Q&A with Border Patrol Chief Ronald Vitiello

SAN ANTONIO—U.S. Border Patrol Chief Ronald Vitiello heads an agency in the midst of transformation.

President Donald Trump’s focus on combating illegal immigration has put a spotlight on the agency and its mission, even as apprehensions of people trying to illegally cross the southwest border have dropped in recent monthsMr. Trump has ordered the hiring of 5,000 additional agents, but the agency is struggling to fill the openings it already has.

Meanwhile, the president’s campaign promise to build a solid wall along the 2,000-mile border with Mexico faces legal and political obstacles. Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly backed away from the idea of a continuous wall, although the government is accepting bids to design it. Chief Vitiello says it’s possible the government could double the 654 miles of fencing that already exists along the border.

Dallas-based Wall Street Journal reporter Dan Frosch caught up with Chief Vitiello in San Antonio at a border-security conference to ask him about the wall and why so many would-be border agents can’t pass a lie-detector test.

In terms of the wall, how much of a physical barrier or additional fencing would you like to see?

It will be a substantial amount. I can’t be precise with my answer. What we’ve done in response to the executive order and the [Homeland Security] secretary’s implementation memo is ask the field, the people who are closest to the problem, where they think a wall helps them do their job. We’ve gotten submissions based on that framework. I think it will be a lot.

When you say ‘a lot,’ are we talking double the 654 miles of fencing we already have?

It’s possible. We don’t have a precise plan yet. Just to clarify, we talk about a wall—we’re not talking about just the physical structure. We’re talking about access roads, we’re talking about easement to that wall…and all the technology that goes along with it.

Do you want to be able to see through the wall so you can see across the border?

It depends on where it’s at. At the immediate border, the fencing that we use now to maximum effect are versions of “see through,” so that is optimal if it is on the border itself.

Apprehensions have fallen dramatically. You could conceivably make the argument that the border is more under control now than it has been for a long time. What is the justification to bringing on 5,000 more agents?

Because the border’s not going away. That line—our responsibility to control and patrol that space—still exists. Right now, the mandate has changed—the executive order establishes “prevent all entry.” You could argue that 5,000 might not be enough to meet that standard. I’ve had a long career. I’ve seen the ebbs and flows of traffic. And it’s always been crippling to us, because people talk about arrests like that’s the only thing that happens. But those arrests are generated by criminal cartels, who send commodities and people to the border and bad things into the United States. That scenario isn’t going to change.

Is the drop an anomaly, or are we beginning to see a long-term trend?

Critics say the memo that was put out by the acting commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection about the changes to the polygraph program…they say that is, in essence, lowering the standards. How do you respond?

I don’t agree. We met the mandate of the Anti-Border Corruption Act of 2010 to make sure that all CBP law-enforcement personnel get a polygraph. But I think we built that program in haste, and I don’t think we built that program in the context of the need to hire people and beat the attrition. And now on top of that, we’ve been added 5,000 people. If somebody already has a federal polygraph, why would we want to do that again? If somebody already successfully applied to the Secret Service and passed a polygraph exam and didn’t get hired because they took another job somewhere else and now are applying to us, isn’t that just fine as long as there is not a lot of time lag in between? Prior law-enforcement officers, officers in the military who have a high security clearance who have to pass a rigid background exam to hold on to that clearance, those are the kind of things that the commissioner’s memo asks for discussion and relief on, and I think they’re appropriate.

And the alternative polygraph?

I think that’s an economization of resources. The bandwidth that CBP has to do many tests for many applicants is low. This test is rigorous and certified, but it’s a shorter test. There are fewer questions. We think it has merit. We’ll take a look at it. If the effect is the same, and they pass a certified federal polygraph, and it maintains our standard, I think it’s worth looking at.

Why do so many applicants fail the polygraph right now?

I don’t know. We struggle with this question…I’m not really sure. I think it’s a combination of things. You know, we have a standard for prior drug use for every applicant. It’s obviously critical in the work we ask our people to do. So I think some in our society, this generation of young people, believe they can’t admit to drug use if they want to be a law-enforcement officer. The fact is, the standard allows for illicit use but not addiction, sales or commercial use. People are afraid to admit their normal behavior and put that on paper. When they get in front of the exam, they then have to be shown a piece of paper that says “I’ve never done this,” and they sign under penalty of perjury. And on the polygraph exam, they end up admitting that wrongdoing.