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Under pressure, ex-TPD chief Chris Magnus resigns as head of federal border agency


Under pressure, ex-TPD chief Chris Magnus resigns as head of federal border agency

Former Arizona cop pushed out from top post at U.S. Customs and Border Protection

  • Chris Magnus at a 2016 Tucson Police Department press conference.
    Paul Ingram/TucsonSentinel.comChris Magnus at a 2016 Tucson Police Department press conference.
  • Chris Magnus during a Senate hearing on his confirmation as commissioner of Customs and Border Protection.
    Cronkite NewsChris Magnus during a Senate hearing on his confirmation as commissioner of Customs and Border Protection.
  • Chris Magnus during Mayor Regina Romero’s State of the City address on Dec. 02, 2021
    Paul Ingram/TucsonSentinel.comChris Magnus during Mayor Regina Romero’s State of the City address on Dec. 02, 2021
  • Magnus being sworn in as chief of TPD in 2016.
    Paul Ingram/TucsonSentinel.comMagnus being sworn in as chief of TPD in 2016.
  • Magnus in 2016.
    Paul Ingram/TucsonSentinel.comMagnus in 2016.

Chris Magnus, head of U.S. Customs and Border Protection and Tucson's former top cop, submitted his resignation to President Joe Biden on Saturday, after being told earlier in the week to quit or be fired.

Magnus was forced out his position after he pushed for major reforms at the 58,000-strong federal border agency. He resigned effective immediately, thanking the president and saying "it has been a privilege and honor to be part of your administration."

Magnus' boss, Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, had told him earlier this week that he needed to leave his post, either by resigning or being fired. But Magnus resisted giving up his CBP position.

Mayorkas is mollifying right-wing critics within Border Patrol by pushing out Magnus, said sources within the agency.

“They want to keep the trigger-pullers happy,” one federal source told the Sentinel.

In a brief statement Saturday night, the White House said that Biden "appreciates Commissioner Magnus’ nearly 40 years of service and the contributions he made to police reform during his tenure as police chief in three U.S. cities. The president thanks Mr. Magnus for his service at CBP and wishes him well."

Magnus was finally confirmed in December 2021 after his nomination was held up in the Senate for months as U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) pressured DHS for information about how the agency handled protests in Portland.

He had been nominated in April, and resigned his post as chief of the Tucson Police Department, which he had held since 2016.

During his tenure at CBP, Magnus pushed to change the culture of the sprawling border agency, with Customs and Border Protection including the Office of Field Operations — which manages the nation's border crossings — and U.S. Border Patrol.

In May, Magnus announced he would eliminate the Border Patrol's Critical Incident Teams, shifting investigations of deadly and serious incidents involving agents to CBP's Office of Professional Responsibility. He also said he would develop a new policy for vehicle pursuits after an 11-fold increase in deaths linked to CBP pursuits in 2022.

In recent months Magnus has faced strident criticism, including claims he was falling asleep during meetings—which he attributed to the medicine he takes for multiple sclerosis, and this week, Homeland Security's Mayorkas told him to resign or be fired, the Los Angeles Times reported.

Magnus told the Times he would not leave his position following Mayorkas' request, setting up a major clash between the two agency heads.

In a written statement Friday night, Magnus said he had no plans to resign.

"I want to make this clear: I have no plans to resign as CBP commissioner," Magnus said. "I didn't take this job as a resume builder. I came to Washington, DC — moved my family here — because I care about this agency, its mission, and the goals of this administration."

He didn't respond to request for comment by the Tucson Sentinel. The Department of Homeland Security refused to comment.

Short tenure at CBP

The clash between Mayorkas and Magnus came just 11 months after the Senate confirmed the former police chief to lead the federal border agency.

The agency has a $15 billion budget, and is staffed by roughly 45,000 law enforcement agents. This includes 21,180 officers responsible for inspecting cargo and interviewing passengers at 328 ports of entry, as well as 21,370 Border Patrol agents tasked with patrolling the 1,900 border between the U.S. and Mexico, as well as the border with Canada. Another 1,050 agents patrol the nation's skies and waterways as part of the Office of Air and Marine Operations.

Both Mayorkas and Magnus have faced withering criticisms about their roles, as the number of people taken into custody by Border Patrol agents has ramped up to historic levels, driven in part by the implementation of Title 42—a policy implemented by the CDC under the Trump administration that allows agents to quickly deport people if they've traveled through a country with high-levels of Covid-19 cases— as well as by poverty, crime, and political instability in several countries in South and Central American, as well as Haiti.

In fiscal year 2022, which ran from from Oct. 1, 2021, to Sept. 30, 2022, CBP officials encountered more than 2.7 million people. Critics blamed what they called an "open borders" policy under the Biden administration, and some Republicans said they would attempt to to impeach Mayorkas for failing to “secure the border.”

In October, DHS enlisted Mexico to stymie the number of Venezuelans coming to the U.S.-Mexico border, announcing they would be immediately be deported if they entered between ports of entry without authorization. DHS under Mayorkas billed the policy as a process to create a "more orderly and safe process for people fleeing the humanitarian and economic crisis in Venezuela."

"While failing regimes in Venezuela, Cuba, and Nicaragua continued to drive a new wave of migration across the western Hemisphere, the number of Venezuelans arriving at the southern border decreased sharply nearly every day since we launched additional joint actions with Mexico to reduce irregular migration and create a more fair, orderly and safe process for people fleeing the humanitarian and economic crisis in their country," Magnus said in a statement. "Over the past week, the number of Venezuelans attempting to enter the country fell more than 80 percent compared to the week prior to the launch of the joint enforcement actions."

