As Trump demands the wall, he loses sight of what really works: more border agents

A Border Patrol vehicle parked at an opening in the fence near Brownsville, Texas, Jan. 20, 2019.
A Border Patrol vehicle parked at an opening in the fence near Brownsville, Texas, Jan. 20, 2019. NYT

Some good news on border security that broke over the weekend: Border Patrol agents in Yuma, Arizona apprehended a man who had burrowed under an old section of fence as he tried to come into the United States. Looking into the man’s background, the agents discovered he had been convicted of voluntary manslaughter in Fresno in 1984 and served 11 years in prison before being deported.

The man is now locked up and will be prosecuted for re-entry after deportation, said U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

But for some bad news on border security that also broke over the weekend: According to a report in the Los Angeles Times, the federal government is so far behind on hiring Border Patrol agents that it has more openings now than when President Trump signed orders two years ago to boost the ranks with 15,000 new hires.

A management firm hired under a $61 million contract to recruit, review and hire 7,500 border officers has, in fact, generated only 33 new employees so far, the Times reported. The Times also pointed out the Border Patrol expanded by just 120 agents last year, and that was the first net gain in five years.

This news comes in the midst of the debate over Trump’s proposed $5.7 billion border wall and the government shutdown that resulted from that dispute. Some key takeaways:

First, agents are critical to securing the border. Kudos to the officers who apprehended the man with the manslaughter conviction in Fresno. The fact he was trying to sneak back into the country, with his past of wrongdoing, shows that border security is a real need. That trained officers uncovered his past show how valuable they are to the effort.

The president has focused so much attention on getting money for the “big, beautiful wall” he promised supporters that its importance has overshadowed the need to recruit more officers. Mere days after taking office, Trump promised to boost the ranks of agents by 15,000. But as the Times story indicates, that campaign has failed badly.

To get that many, the government would need to hire 2,700 annually to meet Trump’s mandate of 26,370 agents by the end of 2021. Given the poor start, it is unlikely the hiring will meet the president’s goal.

Second, the suspect captured by the Yuma officers had burrowed under an old section of fencing. The new wall that Trump wants to build will be less susceptible to such attempts. But the incident illustrates the fallacy of protection that a wall represents. Given enough determination and motivation, people will find a way to defeat a wall.

Wouldn’t $5.7 billion be better spent on the recruitment effort, as well as high-tech means for securing the border?

The Times also reported that apprehensions at the border in the last fiscal year were 521,090; of those, 35 percent were family units of at least one parent and children. From the mid-1980s to the mid-2000s, more than 1 million people were apprehended annually, government figures show. That decline defies the president’s characterization that the border is being overrun.

Given how Trump has staked so much of his presidency on getting the wall — even to the point he put federal workers in the ranks of the unemployed for more than a month — it is unthinkable he will change course now. That means, however, that his initiative to boost the ranks of border agents will likely go unrealized. If that one bad guy had been missed by the Yuma agents and had made his way back to Fresno, the result could have been truly regrettable.