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Friction with the US Border Patrol’s “strident” employee union is complicating efforts to improve workforce morale and agency culture, US Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Chris Magnus said.
The National Border Patrol Council, which represents about 18,000 agents, is an outspoken critic of President Joe Biden’s immigration policies and has endorsed many of the administration’s Republican adversaries at the state and federal level.
“It’s hard when you have that very political influence constantly pushed out there,” Magnus said in an interview. He pointed to people who say “everything is wrong about policy and practice of what you’re doing,” calling such opinions “hard to compete against.”
Magnus described the dynamic in a wide-ranging conversation Thursday with Bloomberg reporters and editors. He also responded to recent criticism that he’s been disengaged in some parts of his job and uninformed in others.
National Border Patrol Council President Brandon Judd pushed back on Magnus’s critiques of the union’s political messaging.
“Our agents want us to go after Commissioner Magnus when he fails to do his job,” he said. “Our agents want us to be politically involved so that the public understands what is actually happening on the border.”
He added that 90% of Border Patrol agents are voluntary, dues-paying members of the union.
Magnus, the former police chief in Tucson, Ariz., has been in office a little less than a year and said he has ambitious plans to improve morale, accountability, and transparency in the agency.
He said most Border Patrol agents and Office of Field Operations officers — who work along the border and at ports of entry, respectively — have responded to changes professionally. “But there are always those loud voices who want to speak for everyone,” Magnus added.
The workforce strife is set against a backdrop of fast-changing border policies and contentious politics as the US struggles to respond to record numbers of migrant encounters at the US-Mexico border. The National Border Patrol Council says morale has taken a “deep plunge” as a result.
Magnus acknowledged the problem: “Morale, particularly within the Border Patrol, is not good.”
One recent point of frustration for Border Patrol agents is the handling of an investigation into the behavior of agents on horseback who were seen twirling their reins while pursuing Haitian migrants in Del Rio, Texas, last year. While the incident predated Magnus’s confirmation, he oversaw the completion of the probe, which found no evidence of agents striking migrants but did conclude they used excessive force. The union called the findings “shameful BS.”
The Department of Homeland Security, CBP’s parent agency, has struggled for years to improve workforce satisfaction, particularly in high-stress components such as CBP and the Transportation Security Administration.
Magnus touted efforts to increase mental health resources for personnel, hire employees to do processing work that has overloaded Border Patrol agents, and make smaller changes to respond to unique workforce concerns — such as crafting a pilot program for some K-9 handlers to take their dogs home at night rather than leave them in a kennel.
Judd, of the union, said Magnus can’t take credit for the processing help — the plans predated Magnus’s tenure — and argued the mental health initiatives rolled out so far haven’t addressed agent concerns about stigma and limitations on their ability to stay in the field.
Magnus said he expected significant pushback as the new leader of such a large agency. CBP has more than 60,000 employees.
He also dismissed complaints, reported this week in a Politico story that cited anonymous government sources, that he asks too many basic questions in some meetings and skips others.
“Not everybody is as enthusiastic or open to new folks coming in and starting to turn over some of the rocks,” Magnus said.
To contact the reporter on this story: Ellen M. Gilmer in Washington at firstname.lastname@example.org