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Story highlights

Trump has called for the hiring of an additional 5,000 Customs and Border Protection agents

CBP has struggled for years to hire enough agents for its mission

(CNN) —  

The Department of Homeland Security is exploring ways to make it easier to hire agents to help fulfill President Donald Trump’s ambitious border security plans, the agency confirmed Monday.

The move comes after Trump has called for the hiring of an additional 5,000 Customs and Border Protection agents – a tall task as the agency struggles to even fill its ranks at current levels due to stringent requirements and talent pool difficulties.

A Customs and Border Protection spokesman told CNN in a statement that while CBP would maintain “high standards” in recruiting personnel, it is looking for ways to beef up its staffing. The hiring process can take roughly 18 months.

“US Customs and Border Protection will maintain our current high standards of recruiting the best America has to offer,” spokesman Michael Friel said. “To meet our critical hiring needs, we are exploring ways to recruit individuals that the federal government has already vetted to work in sensitive positions, such as military and federal law enforcement officers while also working to omit redundancies in the hiring process.”

The statement follows reporting from Foreign Policy that an internal memo noted hiring changes would be needed to meet staffing goals.

The agency has struggled for years to hire enough agents for its mission. In 2010, Congress passed an anti-corruption bill that requires all agents to pass polygraph tests to combat the possibility that they could be blackmailed, bribed or compromised by gangs, cartels or criminals.

Loosening that requirement would likely require Congress’ help.

Congress did give the agency some flexibility in last year’s National Defense Authorization Act, allowing the Homeland Security secretary and CBP commissioner the ability to waive the polygraph requirement for any veteran that has an active Top Secret government clearance, and has already successfully passed a current single-scope background investigation.

It’s possible that could be expanded to more individuals by including those with Secret-level clearances, according to a source familiar with the Hill’s thinking on the subject, but doing so would increase the risk of less satisfactory agents.

While lawmakers would not consider removing the polygraph requirement altogether, this source said on the condition of anonymity to speak freely, there may be options that Congress would consider passing or accepting from CBP.

“Tweaks around the edges, for sure,” the source said. “Anything more than tweaks around the edges, they’ll take a hard look at it.”

One option could be accepting state or locally administered polygraphs, possibly with additional questions specific to CBP. The agency could also be more transparent throughout the process about its requirements regarding common issues like drug use and criminal backgrounds, so applicants withdraw sooner.

Problems date back years

The House Homeland Security Committee has been investigating the hiring issues for a year, stretching back to the Obama administration.

DHS officials testified last spring that even the entrance exam has been a barrier – 40% of applicants failed to show up or schedule one, officials said. And it can be difficult to find people who want to work in remote border regions.

The obstacles were substantial enough that in fiscal year 2015, CBP needed to hire 2,000 agents just to keep up with attrition. The officials identified other difficulties including competition with state and local hiring for first responders, and negative public opinion toward law enforcement careers.

DHS Secretary John Kelly told the House Homeland Security Committee last month that he doesn’t expect the process of adding more agents to be completed “within the next couple of years.”

And he pledged to not lower standards to meet the goal.

“We will add to the ranks of the ICE and Border Protection people as fast as we can, but we will not lower standards and we will not lower training,” Kelly said. “I’d rather have fewer and make sure that they’re high-quality people that are already serving in those organizations, already well-trained, but I will not skimp on the training and the standards.”

The CBP union, on the other hand, believes the agency is not properly administering the polygraph and thus rejecting qualified applicants.

The source familiar with lawmakers’ thinking said that CBP has a reputation of adversarial polygraph tests, which could possibly be alleviated by greater transparency in the process with applicants.

CNN’s René Marsh and Laura Jarrett contributed to this report.