CALIFORNIA– A few days ago, Law Enforcement Today told you about what is going on with US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) in Arizona.
Now, we have information for you regarding what’s happening at the southern border in California, particularly San Diego and Los Angeles.
I spoke with the National Treasury Employees Union (NTEU) Chapter 105 President Jorge Llanos, and Chapter 105 Treasurer Alfonso Ortiz. Chapter 105 represents over 4,000 public safety workers in San Diego County, including CBP employees.
I also spoke with NTEU Chapter 111 President Alfredia Clyde, whose chapter represents CBP in Los Angeles County.
First, we will start with Los Angeles.
A CBP agent has died this week, and for some reason I can’t find anything about it in the media.
Clyde spoke to me about it and even she had limited information on the agency’s loss, aside from the fact that Agent Van Dong was one of the nine confirmed COVID-19 cases among agents in LA County.
As I spoke to Clyde, she herself was under quarantine due to exposure to the virus and was experiencing symptoms. She was trying to keep herself healthy and stress-free, which isn’t an easy feat given her role as president of the chapter.
She is currently fighting for her fellow agents from home, trying to get them the protection they need and deserve.
Clyde told me:
“Officers are showing up to work day after day in complete fear. People aren’t getting enough information right now. They may say that there are two confirmed cases, but they don’t say who it was or if anyone else needs to quarantine because of exposure.
We all have spouses and kids and some of us have older parents living with us. We don’t know who is at risk.”
Clyde told me that some of the agents there have underlying health conditions and they aren’t being properly protected. Instead of planning to lower staff levels while things have slowed down due to the pandemic, they have every agent come into work.
Then when they’re all standing around for a few hours clustered together and doing nothing, the agency might come over and tell some of them to go home.
“There’s weather and safety leave and maybe 20% of the agency has been able to utilize it, but there’s no plan for it. They don’t have any kind of plan. They weren’t ready for something like this.”
Additionally, if a family member gets sick, the agent can’t use that type of leave for their care.
According to Clyde:
“If someone in the agent’s family is sick, they should absolutely be able to use the leave to take care of them. Most likely the agent is the one that exposed the family to it in the first place.”
Clyde was able to recall one specific incident as an example to how CBP is mismanaging the care of their staff during this time:
“One of our guys has upper respiratory issues. He talked to them about it and they said he could use his personal leave time to stay away from exposure. Well he’s had to take care of his sick wife and kids and he’s out of personal leave. He can’t just not get paid, so he’s stuck at work.”
Clyde told me that it’s a struggle for officers to be there at work every day:
“It concerns me, and it should concern the public because the agents, we are the first line of defense for what’s coming into our country. If the workers aren’t safe, we’re out there exposing everyone. Not just other agents, but the whole community.”
Law Enforcement Today grieves along with LA County CBP agents for the loss of Agent Dong.
Now onto San Diego. Jorge Llanos told me about issues they are having, which are twofold.
The first is the need for more resources to keep agents safe. There is a lack of personal protective equipment (PPE) that is completely unacceptable for the level of interactions the agents are encountering each day, in processing infected or possibly infected people, possible contaminated international mail, conveyances, packaging materials, containers, and many other types of exposures.
Llanos told me that they are requesting PPE along with other things:
“NTEU is requesting resources and funding to assist with equipment, specifically personal protective equipment (PPE), Plexiglass at pedestrian booths where we do our interactions with the travelers, compensation like hazard duty pay, and other costs associated with the COVID-19 health crisis. In addition, the implementation of Weather and Safety Leave.”
The second issue is the aforementioned weather and safety leave. If you read the article regarding Arizona’s issues, you’ll be familiar with it. If not, I can tell you briefly that it means agents would be allowed some extra days off to be in the safety of their own home. It may be one extra day a week, once every two weeks, or once a month, depending on staffing levels.
As soon as the NTEU and CBP agreed on the leave, the Department of Homeland Security, Acting Commissioner Mark Morgan and Acting Secretary Chad Wolf, stepped in an “paused” the agreement.
The explanation was that Border Patrol (who operates in between the ports of entry, while CBP focuses on the ports themselves) needs assistance.
#COVID19 pandemic: do not risk your health and the health of everyone you contact along the way to the United States. Restrictions at the U.S. border mean you will be expeditiously sent back. You will not be allowed to stay in the US. pic.twitter.com/aZXQGkcNlw
— CBP (@CBP) March 29, 2020
Llanos told me:
“The explanation received was that Border Patrol and Air and Marine needed assistance from us.
