After months of delay, a Senate committee held a confirmation hearing Tuesday for President Joe Biden’s pick to lead U.S. Customs and Border Protection, the nation’s largest law enforcement agency, who signaled his support for two of the Trump administration’s most controversial border enforcement measures.
Appearing before the Senate Finance Committee, Tucson Police Chief Chris Magnus praised the utility of Title 42, a sweeping Trump-era public health order that authorizes the rapid summary expulsion of migrants and asylum-seekers without an immigration hearing, and said he would support some expansion of the wall at the southern border.
Implemented over the objections of public health professionals in March 2020, Title 42’s lockdown of asylum processing at ports along the southern border has created a backlog in some of northern Mexico’s most dangerous cities, fueling a rise in extortion, kidnapping, and violent assaults of migrants and asylum-seekers. Recently used to expel more than 7,000 Haitians in a matter of just two weeks, the rule is currently being challenged in the courts and has become a central area of concern for legal and human rights advocates. The Biden administration has repeatedly renewed the policy and said that it is not an immigration enforcement measure.
“It’s absolutely imperative we do everything possible to stop spread of Covid,” Magnus told lawmakers. “Title 42 is a CDC authority, and I think it helps with this.” Magnus later added that he would support vaccination of individuals who are permitted to enter the U.S., a move that would call the necessity of Title 42 into further question.
Though Magnus resisted repeated Republican entreaties to describe the border as a zone of “crisis,” he did say that he would support wall construction in some areas of the U.S.-Mexico divide. “There are some gaps where that could make sense,” he said. The police chief highlighted the importance of advanced technologies like drones and biometric data collection to bolster border security efforts. The Biden administration has halted some border wall contracts. Magnus declined to say whether he would seek to renew those specific contracts without first reviewing them.
The president tapped Magnus as his pick for CBP commissioner in April. Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., who chairs the Finance Committee, delayed the hearing as part of a demand that the Department of Homeland Security, which oversees CBP, turn over documents related to the deployment of Border Patrol tactical teams to Portland, Oregon, during the George Floyd protests. Wyden permitted the hearing to proceed after Homeland Security released the documents and announced an internal review of its use-of-force policies last month.
If confirmed, Magnus would be the first Senate-confirmed commissioner of CBP since 2019. He would lead an agency that is home to more than 60,000 employees, including roughly 20,000 Border Patrol agents. He has faced strong pushback from the Border Patrol’s ultra-right-wing union, which enjoyed unprecedented policymaking power and influence under President Donald Trump, as well as the nation’s broader network of border hawks and nativist think tanks.
Since beginning his career as a 911 dispatcher in Michigan, Magnus has earned a national reputation as a police reformer who carried Black Lives Matter signs at protests and wrote editorials criticizing Trump’s immigration policies. He faced sharp criticism last year, however, after the Tucson Sentinel broke the news that his department covered up the April 2020 killing of 27-year-old Carlos Adrian Ingram-Lopez. At a press conference, Magnus made a surprise offer of resignation in the wake of the revelations. Tucson Mayor Regina Romero declined the offer.
Ingram-Lopez’s death and the events that followed were not discussed in Tuesday’s hearing, but Magnus did tout his commitment to transparency, telling lawmakers: “You will find that I have a long history of transparency and sharing things with the public whatever the outcome may be.”
The agency Magnus seeks to lead has faced many high-profile scandals in recent years, including the deaths of multiple migrants in CBP custody; the surveillance of border-based lawyers, journalists, and asylum advocates; and the existence of an enormous, secret Border Patrol Facebook group in which current and former agents joked about killing migrants and forcing female Democratic members of Congress to perform oral sex.
Though Tuesday’s hearing addressed none of those incidents, Magnus said he would seek improved training and recruitment measures to rein in bad behavior at CBP. Most if not all Republicans are expected to vote against the police chief’s confirmation, though Vice President Kamala Harris’s tie-breaking power in the Senate will render the lawmakers’ opposition moot.