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Border agency nominee pressed on immigration policies

Biden's pick to head Customs and Border Protection had been held over concerns about the use of force by some agents

Chris Magnus, nominee to head U.S. Customs and Border Protection, testifies during his confirmation hearing  Tuesday before the Senate Finance Committee.
Chris Magnus, nominee to head U.S. Customs and Border Protection, testifies during his confirmation hearing Tuesday before the Senate Finance Committee. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Immigration enforcement took center stage Tuesday at a Senate Finance Committee hearing where senators from both sides of the aisle grilled President Joe Biden’s pick to lead U.S. Customs and Border Protection on the administration’s border policies.

The confirmation hearing for Tucson, Ariz., Police Chief Chris Magnus comes after a monthslong delay, after committee Chair Ron Wyden, D-Ore., held up the nomination over concerns about the use of force by CBP agents to quell civil rights demonstrations in Portland last year.

While the Finance Committee does not have authority over immigration matters, the committee does handle issues related to ports of entry, trade deals and tariffs, which fall under the purview of the CBP commissioner.

“Immigration is not explicitly in the Finance Committee’s jurisdiction. It is sure, however, to come up today from members,” Wyden said in his opening remarks. He lamented that, too often, “trade enforcement has been a secondary issue.”

Yet, Wyden opened his own questioning with an immigration inquiry, asking Magnus how he would ensure, if confirmed, that Border Patrol agents understand immigration and refugee laws and act “humanely” when enforcing them.

Other Democratic senators also pressed Magnus on the treatment of migrants, and unaccompanied children in particular, at the southwest border, particularly following viral images showing Border Patrol agents using reins against Haitian migrants.

“There is no question that we have to meet the challenge of asylum obligations as a nation, and also the security of our borders,” Magnus said, replying to a question from Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin, D-Md., on how to balance the agency’s mission to enforce U.S. immigration laws “with the enforcement of our values.”

“I don’t believe that we have to sacrifice efficiency for humanity,” the police chief continued.

Magnus highlighted his own immigrant roots in his opening remarks, noting his father immigrated from Norway in 1921 and that his husband immigrated from Hong Kong.

But Magnus also stressed he would enforce the immigration laws as written when fielding questions from Republicans attacking the Biden administration’s border policies.

When pressed by Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, Magnus conceded that looser immigration enforcement policies are “certainly one part” of the factors driving migrants to journey to the U.S. He also signaled some support for continuing construction of a border wall and other physical border infrastructure.

“I think there is a place for infrastructure, and I think that includes in certain sections, completion of barriers, walls, other things. So this is an area that I want to learn more about,” Magnus said.

He told Republicans it “seems reasonable” to require asylum-seekers released into the country to agree to be vaccinated against COVID-19 and that he would support CBP testing migrants for COVID-19.

When asked about the Biden administration’s use of Title 42, a pandemic-era order allowing border agents to “expel” asylum-seekers without considering their claims for protection, Magnus replied that the order “helps with” curbing the spread of COVID-19. But he also stopped short of offering a vocal endorsement or condemnation of the policy, which has been challenged in court.

“Here’s the bottom line: I will always comply with the law, even as it changes, perhaps regarding Title 42, no matter what it is the courts decide,” he said.

If confirmed, Magnus would take the helm of the border agency as it faces record-high levels of migration to the U.S.-Mexico border. He would also be the first openly gay CBP commissioner.

Border agents encountered a migrant at the border more than 208,000 times in August, and agents have logged more than 1.5 million migrant encounters from October 2020 through August. September’s border data has yet to be released.

The Biden administration has maintained the prior administration’s Title 42 order, which has allowed it to expel more than 950,000 individuals during that time period, including some migrants expelled multiple times.

However, the policy is currently wrapped up in litigation in federal court. A District of Columbia federal judge barred the administration from enforcing the expulsion policy against migrant families, but a federal appeals court gave the government permission to continue expelling families while the lawsuit progresses.

Meanwhile, the administration is in the process of reviving the so-called Remain in Mexico policy, the Trump-era program requiring asylum-seekers to wait in Mexico for decisions in their U.S. immigration court cases, following a Texas federal court order to reinstate the program.

In addition to immigration-related questions, senators also pressed the CBP nominee on how he would tackle various trade matters, including forced labor in China and supply chain issues.

Magnus said that addressing forced labor abroad would be “one of my high priorities” and eliminating the practice would be a “moral imperative.” On supply chain disruptions and shipping delays, he also said that, if confirmed, he would make sure CBP “has the appropriate staffing at the ports.”

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