The U.S.-Mexico border fence in Nogales, Ariz.

The U.S.-Mexico border fence in Nogales, Ariz. Yuko Smith photography / Getty Images

DHS Is Deploying More Employees to the Border, and Some Are Growing Tired of It

Some deployments have become mandatory as the administration prepares for an expected uptick in work at the border.

A group of Homeland Security Department workers is imploring the Biden administration, Congress, its agency inspector general and anyone who will listen to no longer require them to go to the southern border to boost resources there amid a record uptick in migrant crossings. 

With the Border Patrol encountering all-time high levels of individuals over the last year, DHS is once again soliciting volunteers throughout the department to supplement personnel along the southwest border. For at least some of those personnel, the requests have turned into mandatory assignments. In response, Federal Air Marshal Service employees are asking the Biden administration to reverse course. 

In an email to staff earlier this week obtained by Government Executive, Tirrell Stevenson, the Transportation Security Administration's executive assistant administrator and FAMS director, said the agency did not receive enough volunteers and it may become “operationally necessary to assign” air marshals from all field offices and headquarters to the border. He noted he had shortened the rotation from 30 to 21 days. 

“I recognize the hardships these deployments can have on personal matters, and have directed Law Enforcement/FAMS supervisors, managers and leadership to take into consideration a range of factors when scheduling individuals for these deployments,” Stevenson wrote. 

Dave Londo, president of the Air Marshals National Council, said he has since been told every FAM will have to accept a deployment and there are currently 150 at the border. Londo called the deployments “reckless,” as it will lead to fewer marshals in the air on flights during the busy holiday season. Employees have bemoaned the decision, he said, noting the job already requires significant time away from family and puts strain on marriages. They have also lamented being sent to conduct what they consider primarily non-law enforcement duties, such as hospital watch, transportation and welfare checks. 

At a hearing this week, Rep. Jeff Van Drew, R-N.J., asked DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas how he could justify the FAMs deployments, saying it was looking to solve the border issue by creating security lapses in air travel. 

“Instead of having just one problem, now we have a few problems thanks to what we are doing to the air marshals,” Van Drew said.

Mayorkas said it was a “fair question” and noted that DHS has requested funding to hire 300 new Border Patrol agents in fiscal 2023. R. Carter Langston, a spokesman for TSA, the agency where FAMs are housed, said the deployments would not create additional security concerns and noted air marshals were previously sent to the border in 2019. 

“We always appreciate the concerns of our workforce and work very hard to address them,” Langston said. “The deployment of Federal Air Marshals to execute DHS’ mission at the southwest border on a reimbursable basis is temporary. At the same time, our expert Federal Air Marshal Service workforce continues their important work in transportation security.”

DHS has several times in recent years turned to its workforce to address swings in migration patterns, as well as other emergencies such as hurricane response and refugee processing. Last year, President Biden tapped the Federal Emergency Management Agency to address a record increase in migrant children at the border. FEMA, Customs and Border Protection, Federal Protective Service, Immigration and Customs Enforcement and other DHS employees deployed through the department's Volunteer Force staffed shelters, provided security and offered other support. The administration subsequently asked for volunteers across government to help an overwhelmed DHS and Health and Human Services Department in processing the children. Under President Trump in 2019, CBP reassigned thousands of customs officers from ports of entry to assist Border Patrol staff during a migration upswing.

Those deployments are only likely to ramp up in the coming weeks. A federal judge this week ruled the Biden administration must end its enforcement of the Title 42 policy, an initiative first launched under President Trump to automatically reject and turn away most migrants arriving at the border to make asylum claims. The policy was implemented ostensibly to prevent the spread of COVID-19, though Republican lawmakers and the Biden administration have been reluctant to support its termination over fears it will create a new pull factor toward an already overwhelmed border. The judge on Wednesday granted the administration's request for a five-week delay to prepare for the expected uptick of migrant arrivals. 

Earlier this year, the Biden administration rolled out a plan for the end of Title 42 that included deploying officers, agents and other staff throughout its workforce to address and process the anticipated increased stream of immigrants. It also suggested it would ask for personnel assistance from other federal agencies. Encounters at the border have remained high despite Title 42 allowing the government to reject migrants seeking asylum—in part because the policy enabled those turned away to quickly make renewed efforts to cross the border—but the administration is expecting the news of the end of the policy will lead to a renewed interest in individuals fleeing violence, unrest and poverty seeking to enter the United States.

Londo, of the National Air Marshals Council, said TSA has not set an end date for the deployments. His association has sent a letter to the DHS IG questioning whether the assignments are legal, suggesting they are a misappropriation of federal funds as Congress did not explicitly authorize them. An IG spokesman declined to comment on the request, though Londo said the office is reviewing whether to probe the matter further. Francine Kerner, TSA’s chief counsel, in response to the council’s contentions pointed to statute authorizing the DHS secretary to delegate any function within the department’s purview to any employee. Mayorkas took the action in recognizing “that the unprecedented volume of undocumented non-citizens apprehended and in custody along the [southwest border] requires further action to protect the life and safety of federal personnel and non-citizens,” Kerner said. 

She acknowledged the deployment could damage morale, but highlighted the shortened assignments and that selections were being made in reverse order of seniority. 

“I assure you that morale among the FAMs workforce is of the utmost importance to leadership and that morale is carefully considered when making operational decisions,” Kerner said.

After publication of this story, Alexa Lopez, a second TSA spokesperson, told Government Executive that the deployed air marshals are performing critical law enforcement duties that would otherwise be performed by law enforcement personnel. 

"The FAMS’ work at the SWB is vital to safeguarding the security of our nation," Lopez said. 

This story has been updated with additional comment from TSA.