Congress

Trump wants 400 TSA agents sent to the border. Democrats say that may hurt morale

Lawmakers worry high TSA turnover could increase after the White House said it was sending agents to the southwest border

A transportation security officer checks passengers at Reagan National Airport in D.C. Democrats raised concerns Tuesday that the Transportation Security Administration’s ongoing problems with high turnover rates could worsen after the Trump administration announced it would send 400 TSA workers to the southwest border to help with the migrant surge. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Democrats raised concerns on Tuesday that the Transportation Security Administration’s ongoing problems with high turnover rates could worsen after the Trump administration announced it would send 400 TSA workers to the southwest border to help with the migrant surge.

“I think what I see now is continued manufacturing of a crisis, to the detriment of TSA and some other agencies, which should not be,” Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., House Homeland Security chairman, said at a Tuesday hearing on the TSA workforce crisis. “I’m concerned that we are now putting airports at risk potentially, as well as the traveling public at risk in general, by taking people away from airports and sending them to the border.”

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Democrats on the House Homeland Security Committee also raised questions about whether the nation’s airport security forces are properly trained to assist Border Patrol agents after USA Today reported that TSA workers reallocated to the border will be assisting in meal preparation, property management, and legal assistance for asylum petitioners.

“We can talk about the border, the refugee crisis is a major issue, but I’ll tell you what they are guarding against at major airport is individuals who have a goal and intent to bring down one of our planes,” said Rep. Lou Correa, D-Calif. “We have to make sure these individuals are paid correctly so that the turnover goes down so that we can remain safe.”

GOP lawmakers pointed out that the recent deployment of TSA workers to the border highlights how the situation at the southern border is escalating.

“It is a concern to move TSA employees to the border, even though they did so voluntarily in my understanding, but it just goes to show the crisis we have down at the border,” Rep. Debbie Lesko. R-Ariz., said.

The 400 volunteers from TSA are coming from all divisions, Department of Homeland Security officials said, including front-line officers, headquarters personnel and federal air marshals. “We will minimize volunteers from airports that have attrition issues and will monitor operations to ensure volunteers are strategically selected to minimize impact,” a DHS official, who did not want to be identified, said in a statement.

President Donald Trump has repeatedly called what’s happening at the southern border a “humanitarian crisis” and has deployed thousands of National Guard and active-duty troops to the southern border to assist Border Patrol personnel as the monthly border apprehension numbers continue to rise.

In April, 109,144 individuals were apprehended at the southwest border, which included individuals who turned themselves in openly to Border Patrol and those deemed “inadmissible” or caught entering the U.S. illegally, according to DHS. April was the second month in a row where the monthly number of border apprehensions exceeded more than 100,000.

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J. David Cox, national president of the American Federation of Government Employees, said that TSA officers are not trained to perform the work they’ll be conducting at the border.

“I’m not aware of any type of training at the law enforcement academy on serving meals and the preparation of meals and those type of things,” he said.

Cox also said that no one from the administration talked with him about sending TSA workers to the southern border and said that the high turnover rate in TSA is largely because of the agency’s erratic scheduling practices and low pay.

The federation represents TSA officers, but members have fewer collective bargaining rights than other federal employees because of the legislation that set up TSA in the wake of the attacks of September 11, 2001.

The DHS Office of Inspector General issued a report in March that said during fiscal years 2016 and 2017, TSA hired more than 19,300 transportation security officers, yet lost more than 15,500 during the same period. The IG also cited low pay, pointing out that TSA workers are among the lowest-paid workers in government.

“People who flip burgers make more then them,″ said Rep. Emanuel Cleaver II, D-Mo. “Americans ought to be furious about what’s going on, we pay these people almost nothing to save our lives every day.”

Lance Lyttle, managing director at Sea-Tac International Airport, part of the aviation division at the Port of Seattle, said on Tuesday that his team is struggling to manage with the resources and number of transportation security officers that they have at the airport.

“I’ve been at the airport for three and a half years and we have never had enough staff to man all of the lanes at the airports,” he said. “If these TSOs are reallocated somewhere else we will have lines all the way out to the garages.”

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