photo of Border Patrol checkpoint with cars lined up waiting for clearance or inspection

Border Patrol Follows Trump’s Lead – “We Don’t Need No Stinkin’ COVID-19 Masks”


by Richard Cameron


Border Patrol follows Trump’s Lead on masks


Numerous reports are surfacing that indicate Customs and Border Patrol agents in the Southwest region, including the Tucson sector, the border crossing at Nogales, San Diego and El Paso, Texas, are neglecting to don PPE (Personal Protective Equipment) in their interactions with the public.

It’s apparent that there is a widespread attitude of dismissal among the inspection agents, officers and other personnel, that wearing N-95 masks is essentially important in preventing the spread of the COVID-19 virus.  The public has raised objections to this display of negligence, but the recalcitrants in the ranks of CBP are taking their cues, not from concerned citizens, but from the President of the United States, Donald Trump.

Trump’s visit on Wednesday to a Honeywell plant in Phoenix, Arizona, was a textbook example of his narcissism, willful negligence and perverse aversion to demonstrating that the novel coronavirus that has now claimed 77,000 Americans, is something that he needs to exemplify leadership on. 

Instead, he and Vice President Pence are communicating that the infections and deaths are trivial. While not wearing a mask, Trump issued hollow and insincere accolades to the employees and management at the Honeywell plant.

“You’re part of this incredible industrial mobilization — the biggest since World War II, hard to believe — for an invisible enemy. But it’s a vicious enemy, a smart enemy.”

Trump believes that the importance of his office, exempts him from personal responsibility.  Trump said he couldn’t see himself meeting with “presidents, prime ministers, dictators, kings, queens” while wearing a mask. This despite the fact that he has not been meeting with any such heads of state in recent months.  His sons Don Jr. and Eric and son-in-law Jared Kushner have not been seen wearing protective masks either.

Trump’s capricious and immature message has not gone un-noticed by like minded CBP personnel. Melissa Spencer, who must pass through a Tucson sector checkpoint in Amado on Interstate 19 numerous times during each week because she is a caregiver for her elderly mother in law, reports seeing at most, officers wearing the masks, 50 percent of the time.  “Every time you go there, you’re expected to stop and they’re standing there two to three feet away, which I don’t see really a way around,” said Spencer.

Border patrol checkpoint at Interstate 19 in Arizona

Commuters are witnessing the same syndrome at the Nogales border crossing station. Joseph Hill of Nogales, Arizona, who crosses the border several times per week, per his job responsibilities, notified local news, Nogales International that “almost every” CBP officer he sees isn’t wearing a face mask, and noted that  port officials on the Mexican side of the border are following suit.

“I find this disturbing, both because they are frontline workers who have to come into contact with lots of people (and who lots of people have to come into contact with) and because of the example they are (not) setting,” Hill wrote.

The CBP is making representations that they are putting public safety and the safety of their personnel, first and foremost.  Their section of the DHS website proclaims:

“U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) is working closely with the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and other federal, state, and local agencies to support the whole-of-government effort to slow the spread of COVID-19 and keep everyone safe.”

Dr. David Tarantino, CBP’s senior medical advisor, echoes this rhetoric, stating:

“CBP developed a comprehensive, mission-specific, risk-based job hazard analysis and personal protective equipment assessment. This analysis is based on guidance from the Department of Homeland Security, CDC and other experts.  In addition, it advises CBP employees what they should do for protective equipment: gloves, face masks and respirators for direct contact with high-risk passengers down to maybe just good hygiene techniques for those in offices or working from home.”

While that may be in theory, it’s not playing out at ground level. Essential commuter, Robert Bianchi, described to San Diego CBS 8, in this report,  how pointing out to agents that they are derelict in not using masks, resulted in verbal abuse and retaliation. 



And it’s not that the CBP front line personnel have not been issued the equipment.  CBP Officer Shannice Brown asserts:

“There is a good amount of personal protective equipment – masks, gloves, hand sanitizer, disinfectant wipes, etc. – available to all of our officers. Even before this outbreak, [personal protective equipment] was always available. It’s an officer safety concern.”

Supplying the equipment and communicating the critical nature of using it, are one thing and another in the field.

Another commuter, Shawn Dolan, told Nogales International he didn’t expect to see CBP officers not wearing COVID-19 protection upon returning to the U.S. from San Carlos, Sonora in mid-April.

