Tucson chief approved – barely – to lead Customs and Border Protection

The Senate on Tuesday narrowly approved the nomination of Tucson Police Chief Chris Magnus to be the next commissioner of Customs and Border Protection, on a nearly party-line vote. Magnus told senators at his October confirmation hearing that he accepted the CBP nomination for the same reason he got into law enforcement decades ago, “to make a difference.” (File photo by Genesis Sandoval/Cronkite News)

WASHINGTON – The Senate voted by the slimmest of margins this week to make Tucson Police Chief Chris Magnus the next commissioner of Customs and Border Protection, confirming his appointment almost eight months after he was first nominated by President Joe Biden.

The 50-47 vote Tuesday came with just one Republican, Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, joining 49 Democrats to approve the nomination. Despite the lopsided vote, Sen. Mark Kelly, D-Ariz., welcomed what he called the bipartisan confirmation of Magnus to take over at a challenging time for the agency.

“Chris Magnus brings experience and understanding of Southern Arizona that will be important for his new role leading CBP as we continue working to secure the border, upgrade our ports of entry, and ensure a more orderly and humane process at the border that doesn’t fall on Arizona communities,” Kelly said in a prepared statement.

But critics called Magnus the “wrong man at the wrong time” for CBP, which reported a record 1.7 million migrant encounters at the southwest border in fiscal 2021.

Republicans in his Senate Finance Committee nomination hearing in October repeatedly tried to get Magnus to call the border situation a “crisis,” which he declined to do.

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While he called the border situation “one of the most serious problems that we face right now,” Magnus said he wanted to spend time working to fix a broken system and “a little less time debating what the terminology is.”

GOP senators also pointed to a Magnus opinion piece in the New York Times in 2017 opposing a Trump administration proposal that would have withheld federal funding from immigration “sanctuary cities,” a move Magnus said then, and during his hearing, would threaten local public safety.

Magnus also came under fire for his criticism of then-President Donald Trump’s decision to send Department of Homeland Security officers into Portland, Oregon, to protect the federal courthouse there during the 2020 protests, a deployment that state and local officials had also opposed. None of those positions assuaged opponents of his nomination.

“As the Border Patrol is overwhelmed with record numbers of people crossing our border illegally – compounded by vast amounts of lethal drugs being smuggled into our country – the men and women who serve in that agency deserve a leader who will provide them with the proper support and resources they need to protect the American people,” said a statement from Dan Stein, president of the Federation for American Immigration Reform. “Chris Magnus is most assuredly not that guy.”

But Magnus also said at his hearing that requiring COVID-19 vaccinations for immigrants was reasonable, and that a border wall made sense in certain parts of the border if it was paired with necessary technology to secure the border.

He vowed to fight for agency funding. And he also pledged to work with senators and to make sure that “customs and trade aspect of the agency” do not get short shrift, working to stem drug trafficking and enforce trade laws, with a particular focus on halting the importation of goods made with forced labor.

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Democrats on the committee, like Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., praised Magnus’ experience and his focus on the broad scope of the job, as well as his belief that “enforcing our immigration laws and treating people humanely are not mutually exclusive.”

Magnus has spent more than 40 years in public safety, and started as a police officer in his home state of Michigan before becoming chief in Fargo, North Dakota, and then in Richmond, California. He was named chief in Tucson in 2016.

Magnus resigned his Tucson job after the confirmation vote, and the Tucson City Council moved Tuesday to replace him with Deputy Chief Chad Kasmar.

Magnus leaves a department with about 1,100 employees to oversee the more than 60,000 workers in CBP, one of the largest agencies in the federal government.

But supporters like Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Tucson, said he is up to the job and welcomed his confirmation. Grijalva pointed to Magnus’ decades of law enforcement experience and his dedication to “more transparent, accountable, humane and evidence-based” policies for the agency.

“We entrust you to right a ship that steered off course under the previous administration, put an end to failed Trump-era border policies, and reshape the agency to reflect our values,” Grijalva tweeted Wednesday. “I look forward to continue our shared work to ensure that our communities along the border in Arizona and across the country remain safe, welcoming and prosperous.”

News Reporter, Phoenix