TUCSON, AZ - The president of the agency representing more than 3,000 border patrol agents in Southern Arizona says morale has improved in the first month of the Trump administration.
"There's definitely been a shift in attitude, different shift in expectations, agents are feeling empowered to do their job. We see a President who is enforcing laws already on the books," said Art Del Cueto, president of the Local 2544 border patrol union.
He added that agents have expressed they felt "handcuffed" under the Obama administration and were extremely frustrated with "catch and release" policies that sent illegal immigrants back out into the community before their day in court.
Del Cueto said many of them did not show up for their hearings.
"If they didn't have any prior [arrests] you would basically release them back out into the shadows, even though they didn't have any documentation to be here in the country legally," said Del Cueto.
Agents felt they were arresting illegal immigrants only to watch them be released back out into the community again, according to Del Cueto.
"Another frustrating part was the individuals we're arresting at the time, they knew they were going to get released. They would even mock the agents and say 'there's nothing you're going to do to be anyway,' that's very frustrating," said Del Cueto.
The ACLU is fighting back, saying releasing illegal immigrants to await their court hearings is simply due process, and that the Trump administration is trampling on basic rights and human decency. It is planning to fight his executive actions on immigration in court.
In regard to the border wall, Del Cueto said union members felt a wall would help keep illegal immigrants out, but stressed that more agents and technology was also important.
"What I tell people is someone can still break into my house at night, but I'm still locking that door. So just because someone is going to still break the law doesn't mean you ignore it and let lawlessness continue," said Del Cueto.
President Trump also announced a mass hiring of 15,000 agents for ICE and Border Patrol. The union welcomed the news, saying they were understaffed in Southern Arizona, but they are also raising concerns about the hiring process.
Many open jobs remain vacant at Border Patrol, not because of a shortage of candidates, but because of the hiring practices, said Del Cueto.
He said his office is hearing horror stories from many candidates who have had to endure 8-9 hours of polygraph testing. He also questioned why so many qualified candidates were being dismissed after having inconclusive or negative polygraphs.
"We're looking at people that have just come back from the military, they've had clearance in the military, and all of a sudden they're not passing this particular polygraph testing," said Del Cueto.
He added that some of these candidates had successfully passed polygraphs at other law enforcement agencies and started working for the ATF, FBI, and local law enforcement agencies.
"You can promise us 5 million agents, but you need to do something about the hiring process itself. They're good enough for FBI and ATF, so why are they not good enough for the Border Patrol? There's something there that needs to be fixed and investigated, obviously," said Del Cueto.