— -- The number of U.S. Border Patrol agents has declined over the past year, despite President Donald Trump’s emphasis on increasing the ranks of the agency to carry out his border security agenda.
There are currently 19,407 agents, which is 335 fewer agents than 10 months ago, according to Customs and Border Protection (CBP) data.
However, CBP, which oversees Border Patrol hiring, said it expects that it will hire more agents before the end of the fiscal year is over. And the agency expects it will hire more total agents this year compared to last year.
The numbers "don’t tell the whole story," said CBP Office of Human Resources Management Assistant Commissioner Linda Jacksta.
"We’re starting to see some momentum. We’re starting to see some traction. We’ve implemented a number of improvements over the past two years. Those are starting to mature and take root," she told ABC News.
She acknowledged those implementations "take time," but said that for the first time in the last two years, the agency was starting to see "real gains."
In January, Trump signed an executive order directing CBP to immediately begin the process of hiring 5,000 additional Border Patrol agents. The order also called on Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to hire 10,000 federal agents and officers.
A recent Department of Homeland Security inspector general report found that both agencies are facing "significant challenges" in identifying, recruiting and hiring the number of law enforcement officers mandated in the executive orders.
The report also found that neither CBP nor ICE could provide "complete data to support the operational need or deployment strategies" for the additional 15,000 agents and officers they were directed to hire.
“We know that the president wants us to hire 5,000 agents, so we look forward to seeing how Congress enacts the budget for ’18 and that will tell us what we’re funded to hire, recognizing that we want to meet or exceed those goals to the greatest extent that we can," said Jacksta.
Another inspector general report, released in August, found that CBP administered polygraph tests to applicants after they had already given information "disqualifying" them from being hired.
The testing cost CBP about $5.1 million on more than 2,300 polygraphs, between 2013 and 2016, for applicants with “significant pre-test admissions of wrongdoing," including illegal drug use, drug smuggling, human trafficking, and in once case an applicant who, during the pre-test interview, admitted to participating in the gang rape of an intoxicated and unconscious woman.
This "slows the process for qualified applicants; wastes polygraph resources on unsuitable applicants; and will make it more difficult for CBP to achieve its hiring goals,” read the report.
CBP agreed with the report's findings and said it was taking steps to "aggressively" fix the testing issues.
Even before the executive order was issued, the agency was authorized by Congress to employ 21,370 agents, a number it hasn’t reached since 2013, according to the agency's watchdog.
Trump’s budget request for next year includes the hiring of 500 agents.
"We’re hopeful that Congress will approve the president’s budget,” Jacksta said.
She said the agency is looking ahead to fiscal year 2018, saying that 2017 was a “ramp-up year” in order to implement the capability to hire the agents that Trump has requested. “We’re well positioned,” to hire the 500 agents next year, she said.
Jacksta said that she’s "optimistic" for future hiring because of certain human resource metrics.
For example, CBP said that the attrition rate has dropped by about a percentage point since 2015, as well as a reduction in the time it takes to hire an agent.
“This applicant pool, we’re competing with a lot of other state, local, federal law enforcement organizations, we need to maintain our competitive edge and have an efficient hiring process so we don’t have people dropping out and taking other jobs,” she said.
Jacksta said that the department has “shored up its recruiting efforts,” citing a 106 percent increase in applicants for Border Patrol over the past two quarters, as well as a 54 percent increase in the number of veterans applying.
She also said that the "pass rate" for Border Patrol applicants has more than doubled in the past two years.
Today, the department has to go through around 100 people to hire one agent, but two years ago, CBP needed 270 applicants to hire one person, according to the department. Jacksta attributed that to the agencies’ increased “transparency” about the requirements to complete the hiring process.
However, according to the inspector general, Border Patrol would need around 750,000 applicants to meet the president’s goals.