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CBP union official calls for border closure to protect agents

The agency has discontinued its “Safety and Weather Leave” policy, which would have allowed agents to take paid leave under extenuating circumstances


A pedestrian wears a protective mask as he passes the entrance to the McAllen Hidalgo International Bridge, Saturday, March 21, 2020, in Hidalgo, Texas.

AP Photo/Eric Gay

The most effective way to protect the front-line officers of the United States Customs and Border Protection from COVID-19 is to shut down the border with Mexico, says a union official.

John Monahan, president of the El Paso Local 143 of the National Treasury Employee Union which represents Customs and Border Protection officers, contends his officers are at higher risk for exposure manning their posts at land, sea, and airports of entry.

“You would have to keep the commercial lanes open for commerce, but you could shut down the bridges where the cars and pedestrians cross and just keep a security force there to make sure no one came across,” said Monahan. “The manpower would be greatly reduced, and they would not be exposed as they are now.”

Monahan was quick to say this is a suggestion that has not been formalized and is of his own opinion.

The issue isn’t for a lack of personal protective equipment, Monahan says, or even the limitation to essential cross-border traffic, but the disproportionate response using his members to maintain border security.

“The shifts at some ports have been reduced, but overall have remained the same,” Monahan said of the busy El Paso sector.

He says there are actually more agents at the border than needed and even with the lower traffic, puts an unnecessary number of agents at risk for infection. Cross-border traffic has declined by 75%.

He says six of his officers have tested positive just in the El Paso sector. More than 160 agents have tested positive nationwide.

At the crux of the issue, according to Monahan, is the agency discontinuing its “Safety and Weather Leave” policy that would allow agents to take paid leave under extenuating circumstances.

“We were supposed to be given ‘Safety and Weather Leave’ according to the Department of Homeland Security, but Acting Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Mark Morgan canceled it for all officers along the northern and southwest border on April 6,” said Monahan.

National NTEU President Tony Reardon fired off a letter to Acting DHS Secretary Chad Wolf: “The temporarily revised work schedules in CBP’s Office of Field Operations that enabled more time off for officers represented CBP at its best, responding to a crisis. The adjustments were the product of urgent discussions between employee representatives and management, with the twin goals of delivering the mission while promoting the health of the officers.”

Reardon went on to say mission effectiveness could be compromised with more agents being exposed to COVID-19.

According to a February 7 directive from the U.S. Office of Personnel Management, an agency may grant leave, “when an asymptomatic employee is subject to movement restrictions under the direction of public health authorities in connection with a quarantinable communicable disease.”

The leave protocols also stipulate “an agency may consider such factors as; the level of likelihood that an employee has been exposed to COVID-19; the fact that an employee is in a category for which there is a higher risk of serious complications from COVID-19; and transmission of the disease in the local community.”

“CBP is making a grave mistake by rescinding these adjusted schedules,” according to Reardon. “CBP has not given us a valid reason for sending more front-line federal employees into harm’s way than is necessary, so we are asking CBP leadership to reverse this short-sighted decision and restore the ports’ ability to protect the health and safety of CBP employees.”

One example of the vulnerability of agents to exposure is a report that was on the website claiming agents at the Dulles Airport processed over 14,000 travelers between March 20 and April 8 returning to the U.S. as the virus accelerated worldwide.

On March 20, the U.S. and Mexico announced a joint initiative to limit bi-national travel only to that which is determined to be essential.

Joseph J. Kolb, MA, is the executive director for the Southwest Gang Information Center, master instructor for the New Mexico Law Enforcement Academy and instructor in the Criminal Justice program at Western New Mexico University. He is also the mail officer for the Santa Fe (NM) County Adult Detention Facility.