Tuesday, June 15, 2004

New Border Patrol uniforms, ordered in the wake of the agency’s transfer last year to the Department of Homeland Security, arrived this month and some agents are not very happy: The new uniforms were “Made in Mexico.”

“I’m embarrassed, not only as a Border Patrol agent but as an American citizen, that our government has decided to outsource the production of these uniforms with no regard for the safety of the process or the security of our country,” said Joseph N. Dassaro, president of the National Border Patrol Council (NBPC) Local 1613 in San Diego.

“What system is in place to ensure that these uniforms are not stolen en masse or sold outright in Mexico to be used by terrorists, alien smugglers or drug dealers who could cross unimpeded into the United States?” asked Mr. Dassaro, a veteran agent.

More than $30 million in new uniforms have been ordered for the Border Patrol by U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), a new agency within Homeland Security that now oversees the border force. Homeland Security was created in March 2003 after the September 11 terrorist attacks on America.

“It’s certainly not uncommon for cargo to be hijacked in Mexico, particularly in the many staging areas along the border, and the potential theft of these uniforms by the truckloads could become a major problem,” Mr. Dassaro said.

Patricia Todaro, CBP’s director of logistics, said the agency purchases new uniforms, along with jackets, shoes, hats and other equipment, from those suppliers from whom the government can obtain the best possible value for the taxpayer’s dollar.

“Our contracts allow us to seek out the best value for the government and that means we use vendors who might not be located in the United States,” Mrs. Todaro said. “In the end, we end up getting the best price and the best value.”

But T.J. Bonner, president of the NBPC, which represents all 11,000 nonsupervisory Border Patrol agents nationwide, noted that in addition to many unanswered questions concerning security issues regarding the Mexican-produced uniforms, there are concerns by field agents on why the cost of the new uniforms are rising if the government is saving money.

Mr. Bonner, in Washington today to testify before the House Select Committee on Homeland Security, noted that a $500-a-year uniform allowance paid to the field agents has not been increased while the cost of their basic gear, including $27 shirts and $32 trousers, has gone up as much as 10 percent.

“They say they’re saving money,” Mr. Bonner said. “If they are, none of those savings are being passed on to us. I think this is just the wrong thing to do; it’s the wrong message to send.”

The new uniforms were supplied through a contract with VF Solutions of Nashville, Tenn., which agreed to produce 30,000 shirts and pants for CBP agents and inspectors for the 2003-04 fiscal year that began Oct. 1. But the contract allows the company to subcontract its work to other facilities in the United States, Mexico, Canada and the Dominican Republic.

Officials at VF Solutions did not return calls yesterday for comment. The firm is a part of VF Corp., the world’s largest apparel company with 60,000 employees in 22 countries.

Mr. Bonner and Mr. Dassaro, based on complaints from field agents, said there also appeared to be quality concerns in the new Mexican-made uniforms, particularly shirts that are less durable and orders that often are undersized and have to be returned.

The Border Patrol, before the merger with Homeland Security, used to get shirts under a Justice Department contract with Fechheimer Bros. Co. in Cincinnati, the largest manufacturer of public-safety uniforms in the United States. The Border Patrol wore the company’s Flying Cross brand deluxe tropical shirts for many years.

Fechheimer still supplies other federal agencies with made-in-the-U.S.A. shirts — some through VF Solutions.

“We could have been supplied with quality shirts and trousers, even through VF,” said Mr. Bonner. “Instead, they sent tax dollars to Mexico in an effort to realize more corporate profits at the expense of the agents.”

The Border Patrol has worn dark-green uniforms since the agency was created in 1924 and vigorously fought with Homeland Security officials to keep them when other uniforms were being suggested.

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