We must protect the health of our overwhelmed Customs and Border Protection agents
Customs and Border Protection agents are under increasing psychological and physical pressures as they attempt to deal with the influx of thousands of migrants daily and intercept human-smuggling rings and sex and drug trafficking. A crisis could be coming: With thousands soon to retire, aggressive lie-detector examinations are disqualifying half of candidates who might otherwise qualify to take their places.
The CBP workload gets ever heavier. There were more than a quarter-million encounters with migrants at the southern border last month alone, an all-time high. CBP just estimated the number of “gotaways” who’ve evaded authorities since January 2021 at 1.2 million.
And drug cartels continually increase their influence, reportedly charging as much as $20,000 per migrant to help them sneak into the United States. The more overwhelmed Border Patrol officials are with illegal entry, the better it is for the cartels.
In five days this month alone, CBP agents in the El Paso area stopped smuggling schemes involving almost 300 migrants in 49 separate incidents. In 2022, agents prosecuted more than 600 smuggling cases involving migrants there; there’s already been 141 this month.
El Paso itself is overwhelmed by thousands of migrants flooding the border and setting up makeshift camps with a lack of clean water.
Many of the migrants have been returned under Title 42, which is before the US Supreme Court; there’s a great deal of concern over how CBP can possibly handle the huge increase if Title 42 is lifted, as the Biden administration hopes.
Let’s also not forget CBP agents must contend with health risks among migrants as well as the risks of catching contagious diseases or being injured themselves. COVID remains a big problem among CBP agents, thanks to close contact with migrants who aren’t screened and may be infected, as well as cramped working situations; tens of thousands of agents have tested positive.
It’s all taking a toll. Fourteen CBP agents committed suicide in 2022, the highest reported by the agency since 2009, as border apprehensions exceeded 2 million. Brandon Judd, National Border Patrol Council president, notes law-enforcement agents at the border are afraid to come forward and discuss mental-health issues because of fear of stigmatization and loss of pay.
CBP has expanded the number of on-site clinicians and is bringing on board psychologists. There’s also the Peer Support and Chaplaincy Programs, as well as the Employee Assistance Program, which offers online, phone and text counseling. But these resources are far from sufficient.
Rep. Tony Gonzales (R-Texas) and a bipartisan group of lawmakers have proposed the Taking Action to Prevent Suicide (TAPS) Act to direct resources to CBP agents based on a model used in the military. It would create a task force with at least one CBP agent, the CBP deputy commissioner, the Border Patrol chief and the Health and Human Services assistant secretary for mental health and substance abuse. The panel must also have members with experience in national suicide-prevention policy and clinical experience. Family members would also be included.
Dr. James Hodges, internist and rancher at the border, pointed out to me that CBP agents are seeing more deaths on duty than ever due to vehicle incidents while chasing “getaways” as well as drownings. The number of deaths resulting from vehicle pursuits jumped to 23 last year, an 11-fold increase.
It’s appropriate that CBP investigates itself to determine the cause of all accidents, but these investigations also add greatly to the mental-health concerns. The suicides, Hodges says, are approaching combat-veteran rates.
Of course we must be concerned about the health of everyone involved, from illegal migrants to those in the unprotected communities they enter. We must worry about the cramped quarters in detention centers, where infectious diseases spread easily. We must be alert to a likely huge influx of patients for trauma or other illness to the border hospitals, especially if Title 42 is ultimately pulled back.
But as a practicing physician who has worked on the front lines, I am most concerned about our Border Patrol agents. They are putting their lives and well-being on the line to protect us. The least we can do is show our support in return. The TAPS Act would be one step in the right direction — but there needs to be far more done, and it needs to be done right now.
Marc Siegel, MD, is a clinical professor of medicine and medical director of Doctor Radio at NYU Langone Health and a Fox News medical analyst.