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Top border official Magnus says he’s been asked to resign but has refused

Chris Magnus speaks into a microphone during his Senate confirmation hearing in 2021
Chris Magnus speaks during his October 2021 Senate nomination hearing to become U.S. Customs and Border Protection commissioner.
(Rod Lamkey / Pool Photo / AFP/Getty Images)

In an escalation of internal disagreements within the Biden administration, U.S. Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Chris Magnus has been asked to resign.

In an interview with The Times on Friday, Magnus said he will not comply with the request to step down, which he said came from Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro N. Mayorkas.

Magnus, who is known as a progressive law enforcement leader, struggled to establish a public profile after his Senate confirmation in December.

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In recent months, however, the former police chief has done more media interviews, criticizing Republican governors who were busing and flying migrants from the border to Democratic-controlled cities.

On Twitter, he has been vocal on about immigration issues, writing that Title 42, a measure instituted during the Trump administration that allows border agents to quickly turn back migrants, “comes at a heavy cost to many asylum seekers.”

Magnus has tried to change the culture of Customs and Border Protection, which includes the Border Patrol. His goals include adding more female officers and tightening rules for pursuing migrants fleeing in cars.

After criticism about offensive humor within the ranks, including Facebook posts that made fun of dead migrants and lawmakers, Magnus has clamped down on social media activity.

The pressure on Magnus comes after a surprising midterm election, with preliminary returns showing Democrats performing better than expected after predictions of a Republican sweep. Republicans had tried to capitalize on the administration’s handling of immigration — particularly, the struggle to keep up with an increasing numbers of migrants crossing the border.

In the last fiscal year, which ended in September, U.S. Customs and Border Protection recorded more than 2 million encounters with migrants at the border — a record high.

In a conversation between the two men on Wednesday, Mayorkas said that he had lost confidence in Magnus, according to Magnus.

If Magnus didn’t resign, Mayorkas would recommend his firing to President Biden, Magnus said.

The next day, John Tien, the second in command at the Department of Homeland Security, also told Magnus that he should resign or else be fired within the next few days, Magnus said.

“I expressed to him that I felt there was no justification for me to resign when I still cared deeply about the work I was doing and felt that that work was focused on the things I was hired to do in the first place,” Magnus said.

A Department of Homeland Security spokesperson declined to comment.

The meeting with Mayorkas came after Magnus had decided to not continue a “retention” bonus for the head of Border Patrol, Raul Ortiz.

Magnus said he made the move because Ortiz did not favor reforms related to Border Patrol, including Magnus’ cultural changes.

On Tuesday, Magnus had gone to a meeting of Border Patrol chiefs in El Paso after Mayorkas had ordered him not to, Magnus said.

“After me making extensive attempts to reach [Mayorkas] and discuss the matter, I went to the meeting so I could engage with the chiefs on various issues and concerns,” Magnus said. “I also met with Chief Ortiz to see how we might best work together moving forward.”

With the potential for the House to flip to the Republicans, some Republican lawmakers have called for Mayorkas’ impeachment, as well as increased oversight of his agency.

“When it comes to the border, I was never comfortable saying the border was secure, but I was part of an effort with many other people to make it as secure as possible with a focus on people and technology,” Magnus told The Times.

A Biden administration official described Magnus as “missing in action” internally and not as vocal on immigration matters as other department leaders.

Another administration official said that Magnus was regularly absent from meetings on border policy and was not heavily involved in the decision-making on key border policies. The official noted that Magnus did not have much time to understand the agency and was pushed out of the process for some key decisions.

Both officials requested anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly about the issue.

Magnus said he was not initially invited to meetings on border policy but later attended almost all key meetings.

John Sandweg, a former top Homeland Security Department official during the Obama administration, said that Mayorkas probably wants someone to be a buffer between him and the political fallout he’s facing.

“You have the raging issues at the border, and it is not going to get any better. The secretary does not want to be the face of this,” Sandweg said of Mayorkas.

Though Magnus wanted to focus on cultural reforms, his primary job “is the border,” Sandweg added.

Ron Vitiello, a former Border Patrol chief who led Immigration and Customs Enforcement under Trump, said the Biden administration has mishandled immigration policy.

The publicity surrounding the request for Magnus’ resignation has been counterproductive, Vitiello said.

“I’m concerned about the workforce. This is another thing they have on their plate that is unnecessary,” he said. “This is a distraction that takes away from the hard work they are doing and the crisis they are in.”

Magnus rose to national prominence as chief of the Richmond, Calif., Police Department, and later becoming chief in Tucson.

“At one point, it became so clear to me that some in the top leadership at DHS did not understand what reform even looked like within a law enforcement organization,” he said.

By Friday, Magnus said, access to his official Twitter account had been blocked.


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