T.J. Bonner isn't comfortable in his olive-green Border Patrol uniform, but it has nothing to do with the fit or appearance. It's the label: "Made in Mexico."
"It's embarrassing to be protecting the U.S.-Mexico border and be wearing a uniform made in Mexico," says Bonner, a San Diego-based agent and president of the 6,500-member agents union, the National Border Patrol Council.
For more than a year, the men and women responsible for combating illegal immigration have been wearing uniforms manufactured south of the border. In addition to the symbolism, they say, the outsourcing to Mexico poses national security risks if some of the uniforms fall into the hands of criminals or potential terrorists.
"Who's going to miss a few dozen uniforms?" Bonner said. "That could be very dangerous to the agents. You see a uniform, and you assume that's one of the good guys."
Consequently, some members of Congress insist that it's time to change labels.
With House members preparing to consider tough immigration and border security measures after the Thanksgiving congressional break, Rep. Rick Renzi (R-Ariz.), says he plans to push for a measure requiring that the uniforms be made in the United States.
Rep. John Carter (R-Tex.), who plans to join Renzi in pushing for the restriction, said he shares the Arizona lawmaker's concerns that smugglers or Mexican gang members could steal a batch of uniforms and penetrate the already porous 1,951-mile border between Mexico and four states in the Southwest.
"If we're manufacturing uniforms in Mexico, what's to stop someone from walking across the border in a Border Patrol uniform?" Carter asked in an interview.
The uniforms are supplied through VF Solutions of Nashville under a contract that allows the apparel company to subcontract its work to plants in the United States, Mexico, Canada and the Dominican Republic. The contract authorizes the company to provide shirts and pants for agents and inspectors with U.S. Customs and Border Protection, a branch of the Homeland Security Department.
"The principle of it seems almost like an oxymoron," said James Stack of Alamogordo, N.M., the National Border Patrol Council's vice president for a region that includes Texas and New Mexico. "Most agents don't like it."
Company officials did not return phone calls to discuss the contract. But customs officials have said they maintain rigid security procedures, including on-site inspections at the Mexican plant, and have detected no security breaches or misuse of uniforms.
U.S. officials conducted a "security and quality assurance review" at the plant in August, according to a statement last week from the U.S. Customs and Border Protection's Washington headquarters.
"Based on this review, a report will be submitted to the CBP commissioner for determination on the made-in-Mexico issue, and no decisions have been made at this point," the statement said.
Renzi said he hopes to persuade GOP House leaders to include the made-in-America requirement as part of an immigration enforcement measure expected to be introduced by House Judiciary Chairman F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-Wis.), in early December.
Approximately 11,200 Border Patrol agents are deployed along the 6,000 miles of border separating the United States from Mexico and Canada.
Carter said the Mexican-made uniforms constitute not only a security risk but also represent another example of work leaving the United States to go to cheaper labor markets. "It's a security issue as well as an economic issue," he said.
Bonner, an agent for more than 27 years, said members of his union have complained repeatedly after uniforms began arriving with made-in-Mexico labels.
"They're not happy about this, but what are they supposed to do?" he asked. "You can't boycott and not wear a uniform."