WASHINGTON — 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.
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, Judd has been a staunch ally since the Border Patrol Council endorsed Trump for president in late March 2016 — it’s 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.
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.”
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.
Judd, who began his career as a field agent in 1997, was unanimously elected Border Patrol Council’s leader in March 2013. At the time 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.
Associated Press researcher Rhonda Shafner in New York contributed to this report.
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