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Homeland Security Hiring Contracts May Be More Trouble Than They're Worth, Again

The federal government plans to pay private companies hundreds of millions of dollars to help two of its largest law enforcement agencies hire employees.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) plans to hire more than 16,000 new employees, including 8,500 deportation officers, according to the agency. Customs and Border Protection (Border Patrol) has already awarded almost $300 million to a private company that will help the agency hire 5,000 border patrol agents.

ICE and Border Patrol, both of which are part of the Department of Homeland Security, will pay the private companies a flat rate for every new employee hired, potentially incentivizing the companies to cut corners and not fully vet every candidate before they’re hired. As history has shown, this can have dangerous—even deadly—consequences.

When Border Patrol used private companies to help hire new employees in the 2000s, an agency official noted that the agency ended up hiring “people that would not previously have been considered for employment” because the companies were more concerned with getting paid than with finding good candidates. He wrote that, “These contractors have mandated efficiencies to protect their financial bottom line. This has resulted in decreased accuracy and overall quality of the BI [background investigations].”

As a result, the number of Border Patrol employees charged with civil and criminal misconduct increased by 44 percent in the years following the hiring surge, the Associated Press reported last year.

Similarly, dozens of ICE employees have been charged with criminal acts over the past ten years, which raises questions about the agency’s existing vetting standards for new employees.

Companies cutting corners when helping to hire federal employees extends to other agencies. In 2013, a military contractor who passed a background check by a private company to work for the Office of Personnel Management shot and killed 12 people at the Washington Navy Yard. The company had been aware of the military contractor’s criminal background prior to the mass shooting, but the company never reported it to the government. And the Justice Department later alleged that the company “deliberately” cut corners on background checks “to increase the company’s revenues and profits.”

To top it off, outsourcing the hiring process for government employees can also be illegal. Under federal regulations, the hiring of government employees is an “inherently governmental function,” meaning that using private companies to help hire federal government employees puts ICE and CBP in risky legal territory. For example, functions such interviewing candidates must be performed by government employees and not private companies.

When the Project On Government Oversight (POGO) reached out to ICE for comment, an ICE official said that federal employees—not private companies—will make all final hiring decisions.

In fact, shortly after POGO’s inquiry, ICE revised its original solicitation notice to private companies to specify that “certain parts of the federal government hiring processes are inherently governmental functions.” While the insertion of that language is a move in the right direction, it doesn’t mean that using private companies to help hire federal employees is without its risks. Multiple federal agencies, whether intentionally or not, have allowed contractors to perform inherently governmental functions in the recent past.

For example, in 2009, the Department of Defense Office of Inspector General found that an Air Force contractor essentially performed inherently governmental functions while government employees played only a “perfunctory” role in approving the contractor’s work. In 2014, the Department of Veterans Affairs Office of Inspector General found that a “lack of oversight allowed” a contractor to perform inherently governmental tasks. And in 2009, the Department of Homeland Security Office of Inspector General found that Border Patrol “did not clearly distinguish between roles and responsibilities that were appropriate for contractors and those that must be performed by government workers because of the rush to fill program management positions.”

Given the power an individual ICE or Border Patrol agent is entrusted with, as well as the disasters the federal government has already experienced as a result of the roles private companies have played in the hiring of federal employees, it’s imperative that all hiring of federal employees be performed by government employees. ICE and Border Patrol shouldn’t create more problems for themselves than they are trying to solve.