Across the border work "voluntary"

Jan 25, 2013

In the “border war”—crossing the border, that is—between federal veterinarians and the USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS), one side has relented. The agency will not force current veterinary employees to cross the Mexican border to staff a new inspection facility there.

Initial inspections began Tuesday, Jan. 22 at the new Columbia Bridge cattle inspection facility in Nuevo Leon, Mexico. The facility was the center of controversy for the past few months after APHIS originally insisted federal veterinarians and inspectors work at the new facility—one which many considered dangerous—on threat of disciplinary action.

APHIS has since changed its position following refusals from affected veterinarians, and outcry from the National Association of Federal Veterinarians (NAFV). Work at the Columbia Bridge facility will be voluntary for existing federal veterinarians and inspectors.

Plans for an expanded inspection schedule and efforts to recruit permanent staff for the facility start this week.

An email sent Friday, Jan. 18 from APHIS Texas Area Veterinarian In Charge Dr. Kevin Varner to affected APHIS Veterinary Services (VS) employees detailed the nature of the staffing of the new facility:

“…Veterinary Services has changed its position and has made service in Mexico for current employees a voluntary activity. No current Texas VS employee will be required to work in Mexico and there will be no negative effects on an employee’s career if they do not volunteer.”

According to the email, inspection service at the Columbia Bridge facility will operate on a semi-trial basis for the next four months.

“The plan is to operate for the next four months on alternate days, one day at Laredo [an inspection facility in the U.S.], the next at Columbia Bridge [the new Mexican facility] and then back to Laredo. During this four month period USDA will be reviewing cattle numbers and cattle flow at the five Texas/Mexico land border ports. Next steps will be determined later.”

Varner was not available in time to answer some of WLJ’s questions regarding the situation, but Lyndsay Cole, public affairs specialist for APHIS, offered some background on the why fores behind some of the plans.

“Right now it’s just so there is no backup at either facility,” she said of the reasoning to switch back and forth from the Laredo, TX, inspection facility and the new Columbia Bridge facility. In using both locations on alternating days, neither one would get bogged down with the influx of cattle from the area.

Cole confirmed that the four-month plan to alternate between the two facilities was an effort to test the new facility and check appropriate cattle flow rates, staffing, and overall evaluate the needs of inspecting cattle there compared to others. She also echoed Varner’s email regarding the to-be-determined feel of what would happen following the fourmonth trial period.

William Hughes, a lawyer with NAFV, saw the switching back and forth from the Laredo facility to the Columbia Bridge facility as somewhat curious, however.

“It verifies our contention that the U.S. facility is comparable to the Mexican facility and the traveling is not necessary.”

The conflict between federal inspectors and their employer started following the construction of the facility several miles across the Mexican border in the Columbia Bridge area located at Nuevo Leon, Mexico. The facility was originally conceived by the Nuevo Leon Cattle Union, and took two years and several millions of dollars to build.

Approximately 10,000- 20,000 Mexican cattle come into the U.S. They are inspected for tick fever infestations, foot and mouth disease, tuberculosis, and other animal diseases before they are placed in U.S. feedlots where disease transmission could infect the domestic herd. Inspections are performed by federal Veterinary Medical Officers (VMO) assisted by Animal Health Technicians (AHT).

In recent years, spurred on by escalating violence along the border from drug cartel-related issues, all inspection facilities were relocated on the U.S. side of the border. Both the U.S. State Department and FBI strongly advise American citizens against venturing into this part of Mexico for safety reasons.

After considerable vacillation on the opening date of the Mexican facility, September of 2012 was eventually settled upon. But VS employees pushed back against this as the September opening date approached, with worries including being carjacked, kidnapped, injured or murdered while traveling across the border to reach the facility, given known Los Zetas drug cartel presence, activity and violence.

Veterinarians and other employees inspecting cattle on the U.S. side of the border were invited to visit the Columbia Bridge facility and see it in action after balking at the idea. In mid-September 2012, those veterinarians willing to observe the conditions themselves were escorted to the facility. Some trialrun inspections were performed to test the facility’s efficiency in running cattle, but this too was with an armed escort and guard behind semi-fortified safety fencing. Very few were convinced of the safety of the location enough to travel to it unaccompanied every day and opposition persisted.

Despite the defenses mounted at the facility, the APHIS officials insisted then and now the area was and is safe. The email from Varner pointed out that a State Department regional safety officer and an APHIS security team completed a final review of the new facility. The team certified the completion of all State Department/APHIS facility modification requests and gave the go-ahead for US- DA to service the facility.

Cole reiterated this detail, saying that in the most recent security assessment which took place on Jan. 16, the facility was found to be low-risk.

“From the beginning we had direct control over the design of this facility. We immediately started looking at some of those things,” Cole said, referencing things like violence in the area which had been central to veterinarians’ earlier refusals to work at the facility.

“We looked at the things which would make the facility safe. As for the port itself, there are no records of violence at the facility itself.”

The positions at the Mexican facility will be available to current federal veterinarians and inspectors on a voluntary basis. However, the new positions specifically created for the facility include the requirement that U.S. civilians make the trek across the Mexican border. According to the email by Varner:

“To staff Columbia Bridge on the front end we will utilize a group of Texas volunteer VMO’s [sic]. To expand this group, the Western Region has sent out a Region-wide email asking for volunteers. At the same time, USDA will advertise for both a permanent Port VMO and a permanent Port AHT for Laredo. These new positions will be advertised with a new Position Description that includes this statement: ‘Incumbent(s) will be required as an essential function, to travel and work both in and outside of the United States in the performance of assigned duties.’” Cole again echoed the assurances of Varner’s email, emphasizing that no employees who felt unsafe about the facility would be forced to go. She went on to comment that if VS employees still have concerns about the safety of the facility or travel to it, “we want to hear them.”

“Employee safety has always been our primary concern.”

NAFV voiced appreciation over APHIS’ change of position regarding current veterinarians and technicians, but still has reservations about the situation, particularly with the newly-created positions.

“All the veterinarians involved are very pleased that APHIS has taken this action and that none of the existing employees will be forced to go into Mexico,” said Hughes.

“However we remain very concerned that the agency is even considering sending anybody over even on a voluntary basis because we believe the danger remains very real. In addition we have concern the agency managers who are behind this effort are placing themselves in a very vulnerable position because whether someone goes voluntarily or is forced to go, they bear full responsibility.” — Kerry Halladay, WLJ Editor