Nearly one in five staff members at Customs and Border Protection have not received a COVID-19 vaccine, putting thousands of the agency's employees in line for termination as the Biden administration struggles to secure the border.
About 18 percent of the CBP workforce were not inoculated by Nov. 8, meaning about 12,000 employees risk losing their jobs if they do not receive a religious or medical exemption by Nov. 22, according to internal documents reviewed by the Washington Free Beacon. The Office of Personnel Management said federal agencies may impose disciplinary action, such as suspension or termination, against unvaccinated employees after Nov. 9.
The vaccination push comes as CBP faces strained resources in managing the immigration crisis on the southern border. As a record number of illegal immigrants attempt to cross into the United States, agents on the ground say they lack the manpower to patrol designated areas. Meanwhile, agents who process migrants with asylum claims are working in facilities frequently beyond maximum capacity.
The vaccination rate for Border Patrol agents is lower than for the agency as a whole. Seventy-four percent have been vaccinated, meaning more than 5,000 agents may lose their jobs before the year's end—an outcome that would prove disastrous and require one of the largest federal hiring sprees in history.
"There are just a lot of agents who are refusing to get the vaccine," said one Border Patrol agent who is deployed on the southern border and spoke with the Free Beacon on the condition of anonymity. "There's a 50/50 chance they're all just going to get fired or placed on leave without pay. The union is involved, but not sure there is much for them to stand on."
The Air and Marine Operations division has the second-lowest vaccination rate in the agency at 83 percent whereas CBP's Office of Public Affairs has the highest percentage of vaccinated staff at 95 percent. About 12 percent of the entire agency has either not recorded their vaccination status or said they are not vaccinated and have not received an exemption.
Concerns over a vaccine mandate at the agency have been lingering since President Joe Biden announced the policy in September. Such a government-wide effort had never been tried before, one senior Department of Homeland Security official told the Free Beacon. Agencies rushed to create an online database to record every employee's vaccination status. That database, called the Vaccine Status System, according to the official, regularly crashed in its early days.
CBP leadership is aware of the potential backlash from Border Patrol agents over the vaccination mandate, with analysts at the agency playing out scenarios in case of mass non-compliance. The results are mixed. In some instances, internal documents show, the agency believes it can hire enough new employees to replace old ones, but it does not specify the time period in which it could accomplish this. In others, analysts warn that CBP lacks the hiring capabilities.
"We can't lose anybody and expect to secure the border. So we do believe this vaccine mandate—while we will encourage people to get vaccinated, we fully support the individual's right to choose what they put in their body, especially as the ‘science' changes so often," Brandon Judd, president of the National Border Patrol Council, a Border Patrol union, told the Free Beacon. "So we support the agent's right to choose on the vaccine and what goes into their body, but at the same time, I think the administration is doing this wrong, because we just can't afford to lose anybody."
Internal emails reviewed by the Free Beacon show DHS said it remained hopeful that vaccination rates would increase and cited weekly increases in doses. But losing even 5 to 10 percent of staff, the senior DHS official said, would prove disastrous as the agency enters the new year with the surge in migrants on the southern border showing little signs of abating.
A spokeswoman for CBP said the agency is "actively working to ensure compliance with President Biden's Executive Order requiring all federal employees be vaccinated against COVID-19 by Nov. 22, except in limited circumstances where an exception is required by law."
"Further, until recently, the department's efforts to collect information on COVID-19 vaccination status from our employees relied primarily on voluntary reporting," the spokeswoman said. "As a result, we estimate that reported vaccination rates are lower than actual rates due to underreporting."
A sharp drop in staff would add stress to an agency already facing steep budget cuts by congressional Democrats. A Senate appropriations bill released in October allocates just $14.5 billion to CBP for the 2022 fiscal year, down from $15 billion the year before and less than what the president himself requested.