EL PASO, Texas (Border Report) — The deadline for all federal employees to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19 is now less than a month away, prompting many to weigh what little options they have.
On Nov. 22, all federal employees, including the men and women who protect the border, must be fully vaccinated against the coronavirus under an executive order in President Joe Biden’s “Path Out of the Pandemic” COVID-19 Action Plan.
“As a (Department of Homeland Security) federal employee, you must be fully vaccinated by November 22, 2021, unless you have received or have requested an exemption for religious or medical reasons,” says a notice on the DHS website. “All DHS federal employees, including those who seek an exemption from the vaccination requirement for religious or medical reasons, must provide their vaccination status, upload proof of vaccination and certify the truthfulness of your vaccination status and proof.”
The executive order has come under fire, with lawmakers publicly opposing the mandate on behalf of agents from the Border Patrol and Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers.
On Friday, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton sued the Biden administration to stop the mandate forcing federal contractors’ employees to get a COVID-19 vaccine.
Nearly four dozen Republican members of Congress joined U.S. Rep. Tony Gonzales, who represents a congressional district from San Antonio to the edges of El Paso County, in sending a letter to the White House, specifically opposing the vaccine mandate for Border Patrol and ICE agents.
The lawmakers argue that a vaccine mandate will make it difficult for the agencies to retain their already-limited workforce, especially after a record-breaking year for apprehensions at the border.
“Our men and women in the Border Patrol have worked tirelessly to manage the crisis at our southern border,” the letter said. “This year especially, they have been subject to extraordinary amounts of mental and physical stress. With morale at an all-time low, this mandate will serve as the last straw for agents who can easily leave the agency for other law enforcement organizations at the state and local level or retire.”
Unauthorized migration reached an all-time high, with more than 1.7 million migrants apprehended at the Southwest border and 1.9 million nationwide.
Those are numbers that Victor M. Manjarrez Jr., a former U.S. Border Patrol chief in El Paso and Tucson, Arizona, says he’s never seen.
But he said the hesitancy from Border Patrol agents to get the vaccine goes beyond fatigue and stress.
Manjarrez told Border Report that agents with whom he’s spoken feel the Biden administration isn’t favorable to law enforcement.
Border agents are thinking, “Numbers have been high, plus a lack of concern, and now you’re telling me I have to get it?” said Manjarrez, who is now the associate director at the Center for Law and Human Behavior at the University of Texas at El Paso.
Manjarrez noted that the Border Patrol budget during the Trump administration’s final year went nearly unchanged, increasing slightly during the Biden administration’s first year in office. Still, Manjarrez said, there is a belief among agents that Trump was favorable to law enforcement.
“It was the perception,” he said.
Manjarrez agrees that the decision to get the vaccine should be a personal one and that certain mandates should come at the time of employment.
“It’d be one thing if it was a condition of employment,” he said.
However, he said he’d tell his agents to consider what they could lose in the long run if they choose not to take the vaccine, including their salaries, seniority, vacation, and other benefits.
Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, 11,920 federal CBP employees test positive for the coronavirus; 51 have died, according to CBP data. The state of Texas has had the most positive tests with 4,229.
The National Border Patrol Council said that it has instructed its seven attorneys to drop all other matters to study the vaccine mandate and develop strategies to “attack” Biden’s executive order.
In a statement, however, the NBPC said, “After spending several days reviewing all pertinent laws, to include all relevant case law, our attorneys determined the (executive order) was legal and that there was no viable avenue of challenge,” adding that it will continue working on the issue.
Richard Pineda, director of the Sam Donaldson Center for Communication Studies at the University of Texas at El Paso, says the choices are few for Border Patrol agents.
“Because they are a federal agency, they’re governed by federal rules first. As part of the Department of Homeland Security, Border Patrol agents are answering to federal regulations in a very, very different fashion,” he said.
Pineda said opponents of the vaccine mandate, like the NBPC, might argue that agents should be subject to the laws of the state in which they work, but that is not the case.
“A Border Patrol agent stopping someone who is undocumented or suspected of being undocumented is not enforcing state law, they never are enforcing state law, they’re enforcing federal law,” Pineda said. “Now, the Border Patrol union will make the case that the state law should be what they’re following, but they’re engaged in as much of this sort of political, rhetorical tug of war as anything else. But any federal agency is mandated totally different, and their responsibility to the supremacy of federal law is really without question.”