(CNN) — Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas was met with concern and frustration during meetings with US Border Patrol agents at several locations along the southern border last week, according to sources familiar with the discussions and leaked audio and video.
Frustrations ranged from the Covid-19 pandemic to immigration policy and at points devolved into open hostility, with one agent turning his back on the secretary and another questioning Mayorkas for wearing a jacket with the Border Patrol badge.
During a meeting in Laredo, Texas, an agent asked the secretary when he had graduated from the Border Patrol Academy, according to three sources that heard the remarks.
The secretary replied that he had not.
Then “why” are you wearing the badge, the agent questioned, according to a source’s recollection of the exchange.
The comments were part of a wave of frustration expressed by an often-politicized workforce tasked with securing the border amid an increase in unlawful crossings and a lingering pandemic.
On this visit, Mayorkas’ eighth to the border since taking office, he heard complaints from the Border Patrol workforce that included personnel staffing issues, the policies around the release of migrants after they are apprehended on the border and Covid-19 issues, including staff members who did not want to get vaccinated and agents who were frustrated that migrants who arrive unlawfully aren’t required to be vaccinated, a source said.
Since taking office, the Biden administration has struggled to significantly decrease the number of arrests for illegal entry along the US-Mexico border, a measure of unlawful border crossings.
US Border Patrol made 170,186 arrests in December, a slight increase from November, when border arrests had begun to climb again, according to the latest US Customs and Border Protection data.
Mayorkas spent three days last week traveling in Arizona and Texas, where he met with DHS employees, received briefings on front-line operations and held stakeholder meetings with elected officials and others.
During the packed trip, he held workforce meetings in Yuma, Wellton, Clint, El Paso, Fort Bliss and Laredo and made several other stops for briefings. The trip included a boat tour on the Rio Grande with Border Patrol agents, a visit to the Laredo Port of Entry with Field Operations personnel and an award ceremony for several Border Patrol agents for lifesaving rescues and other accomplishments.
“We could use additional personnel, additional funding, and we’re really going to push for it,” Mayorkas said to KGNS during his trip, referencing agents that patrol the waterways.
Mayorkas and his team, including Border Patrol chief Raul Ortiz, attended 6 a.m. and 2 p.m. Border Patrol briefings known as musters.
Hector Garza, president of the Laredo Border Patrol union chapter, told CNN that the “overall sentiment” among agents was “a sense of frustration and concern for what’s happening on the border,” pointing to issues of human and drug smuggling.
Part of the frustration is that because of the high number of unlawful crossings, agents are forced to devote their time to processing migrants rather than other law enforcement, like preventing drug smuggling and arresting people with serious criminal records, according to Garza.
He also noted concerns that were expressed about working on the front lines during the pandemic.
“One of the biggest concerns that the agents brought out during this meeting was that at a time of a pandemic, of the Covid virus, where we’re trying to keep Americans in their homes and we’re trying to take all these preventions in the country, those same preventions or those same measures are not being put into place on the border,” he said.
‘You can turn your back on me’
During a meeting with Border Patrol agents in Yuma, Arizona, on the first day of the trip, an agent turned his back to the secretary.
At one point during the meeting, Mayorkas told the agent, “You can turn your back on me, but I’ll never turn my back on you,” according to audio obtained by Townhall and confirmed by a source who heard the remarks.
The agent responded that the secretary had turned his back the day he was appointed.
Mayorkas appeared to reference the tense meeting, tweeting afterward that he “heard Border Patrol agents loud and clear” during the morning muster in Yuma. “They are doing incredible work on the frontlines. I am fighting to get more resources they need.”
DHS spokesperson Marsha Espinosa said the secretary’s “priority for this trip was to meet directly with the workforce to hear about their experiences and address their needs.”
“Border Patrol agents are dedicated to their mission and demonstrate tremendous bravery and life-saving skills in the performance of their duties. Secretary Mayorkas welcomes candor during these conversations, and appreciates and respects the opinions of each member of the CBP workforce,” she said.
Employees had suggestions for improvements and the secretary will be acting on some of them soon, according to Espinosa.
Low morale at Border Patrol
In a video obtained by journalist Ali Bradley, agents in Laredo are heard voicing concern about policy, low morale and retention as part of a tense exchange with Border Patrol chief Ortiz, while Mayorkas listened in the background.
Ortiz said that “morale is at an all-time low,” according to the video, and called on those within the agency to “start taking care of each other.”
White House press secretary Jen Psaki on Monday was asked about the leaked video and whether anything was being done to improve morale.
“Of course the role that Border Patrol agents play in ensuring security and safety at our borders is something that there’s great value for in this administration,” she said.
“Politicians are never popular with the rank and file,” a former senior CBP official told CNN. “The mission always took precedent but over the last few years the mission has become a political football.”
“Say what you want about [former President Donald] Trump but his support for the BP mission was never in doubt,” the former official added.