Mark Morgan has been ousted as chief of the U.S. Border Patrol. Credit: Courtesy of U.S. Customs and Border Protection

With the country deeply divided over Donald Trump’s presidency as he takes steps toward mass deportations, pushes forward with a border wall and ramps up tension with Mexico with a proposed 20 percent import tax, the union that represents nearly 17,000 Border Patrol agents is flexing its muscles like never before.

Thursday’s ouster of Border Patrol Chief Mark Morgan, a former FBI official who was the first outsider to run the agency in its 93-year history, is the latest display of the National Border Patrol Council’s rising political power and its status as a Trump darling.

Morgan’s departure came a day after Trump signed executive orders to begin immediate construction of a border wall and to expand the Border Patrol by 5,000 agents, among other aggressive policy moves on immigration.

At a time when the nation’s unions are at their weakest on record, the National Border Patrol Council is ascendant. And with Trump’s call to add thousands of agents, the union’s strength may only grow. In helping to push out the chief of the Border Patrol, the union has the president’s ear not only in shaping policy, but also in who runs a key part of the nation’s largest law enforcement agency.

“There was a real disconnect there” with Morgan and the union, said Shawn Moran, a spokesman for the union, which called for Morgan’s removal and replacement with Ronald Vitiello, who served as acting chief before him.

With its own podcast, an active presence on Twitter and frequent media appearances, the National Border Patrol Council has nearly free range to speak up and speak out, sounding at times like the de facto voice of the agency. But that also has put union officials at odds with some Border Patrol leaders.

Long a lobbying force when bargaining with leadership, representing agents under scrutiny or acting as a ground-truth squad on Capitol Hill, the union last year backed Trump’s bid for the White House. Trump, in turn, has given the union favored status.

Brandon Judd, the union’s president, downplayed the its role in pushing out Morgan or influencing who runs the Border Patrol or its parent agency, U.S. Customs and Border Protection. He said Morgan “did himself a disservice” with public statements he made and failing to clarify his meaning. The union aims to work as partners with the agency, he said.

“I don’t believe the union should run the agency, nor will I ask the administration for the union to run the agency,” he said. “It shouldn’t happen that way.”

The National Border Patrol Council bucked most other unions – and its own history – with its endorsement, the first time it publicly supported a presidential candidate. What seemed like a Hail Mary pass to throw its support behind Trump’s candidacy clearly was a touchdown as campaign promises morph into actual policy.

The union’s access to the White House appears unprecedented, as Judd submitted to the transition team a list of potential candidates for commissioner of Customs and Border Protection, he said. Judd declined to name the preferred candidates, citing an agreement not to discuss such matters.

As Trump announced his plans Wednesday at the Department of Homeland Security in Washington, Border Patrol agents sat front and center. The president acknowledged them when he said how badly the border wall was needed. He thanked Judd, whom he called a friend and said “will play a very, very important role going forward.”

“You guys are about to be very, very busy doing your job the way you want to do them,” Trump said.

Congress has mandated that the agency have 21,370 agents, but the Border Patrol has struggled to maintain that level because of retirements and other departures. But rapidly adding more agents could have dire consequences if applicants are not properly screened, current and former officials say.

“Hiring that many Border Patrol agents in a relatively short period of time could compromise the current and future integrity of the nation’s largest law enforcement agency in a way that it may never recover,” said James F. Tomsheck, who was pushed out in 2014 as head of internal affairs for Customs and Border Protection and who has been a vocal critic of the Border Patrol.

Morgan was asked to resign this week after six months at the helm. He first came to Customs and Border Protection in 2014 to replace Tomsheck in internal affairs, but returned to the FBI after about six months. A former top agent in the FBI’s El Paso, Texas, office, Morgan was assailed publicly by the union over what it considered to be politicized statements supporting immigration reform during a U.S. Senate hearing. His last day on the job is Tuesday. He could not be reached for comment.

“I want to thank Mark Morgan for his unwavering dedication to our border security mission, and recognize his life-long career in service to the nation,” acting Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Kevin McAleenan said in a statement posted Thursday on the agency’s website.

From the start of his time as Border Patrol chief, Morgan had the daunting task of winning over the ranks as an outsider who had never patrolled the border. That lack of experience was anathema to many agents of the tradition-bound – some say prideful – agency.

Morgan had started to earn the trust of some top agents, who believed he had their best interests in mind. But he never convinced the union, and his fate was sealed with Trump’s win. He tried to push back against criticism while leveling his own rebuke of the Obama administration in an email to agents in December. Moran said it was too little, too late.

It’s time for a Border Patrol leader “with a whole new mindset” to help the agency better secure the southern border, Moran said. That means getting its senior leadership in line with the Trump administration.

Generally supportive of Trump’s calls for more barriers along the Mexican border and bolstering the agency’s force, Moran said union officials have advised the administration to avoid repeating mistakes of the past. He pointed to the last hiring surge that began in 2004.

In a matter of years, the agency doubled in size. It hired new agents and sent them into the field as fast as possible by cutting corners on training and pre-employment screenings, Moran said. Tomsheck, the former internal affairs chief, made a similar warning in a 2008 email to top officials.

Whatever kind of border barrier is built, its location should be based on hard facts about where the border is most often breached, Moran said. More double-layer fencing, particularly in urban areas, would help, and other additional barriers are needed. He did not say how many miles that could be.

“I don’t think building a ‘Great Wall of the United States’ is going to happen,” he said.

For years, the agency’s leadership has followed political agendas rather than enforce the law, Moran said. He said the agency should return to “the old Patrol” dating back to the 1990s, before a major shift in how the agency policed the border.

Instead of positioning agents right on the U.S.-Mexico divide, the new strategy placed them back from the border, with the aim of forcing unauthorized crossers into increasingly remote – and dangerous – areas and then catching them after they entered into the country. The goal was to achieve control of the border by deterrence.

“There are agents who have never enforced the law before Gatekeeper,” Moran said, referring to the name of the 1990s Border Patrol operation that became the new strategy. As for the Trump administration’s tough stance on border security and immigration, he added, “To be honest, I thought I’d retire and never see a day like this.”

Andrew Becker can be reached at abecker@revealnews.org. Follow him on Twitter: @ABeckerReveal.

 

Andrew Becker is a reporter for Reveal, covering border, national and homeland security issues, as well as weapons and gun trafficking. He has focused on waste, fraud and abuse – with stories ranging from border corruption to the expanding use of drones and unmanned aerial vehicles, from the militarization of police to the intersection of politics and policy related to immigration, from terrorism to drug trafficking. Becker's reporting has appeared in The Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, Newsweek/The Daily Beast and on National Public Radio and PBS/FRONTLINE, among others. He received a master's degree in journalism from UC Berkeley. Becker is based in Reveal's Emeryville, California, office.