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Tucson-area Border Patrol agent dies from COVID-19

51 CBP employees dead from coronavirus during pandemic

A Border Patrol agent in Southern Arizona died last Friday from COVID-19, one of 51 employees of U.S. Customs and Border Protection killed by coronavirus during the pandemic— including a half-dozen federal border officers and agents in Arizona.

Supervisory Border Patrol Agent Anibal "Tony" A. Perez died Nov. 5, Tucson Sector Chief John R. Modlin announced on Twitter on Thursday. Perez was assigned to the Ajo Station, and had served with the agency for more than 15 years.

Perez is the fourth Border Patrol agent to die from COVID-19 in Arizona this year as the disease has cut a swath through CBP's ranks, killing at least 28 agents and officers, along with 23 civilian employees, since the pandemic began in early 2020.

COVID-19 has become the nation's leading cause of death for law enforcement officers, and border and immigration enforcement employees have not been immune.

Among the Tucson Sector's losses was 47-year-old Chad McBroom, a member of the Tucson Sector's elite Border Patrol Tactical Unit, or BORTAC, who died from COVID-19 on Aug. 29.

COVID-19 also killed two members of the Office of Field Operations, who work at border crossings and airports, including 57-year-old Ruben Facio and 54-year-old Byron Shields.

The Border Patrol's head, Chief Patrol Agent Raul Ortiz, wrote on Twitter that the "entire USBP family mourns the loss" of Perez, "who sadly passed away in the line of duty." "Please keep his family, friends, and colleagues in your thoughts," Ortiz wrote.

This has occurred even as border crossings were closed to non-citizens, except under limited circumstances, until Monday. While CBP officers and agents process about 1 million travelers a day, that number collapsed as the pandemic slowed travel and trade was hammered by the pandemic, with only about 650,000 passing through the nation's ports of entry daily.

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From April through this year, the number attempting to cross the U.S.-Mexico border without authorization continued to climb to historic rates, largely driven by Title 42—an order ostensibly supported by the Centers for Disease Control which allows Border Patrol agents to rapidly expel people from the U.S. if they have traveled through a country with high rates of COVID-19 cases.

While Title 42 was implemented by the Trump administration as the pandemic began, it has remained in place for the last 10 months of the Biden administration, allowing the agency to eject most people from the U.S., often within hours, even if they request asylum. The agency has been limited only by Mexico's willingness to accept some people back under the CDC order, and a federal court order, which halted the expulsion of children traveling without parents or guardians.

Overall, CBP officials encountered 1.7 million people from October 1, 2020 to September 30, 2021. However, as Troy Miller, the acting commissioner of CBP said, "large number of expulsions during the pandemic has contributed to a larger-than-usual number of migrants making multiple border crossing attempts, which means that total encounters somewhat overstate the number of unique individuals arriving at the border."

In September, CBP officials encountered people nearly 143,000 times, however, around 26 percent "involved individuals who had at least one prior encounter in the previous 12 months."

COVID leading cause of death for law enforcement

While 2021 has been the deadliest period in CBP's history, the agency's own memorial page underplays the cause. Instead, the agency notes that "the circumstances" of a person's passing was reviewed by an executive panel and the CBP Commissioner "determined that this death occurred in the line of duty." Each agent or officer is said to be remembered for their "diligent service to the nation" and "bravery in the face of danger."

CBP has said that this is to protect the privacy of its employees. However, a combination of media reports, social media posts and the privately run Officer Down Memorial Page have made it clear how many CBP employees have died from the disease since the pandemic began last year. 

COVID-19 is the leading cause of death for law enforcement officers nationwide, and roughly two-thirds of the officers who died over the last two years were killed by COVID-19. In comparison, gunfire was the cause of death for around 12 percent of law enforcement officers over the last two years.

While COVID-19 has killed dozens of ports officers and Border Patrol agents, it remains unclear how many CBP employees have been vaccinated.

In January, law enforcement officers were given early access to the vaccine, however vaccination rates vary widely among the Border Patrol's sectors, ranging from as low as 30 percent of agents in the Rio Grande Valley sector in Texas to as high as 78 percent.

In September, President Joe Biden issued an executive order requiring vaccinations for federal employees. In his order, Biden said that the "health and safety of the federal workforce, and the health and safety of members of the public with whom they interact, are foundational to the efficiency of the civil service." 

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"I have determined that ensuring the health and safety of the federal workforce and the efficiency of the civil service requires immediate action to protect the federal workforce and individuals interacting with the federal workforce," Biden said. "It is essential that federal employees take all available steps to protect themselves and avoid spreading COVID-19 to their co-workers and members of the public. The CDC has found that the best way to do so is to be vaccinated."

Following Biden's order, the Department of Homeland Security said that CBP employees must have their first vaccination shot by Nov. 8, with their second follow-up shot by Nov. 22.

"To be considered ‘fully vaccinated’ an employee must have their second Moderna or Pfizer vaccination, or the single-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccination, 14-days prior to Nov. 22, 2021," said DHS on an employee resources page.

Trump-era officials have argued that this move will damage the agency, leading to a loss of as many as 50 percent of Border Patrol agents. Similarly, nearly four dozen Republican lawmakers sent a letter to the White House opposing the vaccine mandate.

"Our men and women in the Border Patrol have worked tirelessly to manage the crisis at our southern border," the legislators wrote. "This year especially, they have been subject to extraordinary amounts of mental and physical stress. With morale at an all-time low, this mandate will serve as the last straw for agents who can easily leave the agency for other law enforcement organizations at the state and local level or retire."

However, this argument runs against a voluntary survey of CBP's workforce in September. More than 70 percent of CBP's workforce responded to voluntary surveys on their vaccination status, and of those, about 80 percent said they were immunized, the Washington Post reported

"Federal agencies, including CBP, are laser-focused on vaccinating their workforce ahead of the November 22nd deadline for federal employees. Like other federal agencies, we are continuing to collect vaccination information from employees as we approach the deadline," said John Mennell, a CBP spokesman.

After the announcement, the National Border Patrol Council—the union that represents about 20,000 agents—said it was considering suing the Biden administration. However,  while the council's seven attorneys had been asked to "drop all other matters to study the issue and develop strategies to attack the EO," the union said that "after spending several days reviewing all pertinent laws, to include all relevant case law, our attorneys determined the EO was legal and that there was no viable avenue of challenge."

"To date, we have not found a reputable firm, nor any other firm, or legal opinion that provides us a legitimate path forward," NPBC announced on its Facebook page.

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Paul Ingram/TucsonSentinel.com

A Border Patrol agent speaks to media during a tour of a tent-like facility for migrant children in Tucson in April 2021.

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