Despite resistance from Rep. Gonzales and Border Patrol union, DHS works to comply with President Biden’s vaccine mandate

TRI-COUNTY — President Biden recently announced a sweeping coronavirus vaccine mandate for all federal employees in an executive order released September 9, requiring full vaccination of federal workers by a November 22 deadline.

The order states the nationwide public health emergency remains in effect, and in keeping with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s recommendations, the most effective way to prevent against COVID-19 and the highly contagious delta variant is to get vaccinated. 

Agencies are required to implement a program to require COVID-19 vaccinations, with few exceptions according to the order. Department of Homeland Security spokespersons stated they are actively working to comply with President Biden’s order. An online system has been developed in order for personnel to report their vaccination status. Employees must notify the agency of their status or request reasonable accommodation, including a religious or medical exemption, by November 9.

“Employees who choose to remain unvaccinated for COVID-19 and have not received or have a pending request for a legally required exemption will be subject to discipline, up to and including removal from federal service,” DHS spokespeople said. 

Within the employee resources provided by DHS to its workers — including those in FEMA, Customs and Border Protection, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and more — the department explains the timeline that employees must meet in order to be in compliance. The deadline to get in compliance is nearer than it seems, since a requirement of full vaccination by November 22 means employees must have their second dose of Pfizer or Moderna, or first shot of Johnson & Johnson’s COVID-19 vaccine, by next Thursday, November 8. To reach full vaccination, employees needed to begin their Pfizer doses by October 18, or their Moderna doses by October 11.

The National Border Patrol Council, a union that represents Border Patrol employees across the U.S., including some members in the Big Bend sector, said in late September, “From the moment the EO [executive order] was issued, the National Border Patrol Council (NBPC) instructed its seven attorneys to drop all other matters to study the issue and develop strategies to attack the EO. 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,” the NBPC, a labor union for Border Patrol agents, said in a statement released to its members in September.

Big Bend Sector Public Affairs Officer for the CBP Greg Davis stated via email that the agency believes vaccination rates to be higher than officially reported, citing DHS personnel’s focus on fieldwork rather than desk work, and the previous policy of volunteer reporting as possible reasons for underreporting. They said they expect reported vaccination rates to go up in the coming weeks. Davis declined to comment on how the mandate could affect the sector more broadly should vaccine mandates cause vacancies to occur. 

Local Congressman Tony Gonzales (TX-23) led public opposition against the vaccine mandate, specifically for Customs and Border Protection agents, in a letter to DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas on October 27. A press release from Gonzales’ office stated the average hiring process for Border Patrol agents can last over 400 days, followed by 20-plus weeks of training at the Border Patrol Academy. With recruitment rates already at an all-time low, the letter speculated whether the agency would be able to fill vacancies expeditiously. 

“Our men and women in the Border Patrol have worked tirelessly to manage the crisis at our southern border,” said the letter. “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 a last straw for agents who can easily leave the agency for other law enforcement organizations at the state and local level or retire.”