One month after Donald Trump’s stunning win to become the next president of the United States, the emboldened Border Patrol union is still celebrating his victory – and its newfound access to power.
Just as the union that represents immigration agents went out on a limb to endorse Trump, the National Border Patrol Council’s unprecedented – and widely assailed – decision to back the Republican presidential nominee hinged on his pledge to rip up the Obama administration’s immigration policies and executive actions when he takes office.
With their candidate now preparing to take office, the two unions have seen a marked upswing in morale following nearly a decade of what border and immigration officials describe as frustration with Barack Obama’s presidency, current and former agents say.
“We’re all celebrating that we’re all going to be doing more work,” said Brandon Judd, president of the National Border Patrol Council, which represents 16,500 agents. “The excitement is we are finally going to be able to do our jobs the way the law was written.”
To what extent that will happen is anyone’s guess. Trump’s enforcement and border security plans remain unclear, even as the president-elect has pledged to deport 2 million to 3 million immigrants and embraced immigration hard-liners such as attorney general nominee Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., and adviser Kris Kobach, the secretary of state of Kansas.
But Trump’s shifting position on a promised border “wall” and talk of his willingness to “work something out” with undocumented people who came to the country as children have left much speculation on what he actually will do.
The Border Patrol union got a sense of the shifting winds last week when word spread that Gen. John F. Kelly, a retired commander of the U.S. Southern Command – who lacks immigration experience – was the president-elect’s pick to lead the Homeland Security Department.
Kelly was not the union’s first choice, which Judd said he told Trump and Vice President-elect Mike Pence. Judd said the union won’t be cheerleaders for the incoming administration if Trump doesn’t follow through on his campaign promises.
“Gen. Kelly is inheriting a department that is consistently ranked at the bottom of all [f]ederal [a]gencies, and he’s not going to be able to secure the border if the morale in the agency isn’t turned around,” Judd wrote in an email. “If there aren’t drastic improvements in border security, President-elect Trump will have a difficult time in 2020.”
Judd and Chris Crane, president of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement union that represents about 5,000 immigration enforcement agents and deportations officers, have both met with Trump and his transition team at Trump Tower in New York. Among the topics during a 20-minute meeting with Trump late last month was whether the border really will be secured, which Judd assured him it could, he said. Crane declined an interview request, saying it “was not a good time for me.”
Neither ICE nor Customs and Border Protection, the Border Patrol’s parent agency, could say whether Trump’s win had spurred an increase in applicants or morale.
“It is too early to see any impact from the recent election. It is also too soon to determine any trends, especially when it comes to recruiting efforts,” Customs and Border Protection spokesman Carlos Diaz wrote in an email. “That said, CBP has a robust recruiting effort under way.”
The change in administration comes at a flashpoint for border security and the country’s immigration system. A surge of migrants from Central America to the southern U.S. border has forced Homeland Security officials to erect temporary holding facilities to house them in West and South Texas, according to Customs and Border Protection officials.
The pending caseload in immigration courts has soared to more than half a million. And health officials are shuffling funds to pay for unaccompanied children who have arrived in numbers that exceed the crisis levels in 2014.
Border Patrol union officials anticipate that, under the Trump administration, agents will be allowed to return to random checks of bus stations, trains and other transportation hubs, an enforcement strategy the Obama administration limited to specific cases. They also anticipate reinvigorating partnerships with state and local law enforcement to find and arrest immigrants already in the country who have committed crimes.
Judd said that any anxiety that the Border Patrol and immigration agents are going to round up immigrants is unfounded. Agents won’t be waiting to catch students coming out of class on college campuses, he said.
“The focus is going to be let’s secure the border and worry about criminal aliens here in the United States,” he said, while also acknowledging that many are left guessing what definition of criminal Trump plans to use. “We’re not going to target Joe Blow noncitizen. We’re going to go after those here illegally who think they can break laws with impunity.”
Both Judd and Crane have opposed efforts to normalize the immigration status of undocumented people. The Border Patrol union recently blasted the agency’s current chief, Mark Morgan, saying he doesn’t have the will to secure the border because of comments he recently made supporting immigration reform during a Senate Homeland Security committee hearing, among other reasons.
Morgan shot back at critics last week with a full-throated denial that he supports “blanket amnesty.”
In an email message sent to all Border Patrol agents, Morgan said that the transition to a Trump administration “is absolutely an exciting time – as we have a great opportunity to ‘tell our story.’ ” Morgan became the chief in July after a career in the FBI interrupted briefly in 2014 by a stint as Customs and Border Protection’s acting head of internal affairs.
In Morgan’s email, obtained by Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting, he also took potshots at the Obama administration’s enforcement policies and its response to the surge of migrants that have overwhelmed the federal government.
He echoed previous statements that the Border Patrol is not trained and not the right agency to participate in what he called the ongoing “humanitarian/refugee mission” at the U.S.-Mexico border.
“Simply stated, providing professional childcare and other similar services, should be left to other agencies to manage and facilitate,” he wrote, saying that the Border Patrol’s involvement is “having a negative impact on our ability to get back to the border to do what this country expects of us.”
He said he supports immigration reform that “allows us to enforce current laws without being impeding (sic) by limiting ‘enforcement priorities,’ ” bolsters immigration courts and curtails releasing asylum seekers into the country before their cases are resolved.
Over the past two years, recently arrived migrants have failed to show up to immigration courts at high rates, according to the Justice Department’s Executive Office for Immigration Review.
More than 80 percent of the more than 39,000 cases involving unaccompanied children, families and recent border crossers between mid-July 2014 and the end of August 2016 ended with immigration judges’ orders to remove them from the country when they failed to show up to their hearings, court statistics show.
Union officials also said that efforts to track down and deport those with removal orders could be ramped up under Trump.
Pro-immigration groups and civil rights advocates are planning for the worst, gripped by fear of the team Trump is assembling and his campaign rhetoric of mass deportations. Their gloomy mood is not lightened by the prospects that broad immigration reform legislation, which appeared dead on arrival over the past eight years, could have new life with Republican control of the White House and Congress.
“For Trump’s first nominee to be Jeff Sessions – it was like the shot heard around the immigration world – from both legal and undocumented perspectives,” said Ali Noorani, executive director of the National Immigration Forum, a pro-immigration advocacy group. “He’s going to go after folks with a vengeance previously unheard of, because his people know the system inside and out.”
Michele Waslin, a policy analyst at the American Immigration Council, said that advocacy groups like her organization are looking at their options to challenge Trump’s efforts.
“I see the lawsuits coming,” said John Torres, a former acting head of Immigration and Customs Enforcement who said he was named in about 130 lawsuits when he held top positions with the agency during the Bush and Obama administrations. “I’ve said they need to make sure they are current and up-to-date on liability insurance.”
For some policy experts, Trump’s image as a wheeling-and-dealing businessman may offer insight into his stance on an immigration overhaul.
“Trump might be the the dealmaker-in-chief,” said Theresa Brown who leads the immigration program at the Bipartisan Policy Center, a Washington, D.C., think tank. “I understand immigrants are afraid, but we could get an opportunity for legislative reform if people put efforts toward it.”
This story was edited by Jennifer LaFleur and copy edited by Nadia Wynter.
Andrew Becker can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter: @ABeckerCIR.