"While this early data is not reflected in the latest report, it confirms what we've said all along: when there is a lawful and orderly way to enter the country, individuals will be less likely to put their lives in the hands of smugglers and try to cross the border unlawfully," Magnus said.

"CBP and DHS will continue to work with our partners in the region to address the root causes of migration, expand legal pathways, facilitate removals, and take thousands of smugglers off the streets," Magnus said. "No matter what smugglers say, those who do not have a legal basis to remain in the country will be removed and people should not make the dangerous journey."

CBP officials said agents encountered people 227,547 times in September. However, nearly one-fifth of that figure was driven by people who crossed at least once, if not multiple times, into the U.S. In September, the agency intercepted 182,704 people, including over 77,000 people from Venezuela. Around 58,000 people from Mexico and Central America were also intercepted, according to CBP data.

This includes around 5,714 people traveling as families with children, and around 11,900 children traveling with parents or guardians.

Border Patrol agents' union slams Magnus

Art del Cueto, the vice president of the National Border Patrol Council, which represents many Border Patrol agents, said the union was frustrated with Magnus' tenure as CBP Commissioner because he had failed—like others in the administration—to support agents.

"But, if the leadership is removing Magnus because they're frustrated with what's happening on the border, they have to admit there's a problem there, with the number of people apprehended who are just exploiting loopholes and asking for asylum, with the number of get aways, and with the massive amounts of drugs coming in," del Cueto told the Sentinel on Friday.

Del Cueto also criticized Magnus' move to investigations involving Border Patrol agents, including use-of-force incidents, from Critical Incident Teams to the Office of Professional Responsibility. By shifting these responsibities, Magnus made the backlog of cases worse.

“Regardless of who is doing investigation, they will look the things that need to be investigated,” said del Cueto. “If that’s by the teams, or by OPR, that doesn’t matter. The agency investigates agents all the time,” he said.

"This administration has made agents villains without any investigation," the BP union VP complained.

"We want someone who has the best interests of the agency at heart, who will back up agents and conduct investigations without just throwing them under the bus. And, we want someone who supports the best interests of the country—Americans want to feel safe in their homes—and understands border security has to be a priority" he said.

A senior Border Patrol agent told the Sentinel on Saturday morning that while he supported Magnus' move to add accountability and transparency at the agency, "it was the wrong time."

"We are running balls to the wall, dealing with hundreds of people on the line, and we need someone who will support us," the BP agent said.

In recent months, Magnus has faced sharp criticism in his role as CBP's head. In September, the Arizona Sheriff's Association said they had "no confidence" in Magnus, arguing that since "we have continued to see an influx of illegal immigrants and illicit drugs cross our Southern border." The ASA had pushed against Magnus’ nomination last year, but the group said in September since Magnus’ appointment, they “continued to see an influx of illegal immigrants and illicit drugs cross our Southern border.”

"What we have not seen is an increased partnership from the federal government including CBP to assist local law enforcement in preventing this activity. Border security is one of the core missions of the CBP and we feel the effort being put towards addressing this mission is woefully inadequate," wrote Cochise County Sheriff Mark Dannels and Pinal County Sheriff Mark Lamb, both Republicans.

“Commissioner Magnus’ lack of federal experience, as we pointed out last fall before his confirmation, has become increasingly apparent.”

The ASA also said they had “no confidence” in Vice President Kamala Harris in her role as border czar.

Neither Pima County Sheriff Chris Nanos nor Santa Cruz County Sheriff David Hathaway signed the letter.

"Commissioner Magnus' lack of federal experience, as we pointed out last fall before his confirmation, has become increasingly apparent. As a result, the Arizona Sheriffs Association has formally adopted a position of No Confidence that Commissioner Magnus is fit to continue to lead U.S. Customs and Border Protection. If there are questions about our position, we welcome the opportunity to discuss the issue further."

Magnus nomination held up

Magnus was nominated in April 2021, however his confirmation hearing was held up by U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, because under the Biden administration, the Department of Homeland Security and the Justice Department had "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.

The Oregon Democrat finally agreed to let Magnus' nomination move forward in the fall following a call with Mayorkas. Wyden said that Mayorkas called the actions of some federal officers in Portland "unacceptable," and promised to release a report by the agency's Office of Intelligence and Analysis that reviewed the actions of DHS personnel in Portland last year.

A full-version of the report showed DHS surveillance of Portland protesters was more expansive than previously known. DHS officials attempted to create dossiers, known a Operational Background Reports, for everyone who attended protests in Portland in 2020, and nne senior DHS official was "obsessed with labeling protestors as 'Violent Antifa Anarchist Inspired' with no evidence," wrote Wyden.

"Oregonians had a right to get a full accounting of the Trump Administration's twisted efforts to provoke violence in Portland for his political gain," Wyden said. "Now the public knows much more about how political DHS officials spied on Oregonians for exercising their First Amendment right to protest and justified it with baseless conspiracy theories."

Wyden praised DHS Undersecretary Kenneth L. Wainstein, who manages the agency's intelligence and analysis under the Biden administration "for following through on his commitment to me to review the last administration's unnecessary redactions and release these important details."

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