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Biden Pick to Lead Customs and Border Protection No Stranger to Border Conflict

Tucson Police Chief Chris Magnus was a vocal critic of President Donald Trump's immigration policies, but he opposed the sanctuary city movement.

TUCSON, Ariz. (CN) --- If Tucson Police Chief Chris Magnus, President Joe Biden's pick to lead U.S. Customs and Border Protection, makes it to nomination hearings in the Senate, the law enforcement reformer will likely face an angry gauntlet of questioning from Republican senators.

Magnus was a vocal critic of President Donald Trump’s immigration policies, but he has stopped short of advocating the sanctuary city status that left some communities facing the former president’s wrath. Magnus will be caught in the middle of a fierce debate that has divided his state in much the same way it does the nation.

On Thursday, Arizona Governor Doug Ducey declared an emergency on the Arizona’s border, allocating $25 million and 250 National Guard troops to help border counties staff detention centers, operate border cameras and analyze the images they produce. The border is in crisis, Ducey says.

Two of Arizona’s four border sheriffs --- Mark Dannels of Cochise County and Leon Wilmot of Yuma County --- joined the governor in declaring the emergency. Dannels and Wilmot did not respond to requests for comment on Magnus’ nomination.

But Arizona’s other two border sheriffs don’t think there is a crisis at all. They think Magnus is up to the task of leading the federal agency in charge of immigration, border security and all of the nation’s ports of entry.

Through a Tucson Police spokesperson, Magnus declined to comment on his nomination, but his career, law enforcement officers who know him, and his on-the-record comments offer hints at how he will approach leadership of the CBP’s 50,000-plus employees, including more than 21,000 Border Patrol agents.

Magnus is a native of Michigan, where he started his career as a Lansing police officer. In 1999, he moved as police chief to Fargo, North Dakota, then in 2006 moved again to be police chief in Richmond, California, a city of just more than 100,000 across the bay from San Francisco.

He was hired by the city of Tucson in 2016.

In December 2018, Magnus testified before the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Border Security and Immigration. The 40-year veteran officer highlighted a need for cooperation among law enforcement agencies on every level to fight serious crimes --- but not to enforce immigration law.

He objected to Trump administration threats to withhold grants from cities that declined to cooperate with immigration officials.

“Rather than apprehending and removing immigrants who have no criminal background, many of whom are merely seeking to work or reunite with family, law enforcement on all levels should prioritize those who threaten community safety, including human traffickers, drug traffickers, as well as other individuals proven to be members of transnational criminal organizations,” Magnus told the panel.

Two border sheriffs --- Chris Nanos of Pima County and David Hathaway of Santa Cruz County --- agreed that Magnus would bring a welcome voice of reason to Washington on border issues.

Hathaway declined Ducey’s offer of National Guard troops, because there is no crisis in his county of about 46,000 residents, which is home to Arizona’s largest Border Patrol Station in Nogales, he said.

There is no flood of immigrants overwhelming his county, Hathaway said.

“I’ll take you. I’ll show you the border,” he said. “You won’t see anything. You’ll hear the wind blow.”

Hathaway believes Magnus’ experience near the border will bring a valuable, realistic view to the table in contrast to Ducey’s political posturing, Hathaway said.

“I think it’s great that we’ll have a voice who knows what’s happening --- the reality, not the hype,” he said.

In Pima County, where just more than 1 million people live, mostly in the Tucson metropolitan area 60 miles north of Mexico, there is a similar situation, said Sheriff Chris Nanos, who has worked with Magnus during his tenure.


Nanos is a native of El Paso, where he was a police officer before joining the Pima County Sheriff’s Department in 1984. He has served his entire career on the border and agrees there is no crisis in Arizona.

Magnus has the right mindset and heart to lead CBP, which in addition to being a law enforcement agency is also humanitarian, Nanos said. Securing the border against criminals is only part of the CBP mandate. The agency also deals with people who come seeking asylum and Nanos thinks Magnus is the right mix of warrior and guardian.

“I think you have to have some heart or some compassion for those who have struggled to get to this country to become good, productive citizens,” Nanos said. “We’re a nation of migrants, and we’ve been a nation of migrants since the 1600s or whenever we first came here.”

Ducey never approached the Pima County Sheriff’s Department about deploying National Guard troops in the state’s largest border county by area, border frontage and population, Nanos said.

During Magnus’ tenure, the Tucson Police Department has drawn from President Barack Obama’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing, before which Magnus testified. Tucson was one of just two cities among the nation's 100 largest that by June last year had instituted all eight measures recommended by Project ZERO, a sweeping, data-driven analysis of use of force in American cities, though other cities have since adopted them.

Only Tucson and San Francisco required de-escalation; allow firing weapons only as a last resort; issue warnings before firing weapons; restrict firing at vehicles; have comprehensive reporting and a use-of-force continuum; ban choke-holds; and require officers to intervene when fellow officers unreasonably use force.

Magnus was a vocal critic of Trump’s immigration policies and penned a New York Times opinion piece in 2017 in which he deemed sanctuary city status irrelevant to policing (Tucson was never a sanctuary city).

But forcing local law enforcement to cooperate with federal officers is counterproductive, he wrote.

“When crime victims and witnesses are unwilling to testify because they’re afraid an Immigration and Customs Enforcement agent will be waiting to arrest them at the courtroom doors, real criminals go unpunished,” Magnus wrote. “It means drug dealers and people who commit domestic and sexual violence are free to exploit a voiceless class of victims; such criminals become a threat to us all.”

Magnus’ tenure in Tucson has not been without controversy.

He offered to resign last summer after a local news outlet,, revealed through public records requests that the public was never told about a death in custody four months earlier and another death. Some community voices called for his firing, but the city declined his offer to resign.

Arizona Senator Mark Kelly released a statement the day of Biden's announcement, offering no hint whether he would support his fellow Arizonan.

“I’ve known Chief Magnus for a number of years, and as the son of two police officers myself, I have respected his approach to public service and law enforcement,” Kelly said.

“We’re facing a humanitarian crisis at our border that is already straining Border Patrol in Arizona, and I look forward to speaking with Chief Magnus about his plans for Customs and Border Protection and providing a secure, orderly process at the border that prioritizes safety and public health.”

Senator Kyrsten Sinema also gave no indication how she would vote on Magnus' nomination when she issued a statement.

“Our state pays the price for the federal government's failure to fix a broken immigration system,” Sinema said.

“I'll continue working to ensure the administration takes meaningful steps to support our border communities, secure the border, and treat all migrants and unaccompanied children fairly and humanely --- and I look forward to talking with Chief Magnus soon about his nomination.”

Ducey, the border patrol agents' union National Border Patrol Council, and the non-profit No More Deaths did not respond to requests for comment on Magnus’ nomination.

No date has been set for Senate confirmation hearings.

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