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Oregon senator delays confirmation of TPD's Magnus as CBP head

Sen. Ron Wyden, a Democrat from Oregon, said he was holding up the process over questions about federal actions in Portland

U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden, a Democrat from Oregon, is holding up the confirmation process for Tucson Police Chief Chris Magnus, who was tapped by the Biden administration in April to lead U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

Wyden, the chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, told the Washington Post that he was refusing to move forward on Magnus' confirmation because under the Biden administration, the Department of Homeland Security and the Justice Department have "failed to answer basic questions" about how federal officers — including members of the U.S. Border Patrol's special operations group BORTAC — operated during unrest in Portland, Ore., in July 2020.

With Magnus' nomination delayed since April, Troy Miller remains the acting commissioner, a post he has held since January 20 when the Biden administration began. If Magnus is confirmed as CBP's head, he would be the twelfth person to lead the 58,000-strong agency as commissioner since its creation in March 2003.

Even as Magnus' nomination remains delayed, CBP faces an continued influx of people coming across the U.S.-Mexico border, including thousands of unaccompanied minors and families, largely seeking legal asylum in the U.S.

Although he opposed a local "sanctuary city" initiative as Tucson's police chief, a post he's held since 2016, Magnus was a staunch critic of President Donald Trump's border policies, and he regularly blasted members of that administration, including former Attorney General Jeff Sessions.

"The harsh anti-immigrant rhetoric and Mr. Sessions’s reckless policies ignore a basic reality known by most good cops and prosecutors," Mr. Magnus wrote in a New York Times opinion piece in 2017. "If people are afraid of the police, if they fear they may become separated from their families or harshly interrogated based on their immigration status, they won’t report crimes or come forward as witnesses."

Magnus also joined Pima County officials in rejecting grants from Operation Stonegarden, which funds cooperation between local law enforcement and the Border Patrol.

Magnus said that he could not discuss the confirmation process, but added he hoped the matter will be resolved soon "so I can move forward in the process."

"Six months into the new administration, the Departments of Homeland Security and Justice have failed to answer basic questions about how the Trump administration misused federal resources to stoke violence against peaceful protesters in my hometown," Wyden said in a statement provided to TucsonSentinel.com. "While it is clear that Customs and Border Protection faces pressing issues, as the senior senator from Oregon, I am unable to advance this nominee until DHS and DOJ give Oregonians some straight answers about what they were up to in Portland last year, and who was responsible."

Wyden said that while "it is clear" that CBP "faces pressing issues," he is "unable to advance this nominee until DHS and DOJ give Oregonians some straight answers about what they were up to in Portland last year, and who was responsible."

Federal officers clash with protestors in Portland

Over the summer of 2020, thousands of protestors clashed with federal officers outside the Hatfield U.S. Courthouse in downtown Portland after a prolonged protest focused on racial justice and police accountability.  

The incidents continued for weeks in the Oregon city.

As the protests accelerated, federal officers had lasers shined in their eyes, and endured a hail of Molotov cocktails, unknown liquids, rocks, and fireworks. BORTAC agents detained some people, grabbing them off the street and cramming them into unmarked vehicles. Federal agents also fired tear gas and pepper-balls into the crowd, injuring several people.

This included 26-year-old Donavan La Bella, who suffered a fractured skull after he was shot in the head with a "less-than-lethal" round fired by federal agents.

Wyden blamed the former president for that incident. "The consequences of Donald Trump unilaterally dispatching fed’l law enforcement into U.S. cities played out in Portland w/a peaceful protester shot in the head," wrote Wyden on Twitter. "Trump & Homeland Security must now answer why fed’l officers are acting like an occupying army," he said.

The U.S. Marshals Service told the Washington Post in July 2020 that it was investigating the incident, saying that it occurred while officers were "securing the perimeter of the federal courthouse."

Following the incidents in Portland, members of the Senate Intelligence Committee wrote they had "grown increasingly concerned" about the role and operations of the Department of Homeland Security, and the Office of Intelligence and Analysis "in particular." In a letter, signed by seven Senators, including Wyden, the committee asked more than two dozen questions of DHS, that still remain unanswered.

In March 2021, U.S. Sen. Mark Warner, a Democrat from Virginia, sent a new letter to DHS asking for further review of the intelligence gathered by the Office of Intelligence and Analysis and said DHS should "prepare a reported suitable for public release."

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The following month, the Inspector General's office with DHS issued a report, outlining the events in Portland.

While DHS had the authority to send federal agents to protect federal office buildings in Portland, the OIG wrote that DHS was "unprepared to effectively execute" operations with other agencies to protect those buildings, including a federal courthouse.

"Specifically, not all officers completed required training; had the necessary equipment; and used consistent uniforms, devices, and operational tactics when responding to the events in Portland," the OIG wrote.

Between June 4 and Aug. 31 2020, DHS sent a total of 755 officers—including 337 Border Patrol agents—to Portland as part of an effort dubbed "Operation Diligent Valor." The officers made 62 arrests, and protestors reportedly damaged the Hatfield U.S. Courthouse to the tune of around $1.6 million. The total cost of the operation was around $12.3 million, the OIG wrote.

"This occurred because DHS did not have a comprehensive strategy that addressed the potential for limited state and local law enforcement assistance, as well as cross-designation policies, processes, equipment, and training requirements," the watchdog wrote. "Without the necessary policies, training, and equipment, DHS will continue to face challenges securing Federal facilities during periods of civil disturbance that could result in injury, death, and liability."

The White House told the Washington Post that they are working to answer Wyden's questions, and urged the Senate to proceed with Magnus' hearing.

"We are pressing for the nomination of Chris Magnus to move forward through committee and to the Floor," the White House official told the Post. "CBP needs its leadership in place to continue implementing the President’s vision for an orderly immigration system, and we hope the Senate will cooperate with that."

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Paul Ingram/TucsonSentinel.com

Tucson Police Chief Chris Magnus during a press conference in 2016.

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