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Another Border Patrol agent dies from COVID-19 in Arizona

Virus is leading cause of death for U.S. law enforcement officers

Border Patrol lost a second agent in Southern Arizona from COVID-19 in November, one of 55 employees of U.S. Customs and Border Protection killed by coronavirus during the pandemic— including seven federal border officers and agents in Arizona.

Supervisory Border Patrol Agent Martin Barrios died Nov. 29, Tucson Sector Chief John R. Modlin announced on Twitter on Friday. Barrios served with the agency for more than 18 years. 

Two weeks ago, officials announced the death of Supervisory Border Patrol Agent Anibal "Tony" A. Perez, who died Nov. 5. 

Barrios is the fifth Border Patrol agent to die from COVID-19 in Arizona this year as the disease has cut a swath through CBP's ranks, killing 40 agents and officers, along with more than a dozen 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.

BP's Modlin tweeted that he was "grieved to inform you of the line-of-duty death of Supervisory Border Patrol Agent Martin Barrios of the Tucson Sector." 

"Our thoughts and prayers are with his loved ones. We will always remember his service," said Modlin.

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The agency followed its pattern, apparent in other deaths of agents from COVID, of not specifically mentioning the cause of Barrios' death in the announcement. Border Patrol officials generally provide more details about line-of-duty deaths that result from vehicle crashes or violence. A determination that an agent died in the line of duty makes their surviving family eligible for certain death benefits.

The Sentinel confirmed that Barrios died from COVID with multiple CBP sources, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak about the agent's death.

On Friday, Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey ordered flags at all state buildings be lowered to half-staff from sunrise to sunset on Saturday, Dec. 4, 2021, to mark Barrios' death. 

"The tragic loss of Agent Martin Barrios is felt all across Arizona," Ducey said. "His years of dedicated service in the Navy and as a Border Patrol agent helped protect our state and nation. Agent Barrios’ death is a sobering reminder of the danger law enforcement professionals face every day — and we are grateful for his unwavering bravery. Our deepest condolences go to his family, loved ones and colleagues with the Tucson Sector Border Patrol."

While the governor ordered flags to be lowered for Barrios and Perez, Ducey did not issue a similar order for McBroom or Facio and Shields because CBP did not request it, said C.J. Karamargin, a spokesman Ducey's office. "We always defer to the agency," said Karamargin. 

Recent data shows that among employees of Homeland Security, more than 95 percent of the agency's 240,000 employees had complied with the vaccination mandate, and 88.9 percent of employees were already vaccinated. Even among employees of U.S. Border Patrol, where potentially thousands of agents hinted they would refuse the Biden administration's plan to vaccinate most of the federal workforce, around 79 percent said they were fully vaccinated last week.

In an email, the head of the Border Patrol, Raul L. Ortiz, said Monday that 79 percent of all employees were fully vaccinated, based on data from Nov. 17. Around 16 percent were not vaccinated, but were waiting for a pending accommodation request. 

Ortiz said that 5 percent of Border Patrol agents were not in compliance with the vaccination policy, including 3 percent who were not fully vaccinated and hadn't filed a reasonable accommodation request and another remaining 2 percent who refused to tell the agency their vaccination status. 

It remains unclear whether Barrios or Perez were vaccinated, but multiple studies have noted that the vaccines are very good at preventing severe infections. One CDC study showed that even among people who previously had COVID-19, they were still more than twice as likely catch COVID-19 as those who were fully vaccinated, showing that the COVID-19 vaccines "offer better protection than natural immunity alone and that vaccines, even after prior infection, help prevent reinfections," the CDC said. 

Ducey has fought against vaccination mandates, but has argued that people should get vaccinated, said Karamargin. 

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"The governor has been pretty clear where he stands on vaccines, he has received the vaccine, and that Arizonans should get their shot, and if there's any doubt, they should consult with a medical expert," he said. "It's safe, effective and free, and as he's said, it's hard to find a better deal than that." 

Up until a few weeks ago, the border was largely closed to non-citizens, except under limited circumstances, however, U.S. citizens and permanent residents were largely allowed to travel into Mexico. While CBP officers and agents typical 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.

On Nov. 8, the U.S. lifted its travel ban, allowing people to come if they show proof of vaccination. 

Meanwhile, 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 11 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 October, CBP officials encountered 117,620 people along the U.S.-Mexico border, a decline of about 18 percent from a month earlier. CBP has yet to release data for November. 

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 the virus. In comparison, gunfire was the cause of death for around 13 percent of law enforcement officers over the last two years.

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Paul Ingram/TucsonSentinel.com

CBP agents and officers during a press conference in April 2021.

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