U.S. Border Patrol Chief Ron Vitiello, who was ceremonially sworn in on Tuesday, said that a border wall done “right” will be important and effective.
Vitiello takes office at a time when Border Patrol, which is overseen by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), is the face of many of the Trump administration’s policies on immigration enforcement.
Trump has repeatedly called for the building of a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border — a pillar of his campaign promises to stem the tide of drugs and people coming into the U.S.
The president’s executive order, signed at the end of January, calls for “the immediate construction of a physical wall on the southern border,” to be monitored and supported by “adequate personnel” to prevent illegal immigration, drug and human trafficking, and acts of terrorism.
“Placement is important, where it is in relation to the actual boundary and then what kind of equipment and resources support it because in it of itself, it won’t do that job,” said Vitiello in an interview with ABC News.
“Somebody has to arrest the people who are going to continue to attempt to enter even if there is a border wall,” he said.
He added that the wall will also need the right surveillance technology and sensing equipment to let agents when where people are attempting to cross. It will be Border Patrol’s role to inform the administration about where it thinks the best locations are to begin construction and where a wall would be most useful along the border.
Vitiello, who began as a Border Patrol agent in 1985, said that the biggest challenge the agency faces is “to prepare ourselves to grow.”
“That’s always challenging to do that the right way,” said Vitiello.
The same executive order also called for the hiring of an additional 5,000 additional Border Patrol agents. All agents begin their career on the U.S.-Mexico border, which is where these new agents will be deployed.
According to Vitiello, Border Patrol is actually looking to hire around 6,700 agents, plus support staff, to first reach the congressional mandate of 21,370 agents and add an additional 5,000 on top of that. Border Patrol hasn’t had the minimum number required by Congress for a few years, said Vitiello.
During past hiring surges, Border Patrol has come under fire for ramping up too quickly, lowering standards and hiring underqualified agents.
“Our challenge is that we’re not hiring as fast as we do lose people to retirements and to other agencies,” he said.
At the same time, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) is trying to hire an additional 10,000 agents, mandated by executive order, and both agencies draw from a similar marketplace of applicants.
Vitiello said the agency looked at what happened in the past and found that the length of the time at the training academy was too short.
“We’ve made that adjustment and going forward to newer academy curriculum will be longer, they will stay there longer and learn more things before they leave,” he said.
He also said that DHS has committed to maintaining hiring standards, including all of the pass/failure requirements, all of the testing and the polygraph exams.
In February, DHS announced that from January to February, the flow of illegal border crossings, which is measured by apprehensions, at the U.S.-Mexico border dropped by 40 percent.
The trend is continuing into March, said Vitiello, who credited the drop to changes in enforcement policy.
Once the apparatus of the enforcement continuum was strengthened, it reduced the flow because people will not come to the U.S. if they cannot be successful in making it into the society, he said.
He said that while the drop began because of perception, changes in policy are now taking effect on the border, specifically, more people are now being detained while they await court dates, instead of let into the U.S. and asked to return on their own.
“I think the policies now support the perception that ‘you will not be successful’, so fewer will try,” he added.