Because he called the absence of the mask to the attention of the primary officer, he was directed to secondary inspection. Evidently, pointing out they are careless in not employing protective masks, is something that makes one more suspicious to agents and subject to further inconvenience and harassment. 

Dolan said, he was sent to the secondary inspection area, where he was met by five more officers.

“I put on my face mask and my gloves and I roll down my windows and I go, ‘I’m not trying to be obnoxious here guys, but you’re not wearing PPE. And they’re like, ‘We don’t have to wear PPE, it’s not mandatory.’ And I said, ‘It should be. I don’t know whose policy this is, but the idea that you deal with the public all day long and you’re not wearing gloves and a mask is just stupidity,’”

“I’m sorry, but I don’t want to get this stuff, and the last thing I want to do is give it to my mom,” he recalled telling a port official when he called to complain the next day. 

Dolan said he was eventually told to leave the secondary area, but he was concerned about CBP officers having inspected the interior of his vehicle without wearing PPE.  When he insisted that officers disinfect his vehicle following the inspection, they refused, he said.

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Not surprisingly, officials from this agency in the sectors they represent, issue boilerplate statements that deflect from the reality of their behavior. A representative of CBP’s Tucson Field Office issued a response to press inquiries that read, “Nothing is more important than the safety of our workforce and the American people. CBP will continue to take every necessary precaution in order to keep our employees, their families and the American people safe during the COVID-19 pandemic.”

The only thing that can be discerned from this is that actually wearing the equipment is not a “necessary precaution”, either from a management or rank and file perspective.

The Tucson Field office maintains that the personnel have “ready access” to PPE such as nitrile gloves and N95 respirators, and have been provided guidance on how to use the equipment. The bottom line, however, is that the access is not a directive, but obviously, little more than a suggestion. 

Joanna Williams is Director of Education and Advocacy at the Kino Border Initiative, a Jesuit ministry dedicated to aiding migrants in Nogales.  She points out that although CBP is vigorously applying Title 42 to immediately return asylum-seekers and migrants to Mexico – ostensibly for the reason of protecting the health of border officers, they are operating in a fashion that contradicts the premise behind the mission: 

“we have observed that they have not even implemented basic steps to protect public health at the Nogales ports. The vast majority of officers at Nogales ports are not wearing masks and in some sites, such as at the entrance to the Mariposa port, several officers stand within a feet or two of each other, in disregard of social distancing guidelines.”

The president of Chapter 143 of the National Treasury Employees Union (NTEU), John Monahan, who represents CBP officers in the El Paso sector, states that officers are allowed to wear whatever PPE they choose.

“It’s personal protective equipment so it’s a personal thing.” Monahan adds, “I wear (a mask) every place I go, but we can’t make them wear it, and I don’t think it would be right to require it.”

But this begs the question, “why would it not be right to require it?” There is no conceivably legitimate excuse why something so fundamental to the safety and well being of both the employees of CBP and the public, should be optional., spoke with Jared Lunkenheimer, a family physician who passes through two checkpoints between his home in Arivaca and the clinic where he works in Nogales every day. He said he doesn’t see Border Patrol agents wearing masks.

“We must wear masks, performing our clinical duties or even being in our office with our coworkers,” he said. “So for there not to be a directive higher up from Border Patrol just seems to me like BP really feels like they are immune somehow.”

Despite the evidence that there is widespread failure to adopt critical measures to prevent more infections – among them being that the agency reports a doubling of coronavirus cases (330), since early April, CBP continues to pretend they are fulfilling their responsibilities. 

Trump, for his part, in terms of his conduct, is effectively telegraphing his true attitude to his political base on the severity of this pandemic. The proof is in the polling data.  

An ABC News/ Ipsos poll released last week showed that 69% of Democrats reported having worn a face mask or covering when away from home in the past week, while only 47% of Republicans said the same. 

Professor of health communication at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, Dr. K. “Vish” Viswanath, explained that people take notice when a national leader’s behavior contradicts the advisories of their own cabinet officials. “At the very least, it confuses people,” he said. “At the very worst, it might even cause them to question if these rules apply to them or if the message is really that critical.”

And that is what is happening, continues to happen and will happen going forward.

Trump is playing chicken with the virus. His personal valet, it has just been reported, has tested positive for COVID-19 and Trump persists in denialist optics, such as staging briefings of the coronavirus task force with the members and himself in close proximity that clearly defy the social distancing guidelines.  

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