By Elliot Spagat
March 23, 2017
SOLANA BEACH, Calif. — Once a week, union leaders representing U.S. Border Patrol agents host a radio show from a sleepy office park near San Diego, where studio walls are covered with an 8-by-12-foot American flag and portraits of President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence.
For about an hour, the agents mix discussions about border security with shoptalk and freewheeling news commentary in a show that airs by podcast and on a radio station in Tucson, Arizona.
The show has a somewhat unlikely lead sponsor: the hard-right Breitbart News site, which isn’t known as a fan of labor unions. The hosts open a revealing window into how union leaders hope to reshape enforcement on 6,000 miles of border with Mexico and Canada.
The show, called “The Green Line” for the color of Border Patrol uniforms, is aimed at agents, Congress and the news media. It’s part of a 4-year-old effort to raise the union’s profile, a strategy that included outspoken support for Trump’s presidential bid.
That move paid off in November. Within a week of Trump taking office, the Border Patrol chief was forced out and replaced by a union favorite to lead the agency as it undertakes a major hiring spree.
The union, headed by a former member of Trump’s transition team, has endeared itself to the president, whose top strategist, Steve Bannon, led Breitbart News before joining the White House. The conservative site features the union’s views in its border stories, while acknowledging the sponsorship.
The show’s hosts alternate between workplace gripes like radios that don’t work in remote areas and topics in the news. They have called the Black Lives Matter activists “domestic terrorists” and Mexico “a corrupt country.”
One recent morning, they scorned an airline worker who maligned the Border Patrol when a co-host checked in for a flight, lawmakers who want to declare California a sanctuary state and unidentified pockets of the agency that have resisted Trump’s directives to expand immigration enforcement. The discussion turned to a Supreme Court hearing involving a Mexican teen slain by an agent who fired across the border. The question was whether the agent could be sued.
Are agents “going to be second-guessing themselves when the rocks are flying, when the cinderblocks are flying?” asked co-host Shawn Moran, a vice president of the National Border Patrol Council. “Are they going to hesitate and say, ‘You know what? This guy could end up suing me.’ Forget the fact that he could end up killing the agent.”
The union’s ascendancy comes as Trump prepares to add 5,000 Border Patrol agents, hire more immigration judges and deportation officers and build a wall along the 2,000-mile border with Mexico. Last week, the administration called for companies to build wall prototypes in San Diego, not far from “The Green Line” studio.
“The Green Line” arranged Breitbart’s support through Brandon Darby, a onetime left-wing activist turned FBI informer who helped convict two people accused of a bomb plot during the 2008 Republican National Convention. Darby attracted the notice of founder Andrew Bretibart, who recruited him to join the upstart news site.
As managing director of Breitbart Texas, Darby published leaked photos inside overcrowded child-detention facilities in 2014, drawing attention to a surge of Central Americans crossing the border. Darby and Bannon — who led Breitbart after its founder died in 2012 — created “Cartel Chronicles,” a bilingual feature about organized crime that includes articles from dangerous parts of Mexico written under pseudonyms.
Breitbart editors call its sponsorship a show of support for front-line agents.
“’The Green Line’ is something I’m very proud of because it’s these guys and gals having a voice,” Darby said, referring to the Border Patrol agents.
The union’s rhetoric troubles groups whose complaints of a trigger-happy culture gained traction in Barack Obama’s administration. The union criticized independent reviews that faulted practices on use of force and employee discipline and bristled at an employee award for avoiding deadly force when confronting armed suspects.
“They want to be unfettered,” said Adam Isacson, an analyst at the Washington Office on Latin America, a human-rights advocacy group. “Most law enforcement agents do, but they’re especially vocal about it. They have forcefully resisted efforts to reform.”
Union President Brandon Judd calls the criticisms overblown and said the Border Patrol’s record stacks up well against other agencies considering border agents’ high arrest counts. Customs and Border Protection says employees fired guns 27 times last year. That number has declined each year since 58 in 2012.
The union clashed with a former FBI official who was picked in June to be the first outsider to lead the Border Patrol since its creation in 1924. Mark Morgan, who handled use-of-force issues as head of internal affairs for the Border Patrol’s parent agency in 2014, was replaced by a career agent, Ronald Vitiello, the union’s initial choice.
Judd said there’s no need for a wall from California to Texas and that natural barriers such as the Rio Grande in Texas often suffice, a message that he said appeared to register with Trump when the men met after the election.
A top union priority is ending “catch and release,” a term that Trump and others use for freeing people while they await a court date, which can take years.
Union leaders have faced some internal blowback over a 2014 law that slashed overtime pay. When challenged by the president of the Detroit local on “The Green Line,” Moran said the pay legislation could have been worse.
Judd, who has led the union since 2013, points to the high percentage of agents who join as a measure of the organization’s internal support. Its latest filing with the Labor Department shows 12,622 dues-paying members in 2015 out of roughly 15,000 eligible, or more than 80 percent.
“We’ve increased our profile to where we’re able to get our message out,” Judd said.
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