Some citizens who continue to cross the border into the United States at Nogales are expressing unease with the sporadic use of personal protective equipment by the U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers who interact with the public at the ports of entry.
For its part, CBP says it has supplied its officers with protective gear, and union representatives say they encourage their members to use it. And one CBP officer who serves as union representative for employees in Nogales said the complaints go both ways, and that port officers are frustrated with what they say are large numbers of people who raise risks by continuing to make non-essential trips across the border.
The U.S. government implemented an ongoing ban on all but “essential” cross-border travel effective March 21 in an effort to stem the spread of COVID-19 through ports of entry with Mexico and Canada. However, CBP has not compelled its port officers to use protective masks and gloves as part of that effort.
A representative of CBP’s Tucson Field Office did not directly respond to a question asking why the use of personal protective equipment, or PPE, is not mandatory for port officers. She referred the question to the agency’s media relations department, whose spokesman also declined to specifically answer the question.
Both spokespeople said the agency has given its employees “ready access” to PPE such as nitrile gloves and N95 respirators, and provided guidance on how to use the equipment. The Tucson Field Office representative also said that all CBP employees have access to an online resource portal that includes risk exposure guidance, job-specific PPE guidelines, workforce support resources and CDC prevention tips.
But if CBP officers have ready access to PPE, some travelers say they’ve been taken aback by the fact that not all are choosing to use it.
Joseph Hill of Nogales submitted a letter to the editor of the NI this week in which he said he still crosses the border several times each week for work.
Hill said that “almost every” CBP officer he sees isn’t wearing a face mask, and said the same is true of the port officials on the Mexican side of the border.
“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.
Shawn Dolan told the NI he was surprised to be met at the Mariposa Port of Entry by a non-PPE-wearing CBP officer when he tried to enter the United States in mid-April upon returning from San Carlos, Sonora. After demonstrating his displeasure with the situation, 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,’” he said.
“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,’” he said, adding that the officers were putting themselves at risk as well as the public.
John Monahan, president of Chapter 143 of the National Treasury Employees Union (NTEU), which represents CBP officers in El Paso, Texas, said officers in that border city are allowed to wear whatever PPE they choose. “It’s personal protective equipment so it’s a personal thing,” he said, noting that employees of other government entities have similar guidelines.
“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,” Monahan said. “Would it be right for us to require all the travelers to wear them? I don’t know, that’s a double-edged sword there.”
Dolan said he was on his way to visit his 86-year-old mother in Rio Rico when he tried to cross through the Mariposa port, and he had self-quarantined in San Carlos for the three previous weeks in order to arrive virus free.
“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.
CBP, which is also the parent agency for the U.S. Border Patrol, reported that 305 of its employees around the country had tested positive for COVID-19 as of April 28. The agency employs more than 60,000 people nationwide.
In early April, CBP posted data on its website showing that three of its employees in Nogales, as well as three more in Tucson, had tested positive for the disease. It did not specify whether the three Nogales employees worked at the ports or at the local Border Patrol station.
Of late, CBP has listed the number of coronavirus-positive employees by state only, and as of Tuesday, was still reporting six total confirmed infections in Arizona.
Still, many people infected with the coronavirus are asymptomatic or only experience mild symptoms, so the number of confirmed cases in any segment of the population does not necessarily represent the true number of infections.
“Nothing is more important than the safety of our workforce and the American people,” said the statement provided by the representative of CBP’s Tucson Field Office, adding later: “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.”
Joanna Williams of the Kino Border Initiative, a Jesuit ministry that aids migrants in Nogales, Sonora, noted that CBP has begun using a rule called Title 42 to immediately return asylum-seekers and migrants to Mexico in the name of protecting the health of border officers.
“Yet we have observed that they have not even implemented basic steps to protect public health at the Nogales ports,” she wrote in an email. “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.”
Travelers passing through the Border Patrol’s checkpoint on Interstate 19 near Tubac have also noted the sporadic use of masks and gloves by agents there.
Patricia Cramer, a CBP officer and president of Chapter 116 of the NTEU, which represents Nogales-based officers, said that “when it comes to PPE and the officers, union-wide, we encourage everyone – everyone – to wear them.”
“It’s not mandatory, but every week I say, ‘Please wear your PPE,’” she said, adding that officers are taking other protective steps – regular hand-washing, disinfecting spaces – that the public doesn’t see.
Cramer said she understands the public’s concern about PPE use at the ports, but added that officers are also getting frustrated with what they see as many civilians’ lack of interest in supporting the cause.
“People are saying, ‘Oh, these officers aren’t wearing masks or gloves,’ they feel like they’re getting exposed by this one person. Well, we’re getting exposed by all of them. We hardly see people wearing masks themselves when they cross, let alone gloves.”
CBP officers are sympathetic to essential cross-border travel, Cramer said. But she said many U.S. citizens and permanent residents, whom CBP can’t bar from entering the country, continue to make non-essential trips.
“You have people who live in Mexico but work in the U.S. – that’s essential. We understand that. But it’s the going to get tortillas and tacos and the hair salons, the vet appointments, the nail appointments, is what we’re talking about,” she said.
(Additional reporting by Nick Phillips.)