Border agency chief faces challenges from within and without

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FILE – Migrants released by Border Patrol with court appearance notices, Feb. 5, 2022, in Somerton, Ariz., await COVID-19 tests at a warehouse at the Regional Center for Border Health before being taken by chartered bus to Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport. Chris Magnus faces many challenges in his new role as Commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection. In an interview with The Associated Press, Magnus acknowledged the morale issues at the nation’s largest law enforcement agency, but offered no quick response to the large migration flow to the United States, which attracts more asylum seekers than any other country. (AP Photo/Elliot Spagat, File)

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An officer protested that he had not joined Border Patrol to deal with children in custody. Another asked why a policy of making asylum seekers wait in Mexico for court hearings was not used more. And one turned his back on the senior officials who had come to listen.

Unsurprisingly to anyone who has tracked migration along the US southern border, the recent standoff occurred in Yuma, Arizona, where encounters with migrants illegally entering the country from Mexico have spiked. more than 20 in December compared to the previous year.

Discontent within the ranks is just one of the challenges Chris Magnus faces as the new head of America’s largest law enforcement agency. Magnus, who was sworn in as commissioner of the Border Patrol’s parent agency Customs and Border Protection this month, also faces persistent allegations that his agency mistreats migrants, fails to hire more women and is at the mercy of a broken asylum system.

Magnus may seem like an unconventional choice. When he was chief of police in Tucson, Ariz., he rejected federal grants to collaborate on border security with the agency he now heads and kept his distance from Border Patrol leaders in a region where thousands of officers are assigned.

During his first interview as commissioner, Magnus acknowledged the morale issues and outlined some initial steps to address them. He had no simple answer to deal with migratory flows.

“There have always been periods of influxes of migrants into this country for different reasons, at different times,” he said last week. “But I don’t think anyone disputes that the numbers are high right now and that we need to work as many different strategies as possible to deal with those high numbers.”

Magnus noted the growing number of migrants from countries other than Mexico and Central America, a trend that has been particularly strong in Yuma.

Under a public health order known as Title 42 that was designed to limit the spread of COVID-19, Mexico takes back migrants from the United States who come from Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras or Salvador and are denied the opportunity to seek asylum. Other nationalities are eligible for deportation, but the United States often does not bring them home due to expense or strained diplomatic relations with their home country. Instead, they are often quickly released to the United States to seek asylum.

“There’s a lot of frustration,” said Rafael Rivera, president of the National Border Patrol Council Local 2595, a union that represents officers in the Yuma sector of the patrol, which has seen a huge increase in such migrants. “They feel like there are no consequences, that we have an open border.

The number of migrant encounters at the U.S.-Mexico border totaled nearly 154,000 in January, a 15% drop from December, after three months of increases, court records show in a state complaint. of Texas challenging the Biden administration’s immigration policy. Slightly more than half of the people met were quickly expelled under public health orders.

In December, U.S. authorities stopped Venezuelans at the border nearly 25,000 times, more than double the number in September and more than a hundred times the nearly 200 they did in December 2020. Venezuelans were only following the Mexicans in the number stopped at the US border in December. .

In the Yuma sector, which stretches from the imperial sand dunes of California to the desert and rocky mountain ranges of western Arizona, Venezuelans were arrested nearly 10 times more than Mexicans in December. Colombians, Indians, Cubans and Haitians also outnumbered Mexicans.

Mexico began requiring visas for Venezuelans on January 21, Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas noted during his controversial January 26 meeting with Yuma officials, according to a leaked recording on the Townhall website. , which publishes conservative views. He said the United States is pressing Mexico to accept more nationalities under the authority of Title 42 and to increase enforcement of immigration laws within its own borders.

Magnus, who reports to Mayorkas, told the AP that migration flows are “increasingly complex” and that the United States is “doing its best to build and leverage relationships with these different countries in where migrants come from.

Although President Joe Biden faces many of the same challenges as his predecessors, Donald Trump has traveled to the border often, spent heavily on law enforcement and won an early endorsement from the officers’ union in 2016.

As a Biden appointee and an outsider who had a cold relationship with Border Patrol leaders in Tucson, Magnus might struggle to win over agents.

Roy Villareal, Border Patrol’s Tucson sector chief from early 2019 to late 2020, said he requested an introductory meeting with Magnus, who was then Tucson’s police chief, but he didn’t. never heard of, calling their lack of interaction a “tell-tale sign”. Villareal recalled speaking to Magnus only three times during their overlapping terms – each a courtesy call from Magnus to inform him that Tucson police were about to arrest one of his officers.

“He’s not the right person for Border Patrol,” said Villareal, who retired after 32 years with the agency. “His knowledge and understanding of border enforcement just isn’t there. … The agents will challenge him.

Others see Magnus as a good candidate.

“He is highly respected among his colleagues,” said Gil Kerlikowske, a former Seattle police chief whose emphasis on the use of force antagonized some officers when he served as Magnus of 2014 to 2017. “Chris’ experience in empowering people is quite extensive.”

Magnus, 61, was born and raised in Lansing, Michigan, where he served as an emergency dispatcher, paramedic, sheriff’s deputy and police captain. He served as police chief in Fargo, North Dakota, and Richmond, Calif., before taking office in Tucson in January 2016. In the latter role, he took orders from the city’s elected leaders liberal of more than 500,000 inhabitants.

In Tucson, Magnus created a program to keep people off drugs, worked with nonprofits helping the homeless, and revised the department’s use-of-force policy. He openly criticized Trump’s policies for making migrants more reluctant to share information about crimes with police.

CBP reviews in Tucson give Magnus mixed reviews. Vicki Gaubeca of the Southern Border Communities Coalition said he was championing ‘some very progressive policies’ but the Border Patrol needed a visionary who would change what she called a deep-seated ‘culture of impunity’ .

In his final weeks as police chief, Magnus called for the firing of an off-duty officer who shot and killed a suspected shoplifter in a motorized wheelchair, saying it was “a clear violation of department policy.” The officer left the department last month.

And in 2020, Magnus offered to resign over an in-custody death that the department didn’t make public for two months, but the city manager asked him to stay.

A long-standing issue facing Magnus involves allegations of officers using excessive force. Officers have been involved in a growing number of use-of-force incidents and there have been more deaths involving Border Patrol officers, although the number of encounters has increased at an even faster rate.

Magnus said the use of force is a “very serious concern” and he believes the overwhelming majority of officers are acting responsibly. He also defended specialist teams that collect evidence during incidents that may involve excessive use of force by officers. Democratic congressional leaders have expressed serious concerns about critical incident response teams, which some activists say are dark cover-ups.

“It’s really not unusual in most police departments,” Magnus told the AP. “There’s absolutely no reason why trained investigators in the field can’t gather this kind of essential evidence.”

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Fox reported from Washington and Snow reported from Phoenix.

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