In our region of the country, we have not seen evidence that Border Patrol is dealing with an increase in workload during this pandemic. CBPO’s answered the call when Border Patrol needed help at the Southern border last year, but we have seen no need for it now.”
According to Llanos, if agents were to take a weather and safety leave day, they would be on stand-by status, so they could be called back to work at any time if they were needed.
“Weather and safety leave allowed them to protect themselves, their families and help stop the spread of coronavirus. It’s important to note that these arrangements were intended to be temporary, and would only last until the pandemic subsides.”
And yet they still couldn’t grant them the type of leave that would significantly limit their contact with people while still maintaining the utmost security at our southern border.
Llanos also said:
“Our employees primarily Officers are on the frontlines, and by definition, they cannot telework. They are affected by this pandemic just like everyone else. We have had employees at our ports whose relatives have fallen ill with COVID-19 and their lives are at risk, every day.
CBP employees have an important job to do, so the only way we can protect them is to limit the amount of time they are in contact with the traveling public or other groups of coworkers.”
It seems like a reasonable enough assertion, one filled with common sense. Oh, but there’s that phrase again, the one CBP doesn’t seem too familiar with.
Unfortunately, Llanos’ chapter is in the same situation as Arizona’s as well as far as morale is concerned. Getting the weather and safety leave stripped away was bad enough, but other things have shown the agents that they don’t matter in the eyes of CBP.
Another example of the shared North American approach to pandemic containment! @CBP, in collaboration with US & Mexican partners, expedited the secure entry & departure of Mexican crewmembers seeking a safe return home from the Celebrity Eclipse cruise ship docked in San Diego. pic.twitter.com/o5m4bJGDsr
— Acting Commissioner Mark Morgan (@CBPMarkMorgan) April 4, 2020
“CBP officers here in San Diego come into contact with large amounts of the traveling public every day. In the unfortunate event an officer is infected with COVID-19 we are potentially infecting thousands of people coming into our communities.
A perfect example is the Celebrity Eclipse Cruise Ship that was processed by our employees here in San Diego. CBP has disregarded the safety of the employees and by those actions have shown us that we are not important to them. As a result, the agency has undermined the safety of the American people we have sworn to protect.
We want to make it clear to our local leaders and our leaders in Washington D.C. that we will not sit idle and watch this happen to our employees without a fight.”
Law Enforcement Today is ready to do everything we can to help in that fight. We need to keep the agents safe at our borders, and in turn they can continue to keep our nation as safe as possible.
Alfonso Ortiz is Chapter 105’s Treasurer. I also spoke to him, and he told me that about three weeks ago, the agents in San Diego decided to start wearing masks during their shifts.
The agency told them they couldn’t.
Why, you might ask?
Because they didn’t want to cause fear and panic. Ortiz said:
“The union had to fight it. Our argument was that makes no sense-
“Stores are empty, people are already panicking. We are in a pandemic and we should be able to stay safe and wear masks. The only way we were allowed to wear masks in the end is when we called the assistant commissioner of CBP who finally said we were allowed to wear them.”
The agency is now providing one mask per agent per shift.
“The agency is more worried about traffic and traveler’s wait time than first responder health.
Our communities need to know what’s going on and what we’re allowing to come into our country. It’s going to effect us all, the same way, it doesn’t matter where you are at politically, economically, anything like that. It’s going to effect us all.”
Additionally, the Consulates in Tijuana and Nuevo Laredo are putting out videos to US Citizens in Mexico. What they’re saying is confusing and little frightening:
“The video tells US Citizens and US Residents to prepare to come back home or prepare to stay in Mexico for undetermined amount of time. This just adds to the fuel. What does the agency/government know that they are not telling us?”
That’s a great question. They’re obviously planning something. I can see not telling the general public at first until they get all of their ducks in a row, but why wouldn’t they tell the agents so they could properly prepare?
Regardless, Llanos assured me that the agents stand ready to uphold the oath they took:
“NTEU is committed to ensuring that the brave men and women at U.S. Customs and Border Protection are safe as they carry out their duties, and those brave men and women are dedicated to serving our country, even and especially in this time of unprecedented global crisis.
Our members, across the northern and southern borders stand ready to meet the challenges presented by COVID-19. We ask only that we receive the tools to do so.”
That they even have to ask is a little telling of where our nation stands in terms of border protection right now.
In the previous article on the southern border (which you can read here), I talked about how the Arizona Chapter president, Patricia Cramer, believes that President Trump isn’t getting a full report of what’s really going on from DHS.
That’s where Law Enforcement Today hopes to help: We are asking our readership to spread the word on this issue far and wide. Help us to help our nation’s CBP agents stay healthy and stay safe.
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