Border patrol union at odds with AFL-CIO on immigration

Border Patrol agents detain a suspected smuggler after he allegedly transported undocumented immigrants across the Rio Grande, from Mexico into the United States, in Mission, Texas.
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While the current migrant child crisis has made hell for America's border agents, it has brought a timely spotlight for their labor union.

"From a political standpoint, I think it is great," Shawn Moran, the vice president and spokesman for The National Border Patrol Council, told CNBC.com. "It is bringing visibility back to the border. Previously, the only time you heard about the border was in terms of use-of-force incidents, and we haven't been painted very favorably in that regard. This shows the border is definitely unsecured."

Moran, who has become an omnipresent cable news fixture the past month, is the first to acknowledge the odd political paradoxes confounding a labor union that takes a hardline immigration stance.

"We are caught in the middle," he told CNBC.com in a lengthy interview this week. "Republicans like us because we are law enforcement. Democrats like us because we are a union. But we haven't seemed to be able to get both sides together."

That is just one of the Catch-22s facing the 17,000-member organization, which is attempting to move congressional legislation and renegotiate a labor contract for the first time in nearly two decades.

The Border Patrol Council's immigration position has also union non grata with its parent organization, the AFL-CIO, which has spent the last couple years aggressively lobbying for a comprehensive immigration reform package.

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Moran said that many of his members consider the AFL-CIO's position to be "pro-amnesty." Moran thinks this is one of the reasons the national trade union center has had virtually nothing to do with the Border Patrol Council, apart from having helped arrange a sit-down a couple years back with then-Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano.

The council's recently relaunched website removed its previous mention of being affiliated with the AFL-CIO.

Jeff Hauser, an AFL-CIO political outreach spokesman, declined to comment on the relationship between his organization and the Border Patrol Council, saying, "Internal discussions are not anything we talk about."

The BPC is officially chartered by the American Federation of Government Employees, one of 56 affiliate unions under the AFL-CIO. AFGE, which does not take an official position on immigration, serves as the council's bargaining representative in contract negotiations. Moran said the AFGE has "gone above and beyond" in its efforts to support his union.

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Currently, the Border Patrol Council's top priority is an overtime pay reform package being proposed in bipartisan House and Senate bills. The Senate legislation, introduced last year by Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., and Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., would move to make regular the overtime pay schedule for border patrol agents, thus providing a greater measure of reliability for the agents while claiming to save taxpayers an estimated $70 million. It recently passed out of committee.

Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, a tea party favorite who is co-sponsoring the House bill, noted the irony of his efforts.

"It is not often I band together with a union on these types of issues, but I am gladly doing it with this," he told CNBC.com. Chaffetz argues that the legislation is a "win-win scenario" for border agents and taxpayerswho it estimates will save $70 million annually with the new system.

The reform effort comes after several reports last year of widespread abuse with the existing overtime pay system. Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Iowa, accused the U.S. Customs and Border Patrol agency of effectively looking the other way.

Now Coburn, the top Republican on the Senate's Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, who has a hawkish reputation on both immigration and budget matters, is one of the chief skeptics of the pay reform bill. In a Senate committee meeting earlier this year, Coburn argued that the proposal amounts to "quietly sweeping under the rug the misconduct of management and agents."

Other conservatives have scrunched their noses at the idea border patrol agents should be given preferential treatment in the form of guaranteed overtime payments.

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"Our position has been eroded away," Moran said. "We realize you can't kick the cost down the road; everything coming through Congress has to have some funding."

The union has also been subject to criticism over inflammatory rhetoric.

Last month, it was accused of racism when it posted a tweet from its official account complaining that agents were being assigned to duties of "babysitting, diaper changing and burrito wrapping."

Then this week, it accused the Transportation Security Administration of willfully allowing undocumented immigrants without proper identification to pass through airport security in Texas.

All this is occurring as the union attempts to renegotiate a long-delayed new contract with U.S. Customs and Border Protection. The last contract expired in 1995, but has continued to roll over in the absence of a replacement.

Border patrol agents complain of a growing chasm between rank-and-file employees and officials at Customs and Border Protection, which they fear might serve to complicate contract negotiations.

"There is a big disconnection between both sides and part of it has to do with immigration being a very hot topic, politically," said Hector Garza, a border patrol agent and local union official in Laredo, Texas.

—By Daniel Libit, Special to CNBC.com