Last Week Tonight Looks at Past Border Patrol Hiring Practices


This week, Last Week Tonight hits a sweet spot between something that’s currently topical but something we don’t talk specifics for all that much: The border patrol.

The border itself has obviously been a point of many conversations since last year’s election, particularly in terms of “the wall” (scare quotes, in this case, are actually scary) that Donald Trump has proposed.

The border patrol, as John Oliver explains, is part of Customs and Border Protection, not US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) or customs officers that you might see at airports or border crossings. They also don’t defend the defunct bookstore chain Borders, in case you were wondering.

The border patrol literally patrols our borders, and there are about 20,000 of them, according to Oliver. President Trump has issued an executive order for 5,000 more, and Oliver questions if this is necessary and how the actual hiring of these agents will go down.

In order to answer these questions, the show considers what agents do, how the process went in a past hiring surge and some of the problems that the patrol has faced as a result.

Oliver explains that the border patrol doesn’t live every day in the fast lane, confiscating drugs and weapons and sending baddies to prison. They’re often faced with situations like Central Americans seeking asylum, for which there is a legal process. In a clip, a border patrol agent helps some of these people, giving them space blankets to protect them from the cold.

Oliver’s point is that a border patrol agent’s role is complicated, and the concern is trying to hire many more agents quickly, without the proper training. To illustrate this, Oliver points to the previous hiring process under George W. Bush. Then, the patrol doubled from 10,000 to 20,000.

Check it out:

In order to find potential applicants, the government sought to advertise everywhere – there was a border patrol NASCAR vehicle and team, people. At a cost of $8.4 million. This feels…excessive.

In addition to the less traditional venues for advertising, the government also produced ads brimming with ATVs, helicopters, guys on horseback, and just good ol’ fashioned drama. The job looks exciting, but Oliver breaks it to us that border agents actually get bored a lot.

Many border agents work alone, and while some days are dramatic, but others are literally filled with a big helping of nothing at all (Oliver suggests that agents might train for boredom by watching Mozart in the Jungle, a show I’ve never watched exactly because it does look useful for boredom training).

The biggest problem, though, was that screening processes were lowered in order to meet hiring quotas. They didn’t institute polygraphs as a screening procedure until late in the game, and over half of the people who passed the background tests failed the polygraph.

Most of these failings were the result of participating in illegal activity. For example, one guy said he had “‘no independent recollection of the events that resulted in a blood-doused kitchen and was uncertain if he committed any crime during his three-hour black out.'” Here’s to hoping we hear about that one someday on My Favorite Murder?

The training for agents was also cut back significantly, from a 20-week course to a 12-week course, leaving out Spanish language classes and physical training.

This cut back in standards and training plus the large increase in agents generally led to an increase in corruption and excessive force. Oliver also points out that agents were increasingly arrested outside of the job for things like alcohol-related offenses.

Weirdly enough, two agents were arrested for performing a sex act and being drunk and violent at a Cirque du Soleil performance. Sounds like 2 shows for the price of one, but some people felt that this was unchill behavior.

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Since 2005, in total, 77 agents were arrested for corruption. And Jay Root, a journalist for the Texas Tribune, points out that one bad agent can undo the work of many good agents by taking bribes and letting in the drugs they’re supposed to keep out.

One agent, for instance, was found with money, cocaine, meth, and a pistol literally tied to a cartel.

Of course, this is just one guy. But James Tomscheck, the former Internal Affairs Chief for US Customs and Border Protection, believes the corruption is pretty far-reaching. In addition to corruption, there have been several cases of deadly force by an agent that have been controversial.

The solution here seems fairly simple in not repeating the mistakes of the past. But Oliver points out that a report from the Inspector General for Homeland Security questions if we even need additional border agents right now.

In the end, Oliver emphasizes that if we are going to hire additional agents, we have to hold them to a higher standard. Anything less can compromise the safety of people on both sides of the border.

Next: David Letterman is returning to TV in an all-new talk show on Netflix!

To end the episode, in typical Last Week Tonight fashion, we get a hilarious recruitment video emphasizing the “hours of boredom with sudden bursts of action.” At any rate, it seems a little more accurate than the real commercial.