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Union-backed Vitiello named as Border Patrol chief

A longtime border agent was tapped to lead the U.S. Border Patrol on Tuesday, with Ronald Vitiello's appointment announced in a tweet by Customs and Border Protection. Vitiello had been backed by the union for BP agents, as the Trump administration is poised to add 5,000 to the agency's contingent of 25,000.

Vitiello, CBP’s executive assistant commissioner for operations support, was named in a brief afternoon tweet by that agency's acting commissioner, Kevin McAleenan.

The new chief is "uniquely qualified" for the post, McAleenan said in a statement posted later Tuesday night on CBP's website.

The move comes less than a week after BP Chief Mark Morgan, who had clashed with the National Border Patrol Council regarding overtime pay and other issues, announced he would leave the agency. The union, which represents about 16,000 BP agents, had pushed for Morgan's ouster. He served in the BP's top post for eight months.

Vitiello became a BP agent in 1985, and served as deputy chief under President Barack Obama after climbing the ranks. He was acting chief of the agency for six months last year, before Morgan was named as the head of the Border Patrol. Vitiello previously served as chief of the Rio Grande Valley Sector — one of the nation's busiest smuggling areas.

U.S. Rep. Martha McSally welcomed Vitiello's appointment, saying in a news release that he "brings vast experience at nearly all levels of the Border Patrol. I look forward to working with him to build a smarter, more effective border strategy that increases our situational awareness and operational control and keeps our border residents safe."

Morgan, a former FBI agent, was the first BP chief to be hired from outside the agency's ranks, a move that rankled the union.

R. Gil Kerlikowske, the commissioner of Border Patrol's parent agency, U.S. Customs and Border Protection, retired last Friday. The Trump administration has yet to name a permanent replacement.

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In June, Kerlikowske praised Morgan's "strong law enforcement and leadership credentials" noting that among other duties, Morgan had a 20-year career as an FBI agent, including a stint as Special Agent in Charge of the El Paso Division.

Morgan also lead CBP's internal affairs division, following the controversial tenure of James F. Tomscheck, who was ousted over criticism that the agency was failing to properly investigate accusations of abuse and excessive force by agents and officers.

Morgan was almost immediately unpopular with the executive board of the NBPC, which argued in an op-ed that Morgan's hiring had shunted aside "the most qualified applicant" Vitiello, and that Morgan was a "disgrace to the Border Patrol."

In December, Morgan wrote an email sent to all Border Patrol agents, and defended comments he made to Congress.

Obtained by the Center for Investigative Reporting, Morgan wrote that the transition to the Trump administration was "an absolutely exciting time - as we have a great opportunity to 'tell our story.'" And, he said that while he supported comprehensive immigration reform, he did not support "blanket amnesty."

Instead, Morgan said he wanted reform to the "numerous policies and laws" that impede Border Patrol agents. This includes increasing the use of Consequence Delivery Systems, which includes the fast-track deportation procedure known as Operation Streamline, limiting the use of Voluntary Release, and increase the use of Expedited Removal, where agents quickly process and deport immigrants, and ending the "abuse" of the asylum process. 

Steve Kilar, a spokesman with the American Civil Liberties Union of Arizona, said last week that the person who succeeds Morgan "needs to prioritize accountability and officer training in order to reduce the use of excessive force and unconstitutional practices like racial profiling."

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