Homeland Security Appropriations Act, FY 2013,, H.R. 5855, available at http://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/BILLS-112hr5855pcs/pdf/BILLS-112hr5855pcs.pdf ; Department of Homeland Security Appropriations Act, F Y 2013, S. 3216, available at http://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/BILLS-112s3216pcs/pdf/BILLS-112s3216pcs.pdf.

[2] Testimony of Edwards, June 9, 2011, available at http://www.hsgac.senate.gov/subcommittees/disaster-recovery-and-intergovernmental-affairs/hearings/border-corruption-assessing-customs-and-border-protection-and-the-department-of-homeland-security-inspector-generals-office-collaboration-in-the-fight-to-prevent-corruption. Testimony of Edwards, Aug. 1, 2012, available at http://oversight.house.gov/wp-content/uploads/2012/07/Edwards-Testimony.pdf

[3] Id.

[4] See also CBP’s “Securing America’s Borders – CBP 2007 FY in Review,” Available at http://www.cbp.gov/xp/cgov/about/accomplish/previous_year/2007_stats/07_year_review.xml

[5] Homeland Security News Wire, “CBP Considers Relocating Agents to Stop Corruption,” February 3, 2012, available at http://www.homelandsecuritynewswire.com/dr20120203-cbp-considers-relocating-agents-to-stop-corruption; House Homeland Security Subcommittee on Oversight, Testimony of Acting Deputy Commissioner U.S, Customs and Border Protection Thomas Winkowski, 5/17/2012, available at http://homeland.house.gov/sites/homeland.house.gov/files/Testimony-Winkowski.pdf, at 4.

[6] Stewart Powell, “To Stop Corruption, Changes May be Coming to the Border,” Houston Chronicle, January 27, 2012, available at http://www.chron.com/news/houston-texas/article/Border-agents-could-be-randomly-transferred-to-2760158.php.

[1] Testimony of Edwards, available at http://www.hsgac.senate.gov/subcommittees/disaster-recovery-and-intergovernmental-affairs/hearings/border-corruption-assessing-customs-and-border-protection-and-the-department-of-homeland-security-inspector-generals-office-collaboration-in-the-fight-to-prevent-corruption

[2] The House Appropriation bill for the Department of Homeland Security assigns $11.97 billion in funds to CBP. The Senate has yet to pass its FY 2013 appropriations bill, but the Senate committee recommendation stands at $11.68 billion. Department of Homeland Security Appropriations Act, FY 2013, H.R. 5855, available at http://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/BILLS-112hr5855pcs/pdf/BILLS-112hr5855pcs.pdf ; Department of Homeland Security Appropriations Act, FY 2013, S. 3216, available at http://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/BILLS-112s3216pcs/pdf/BILLS-112s3216pcs.pdf.

[3]House Homeland Security Subcommittee on Oversight, Investigations and Management Holds Hearing on Eliminating Homeland Security Department Waste, Fraud and Abuse (March 8, 2012)

[4] Testimony of David V. Aguilar, Aug. 1, 2012. Available at http://oversight.house.gov/wp-content/uploads/2012/07/Aguilar-Testimony.pdf

[5] House Homeland Security Subcommittee on Oversight, Testimony of Acting Deputy Commissioner U.S, Customs and Border Protection Thomas Winkowski, 5/17/2012, available at http://homeland.house.gov/sites/homeland.house.gov/files/Testimony-Winkowski.pdf, at p. 3-4,

[6] Mark Greenbelt, DHS steps in, bolsters ability to investigate corrupt border agentsKHOU Houston, Texas, August 19, 2011, available at http://www.khou.com/news/investigative/DHS-steps-in-bolsters-ability-to-investigate-corrupt-border-agents-128056558.html.

[7] See footnote 3.

[1] Elliot Spagat, “Border Patrol Smuggling Case Set for Trial,” Washington Post, June 25, 2012, available at http://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/border-patrol-corruption-case-set-for-trial/2012/06/24/gJQAWGRa1V_story.html

[2] “Agente fronterizo de EU cobraba 15 mil dólares por cada migrante,” Excelsior, July 17, 2012, available at http://www.excelsior.com.mx/index.php?m=nota&seccion=seccion-nacional&cat=1&id_nota=848234

[3] PBS, Need to Know, “Crossing the line at the border,” April 20, 2012, available at http://www.pbs.org/wnet/need-to-know/security/video-first-look-crossing-the-line/13597/; PBS, Need to Know, “Crossing the line at the border Part 2,” July 20, 2012, available at, http://www.pbs.org/wnet/need-to-know/uncategorized/need-to-know-july-20-2012-crossing-the-line-part-2/14271/.

[4] Spagat, “Border Patrol Smuggling Case Set for Trial.” (See note 1.)

[5] Id. According to DHS, in FY 2011 60 criminal indictments were brought against CBP employees, continuing a four-year trend of growing corruption cases.

[6] Testimony of Alan Bersin, June 9, 2011, available at http://www.hsgac.senate.gov/subcommittees/disaster-recovery-and-intergovernmental-affairs/hearings/border-corruption-assessing-customs-and-border-protection-and-the-department-of-homeland-security-inspector-generals-office-collaboration-in-the-fight-to-prevent-corruption