WASHINGTON (CN) – President Donald Trump’s nominee to lead U.S. Customs and Border Protection began the confirmation process Tuesday by telling senators that stemming the rising tide of opioids entering the country will be among his top priorities and biggest challenges should he get the job.
Kevin McAleenan, who appeared Tuesday morning before the Senate Finance Committee, was deputy commissioner under the Obama administration. As acting commissioner of the agency now, he oversees a budget of more than $13 billion and some 60,000 employees.
McAleenan’s hearing to become commissioner was originally scheduled for July 13, but was abruptly postponed.
NBC News reported Tuesday that multiple sources told it McAleenan had been accused of having an affair with a subordinate and of improperly funding an immigration detention center.
The nominee was subsequently cleared of any wrongdoing by the inspector general for the Department of Homeland Security, NBC News said.
Although she didn’t expressly mention Trump’s stymied travel ban, Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Washington, asked McAleenan to explain the agency’s approach on religious and racial profiling at border checkpoints.
“Religious questioning can be appropriate depending on the type of visa someone is travelling on,” McAleenan said, adding that information obtained about a person’s travel itinerary and future destination helped Customs and Border Patrol “understand any risk.”
“Any religious questioning that [does not seem to be] connected to any indicators of risk would not be appropriate,” he said.
Cantwell challenged McAleenan on this point, citing reports of alleged heavy-handed border patrol activity at Port Angeles Airport in Washington.
“All the sudden, people were driving around in dark cars, pulling over people just because they’re brown skinned,” Cantwell said. “The sheriff didn’t even know what was going on. We have to have a fair treatment of the public [as well as address security concerns].”
McAleenan assured the senator there will be closer examination of agency practices moving forward, if nominated.
Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, focused on drugs and what he said was the U.S. Post Office’s failure to provide Customs or the DEA with data on packages that might contain contraband.
“Why is this a problem? Because fentanyl comes almost exclusively through the mail and traffickers have figured this out,” Portman asked.
Fentanyl is estimated to be up to 50 times stronger than heroin and is mostly imported into the U.S. from Mexico or China. It’s typically smuggled across the U.S. border or delivered via mail, as it can be ordered online.
McAleenan said he’s met Postmaster General Megan Brenan four times to discuss the issue, and that their efforts to better identify risky shipments have resulted in a 44 percent increase in contraband seized.
Portman asked McAleenan whether he’s support the proposed Stop Act, which the senator said would help curtail opioid drug smuggling into the United States.
McAleenan said he isn’t ready to do so.
“It has 26 co sponsors, its bipartisan and it’s not like other legislation,” Portman said. “This issue is one that is killing people right now. We know we can keep it off the streets and at a minimum, raise the price, but I hope should you be confirmed, you’ll take this up and get this legislation passed.”
On a related note, legislation to beef up U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s ability to detect attempts to smuggle opioids into the country overwhelmingly passed the House on Tuesday.
The House voted 412-3 to approve the bill, which would authorize $9 million to ensure the CBP has chemical screening devices, scientists and other personnel available to detect the illegal importation of fentanyl and other synthetic opioids.
“The federal government must do its part to ensure our first responders have the tools they need in this greatest of public health fights,” said Rep. Niki Tsongas. D-Mass., who authored the legislation with Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick, R-Pa.