In advocating for border security, President Donald Trump has repeatedly sought to enlist Border Patrol agents and their union, the Washington Post reports, even bringing union leaders for Border Patrol and Immigration and Customs Enforcement to the White House “to tout the wall.”
That isn’t surprising in one sense: Lots of politicians use uniformed law-enforcement officers as political props. But in another sense, it is rather strange. Typically, unions zealously oppose anything that makes the labor of their members less necessary. The Luddites smashed automated looms. The grocery-store checkers are against self-checkout kiosks. The fast-food workers don’t want touch-screen ordering.
Why would union officials representing men and women who patrol the border be in favor of a barrier intended to stop migration better than humans?
The most charitable explanation is that members of the union earnestly believe that Trump’s desired wall is in the best interest of the United States, regardless of its effect on their personal interests as laborers. That’s the impression Trump wants to create by touting their endorsement: that the men and women actually patrolling the border, with all the attendant expertise their daily work confers, believe that the sort of barrier he’s advocating for will help them achieve their mission.
Border Patrol agents are not a monolith, of course, and there are individual union members on both sides of the policy debate. In the mid-aughts, when I blogged about immigration for the Los Angeles Newspaper Group, I interviewed Border Patrol agents who literally rolled their eyes at the mention of a border wall and others who favored one.
Still, that most charitable explanation is more difficult to accept in light of something that Nick van der Kolk of the Love + Radio podcast noticed in the course of researching a story—that as recently as January 4, the website for the Border Patrol union stated, “The NBPC disagrees with wasting taxpayer money on building fences and walls along the border as a means of curtailing illegal entries into the United States.”
Below is the whole section on “border fences and walls,” as preserved on the Internet Archive before it was scrubbed sometime after the union president, Brandon Judd, visited the White House. The union is known as the NBPC, or the National Border Patrol Council. NBPS stands for National Border Patrol Strategy; the union argues that the overarching strategy needs to change. The archived website says:
The NBPC disagrees with wasting taxpayer money on building fences and walls along the border as a means of curtailing illegal entries into the United States. However, as long as we continue to operate under the current NBPS and ignore the problem that is causing illegal immigration, we realize fences and walls are essential.
Walls and fences are temporary solutions that focus on the symptom (illegal immigration) rather than the problem (employers who knowingly hire illegal aliens).
Walls and fences are only a speed bump. People who want to come to the United States to obtain employment will continue to go over, under, and around the walls and fences that are constructed.
Walls and fences will undoubtedly result in an increase in fraudulent documents and smuggling through the Ports of Entry.
Walls and fences do not solve the issue of people entering the country legally and staying beyond the date they are required to leave the country, a problem which will undoubtedly increase as more walls and fences are constructed.
The NBPC position regarding walls and fences is not due to a concern of losing our jobs if fences and walls are built. On the contrary, the NBPC realizes that walls and fences require just as much manpower to protect them. Border Patrol Agents witness what happens to walls and fences when there are not enough Border Patrol agents to protect them.
Asked about the seeming contradiction by Politico, the union leader explained that the old language reflected the position of bygone leadership, adding that the page was kept up for years because the union didn’t want to hide from its earlier stance. “But because it continually gets brought up,” he said, “we made the decision to take it down.”
Judd’s statement is reasonable on its face. Over time, unions change their leadership and their stances on discrete issues. Still, it is a bit harder to treat Judd’s explanation as the whole truth in light of the Associated Press’s reporting that “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.” When the AP asked Judd himself if he had ever recommended a border wall prior to Trump’s candidacy, he said, “I do not know. I believe I have testified 21 times, and I don’t have time to go through each hearing.”
Today Judd talks as though his membership is unified behind a border wall, touting a union survey. As The Washington Times reported:
The NBPC’s survey, of more than 600 agents in two of the Border Patrol’s busiest sectors, found … 89 percent of line agents say a “wall system in strategic locations is necessary to securing the border.” Just 7 percent disagreed.
But that language doesn’t distinguish between existing sections of wall and the wisdom of what Trump wants to build going forward. Most members of the Democratic caucus in Congress believe that a “wall system in strategic locations” is necessary—try to find a congressional Democrat to go on record calling for all walls and fencing to be torn down. The wording seems designed to get the highest possible rate of agreement, not to discern the actual position of union members on Trump’s wall.
The takeaway from all of this isn’t pro-wall or anti-wall. Neither the old language on the web site nor the new language from the dubious survey should shape one’s judgment of whether the wall is a good or bad idea.
Rather, it is a case study in the folly of treating the words of public-employee union officials as if they should carry weight in policy debates. Public-sector unions are biased by the labor interests of members and their political interests in forging strategic relationships with whoever is in power. Union officials do not tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth. Disinterested policy insight isn’t something they offer. And politicians who pretend otherwise are trying to mislead you.