(WASHINGTON) — As Republicans plan to aggressively challenge President Biden’s border and immigration policies in the House next year, one border-district Republican is drawing attention an alarming number of suicides in the ranks of Customs and Border Protection agents.
Rep. Tony Gonzales, R-Texas, and a bipartisan group of lawmakers plan this week to introduce the TAPS Act to direct resources to Border Patrol agents — modeled on a past effort at the Pentagon to address mental health issues in the military.
“There’s a lot of things that should unite us,” Gonzales said at a news conference Wednesday. “The fact that we have 14 agents who have committed suicide [this year] is a problem … and it’s a problem for this body to solve.”
The 14 recorded suicides is the highest recorded by the agency in 13 years — since 2009. The agency reported eight suicides in 2020 and 11 suicides in 2021.
Gonzales, who represents Uvalde, also spoke about the mental health needs of the agents who responded to the school shooting.
“What they have been exposed to 100% has an impact on you,” he said.
“Until we take out the far of law enforcement coming forward to talk about mental health issues, they’re not going to do it,” said Brandon Judd, the president of the National Border Patrol Council, the union representing rank and file agents.
Under the current rules, Judd said, an agent who approaches supervisors for mental health issues can be stigmatized and at risk of losing pay.
The Democrats in attendance acknowledged the challenge the next Congress will have in advancing immigration and border security legislation, given the GOP House and a Democrat-controlled Senate.
Rep. Susie Lee, D-Nev., said the “best thing we can do for border security is comprehensive immigration reform.”
Rep. Elissa Slotkin, D-Mich., said Democrats and Republicans “recognize that our immigration system is totally broken, and is working for no one.”
“The folks who are manning the southern border are bearing the brunt of our failed policies,” she said. “We are willing to work with anyone on the right or the left to deal with that crisis.”
Gonzales signaled that this new effort could be its own bipartisan push, ahead of any major border security plan advanced by Republicans in the majority next year. Democrats will still control the Senate with 51 seats, and will need at least 60 votes to advance legislation.
A CBP spokesperson said in a statement to ABC News that the agency is “facilitating a culture that destigmatizes suicide and makes it safe for employees to seek help,” and is “increasingly dedicating resources” to support the workforce’s “mental health and well-being.”
“In addition to offering new resources for the field and generating social media and other communications campaigns, CBP has expanded the number of on-site clinicians and is hiring over a dozen operational psychologists. Together, these licensed professionals implement an evidence-based suicide prevention and intervention program, while tackling precursors to suicide including substance abuse, relationship problems, financial difficulties, and job stress during periods of expanded mission scope and complexity,” the spokesperson said.
ABC’s Lauren Peller and Quinn Owen contributed to this report.
If you are experiencing suicidal, substance use or other mental health crises please call or text the new three digit code at 9-8-8. You will reach a trained crisis counselor for free, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. You can also go to 988lifeline.org or dial the current toll free number 800-273-8255 [TALK].
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