At Trump's Side, Border Patrol Union Leader in Spotlight
Brandon Judd, president of the union that represents thousands of border patrol agents, has flipped the axiom that there are no winners in a government shutdown.
His proximity to President Donald Trump has elevated the union leader’s profile while burnishing the image of the U.S. Border Patrol, a backwater in prior administrations when compared to other federal law enforcement agencies like the FBI and Secret Service.
At the same time, Judd, president of the National Border Patrol Council, has helped to validate Trump’s fiery immigration rhetoric and affirm his conviction that a wall at the southern border is urgently needed to stop what they’ve described as a humanitarian crisis.
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Trump’s demand that $5.7 billion be provided for his long-promised border wall has triggered a stalemate with Democrats in Congress and the longest partial government shutdown in U.S. history.
Judd said in a written response to questions that he’s not an official adviser to the president. But, he added, any time the union “can make the public aware (of) the critical problems and dangers Border Patrol agents encounter on the border our members benefit.”
A 21-year Border Patrol veteran currently posted in Montana, Judd has been a staunch ally since the Border Patrol Council endorsed Trump for president in late March 2016 — its first endorsement of a White House candidate. He appeared at Trump’s side earlier this month in the White House briefing room and joined the president during his visit last week to McAllen, Texas, a city in the Rio Grande Valley where illegal border crossings have surged.
“So, Brandon, I’ve known him from the beginning,” Trump said during a round table discussion at a McAllen Border Patrol station. “And almost before I announced, he was for my ideas and he was for us.”
At the White House, Trump introduced Judd as a friend and nodded approvingly as the union president declared that “walls work.” The impromptu appearance forced Kevin McAleenan, commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection, to suddenly cancel a press conference that was about to start at the agency’s headquarters a few blocks away.
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Doris Meissner, commissioner of the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service during the Clinton administration, said it was striking to see Judd in the White House briefing room with Trump instead of the homeland security officials responsible for carrying out the president’s agenda.
“That is just not the way the government is supposed to run,” said Meissner, a senior fellow at the bipartisan Migration Policy Institute.
Like many other federal employees, border patrol agents are working amid the partial government shutdown unsure of when they’ll get their next paycheck. Reports that federal employees “do not agree with the shutdown” aren’t true, Judd said at the White House.
But while Judd was in McAllen, hundreds of furloughed federal workers gathered in front of the White House to call for an immediate end to the shutdown. And the American Federation of Government Employees, the federal workers union the Border Patrol Council is affiliated with, is suing the government, alleging it’s unlawful to force federal employees to work without pay.
Judd’s support for the wall coincided with Trump’s candidacy for president. There’s no indication Judd publicly urged Congress to allot the money for a border wall between the time he was elected Border Patrol Council president in 2013 and the union’s endorsement of Trump. He did on several occasions warn lawmakers during testimony of the challenges that border patrol agents face.
“I do not know,” Judd said of whether he had recommended a border wall. “I believe I have testified 21 times, and I don’t have time to go through each hearing.”
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According to Judd, the Border Patrol Council conducted a voluntary survey last year of agents in Tucson, Arizona, and Laredo, Texas, and found that nearly 90 percent of them agreed that a “wall system in strategic locations is necessary to securing the border.” Nearly 700 agents responded to the survey. Customs and Border Protection figures for 2017, the latest available, show there were more than 5,350 border patrol agents in Tucson and Laredo.
“With his level of understanding about the complexities of border security, he must know that simplistic solutions don’t exist,” said Gil Kerlikowske, former commissioner of Customs and Border Protection, which oversees the Border Patrol. “But like so many others who follow the president, he’s adopted a narrow answer to the problem.”
Since Judd’s election, membership in the Border Patrol Council has dropped while the number of officers and employees at its headquarters in Tucson increased, according to annual reports filed with the U.S. Labor Department. Spending on their salaries has grown too. Judd said the union has created or expanded “critical departments that directly affect our members,” each one headed by a vice president.
The Border Patrol Council has been an active investor with Judd at the helm, primarily buying and selling millions of dollars in U.S. Treasury securities, mutual funds, corporate notes and bonds, according to the annual reports. That’s a significant change from previous years when the council’s income consisted almost entirely of membership dues. The union’s total receipts were $12.3 million in 2017, the latest report available, with $7.8 million coming from the sale of investments. By comparison, the Border Patrol Council had zero investment income four years earlier.
Judd began his career as a field agent in 1997 and five years later was assigned as a special operation mountain team leader in Naco, Arizona, a border crossing directly opposite a Mexican town of the same name. He was later stationed as an agent on northern border, in Van Buren, Maine.
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He was unanimously elected Border Patrol Council’s leader in March 2013. Judd took over less than a year after former president Terence J. Bonner was indicted by a federal grand jury on charges of diverting hundreds of thousands of dollars in union funds for personal use. Bonner, who’d held the post for 22 years before retiring in 2011, denied the charges, which were eventually dropped after a judge ruled law enforcement agents had exceeded the scope of the search warrant.
When Judd became president, the union had nearly 14,600 members. There are 12,451 now, he said, out of a possible 13,889 agents — an 89 percent membership rate. When calculated against employee data maintained by the U.S. Office of Personnel Management, the rate drops to 73 percent. But Judd said the OPM numbers are out of date. The personnel office is closed because of the shutdown.
Judd attributed the fewer number of members to normal attrition, such as resignations and retirements, and bureaucratic changes that exclude certain positions from being eligible to join the union. Agents who are managers can’t be union members either.
The annual reports show there were 18 Border Patrol Council officers in 2017 who received stipends that ranged from about $4,000 to almost $120,000 for their union work. For officers who are Border Patrol employees, the pay is in addition to their government salaries. There were 11 officers in 2013 and the top salary then was nearly $18,000.
Judd received a gross salary of $16,800 and collected more than $83,000 for the reimbursement of expenses he incurred while conducting official union business. The records show that the highest compensated officer was the treasurer, Edward Tuffly, who received more than $308,000 in salary and reimbursements, an 837 percent increase from the nearly $33,000 he collected four years earlier.
Among his accomplishments, Judd cited the passage of law in 2014 that overhauled the way agents are paid, making the Border Patrol the only federal law enforcement agency with a statutorily guaranteed system for paying overtime.
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Josh Childress, a former Border Patrol agent who resigned in August 2018, described the Council as ineffective and said it too often focused on trivial matters, like the kind of hats agents wore. He disputed Judd’s suggestion that federal workers are in favor of the partial government shutdown.
“I don’t know anybody who supports not getting paid for their work,” said Childress, who spent nearly seven years at the border crossing in Yuma, Arizona, and quit after deciding he could no longer justify arresting people for the nonviolent offense of crossing the border.
Childress also challenged Judd’s contention that a wall as envisioned by Trump will succeed in preventing people from getting across the border. In Arizona, Childress said, fences were effective in certain areas and not in others. People will find a way around, or under, a wall, he said, recalling a tunnel from Mexico into Arizona that was discovered in 2012.
“If he’s spending all his time talking about building a wall,” Childress said of Judd, “well, when I was there that’s not what most agents were concerned with.”