Customs and Border Protection nominee Magnus backs swift expulsion of migrants

Confirmation hearing for the former Fargo police chief was held Tuesday

WASHINGTON (CNN) –  President Joe Biden’s pick to lead US Customs and Border Protection, Chris Magnus, voiced support for the Trump-era public health order that allows for the swift expulsion of migrants during his Senate confirmation hearing Tuesday.

The authority, which the Biden administration continues to use, has been criticized by immigrant advocates and Democratic lawmakers because it largely bars migrants from seeking asylum at the US southern border.

CBP officers are responsible for implementing the authority, which stems from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“As a paramedic for 10 years public health has always been one of my top concerns, and because of that I think it’s absolutely imperative that we do everything possible to stop the spread of Covid. And Title 42 is a CDC authority, and I think it helps with this,” Magnus said in response to a question from Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa whether the authority is necessary.

“CBP certainly has a responsibility with implementing this policy. But here’s the bottom line, senator, I will always comply with the law, even as it changes perhaps regarding Title 42, no matter what it is that the courts decide,” Magnus added.

Magnus, who was police chief in Fargo from 1999 to 2006, is currently the police chief in Tucson, Arizona. During the hearing, he acknowledged the challenge at the US-Mexico border, citing high arrest numbers, and stressed that he was committed to enforcing immigration law and doing so humanely.

“More than a few colleagues, friends, and family members have asked me, ‘What are you thinking?’ Why would I choose to take on the important but challenging responsibility of leading CBP at this moment?” he said. “I want to make a difference.”

Magnus’ nomination had been delayed by Senate Finance Chairman Ron Wyden, who cited unanswered questions about the Portland protests last year. The Department of Homeland Security has since provided additional information, putting Magnus’ nomination back on track.

The hearing comes as the border agency, already strained from months of increasing arrests, faces scrutiny over its handling of the sudden arrival of thousands migrants in Del Rio, Texas, last month and the continued use of a Trump-era public health order to rapidly expel migrants encountered at the US-Mexico border.

In mid-September, the Department of Homeland Security — of which CBP is a part — was caught off guard when thousands of migrants, primarily Haitians, arrived in Del Rio. People who had crowded into a makeshift camp under a bridge were left in squalor and exposed to the elements while the federal government scrambled to process and transport people out of the region amid the Covid-19 pandemic.

During that time, video of Border Patrol agents on horse patrol aggressively confronting migrants surfaced, sparking public backlash as well as sharp condemnation from Biden and other senior administration officials.

An investigation into the incident is ongoing, despite assurances from Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas that it would be completed in days, not weeks.

Magnus called the images “troubling” and committed to keeping senators updated on the investigation.

“I found those images troubling, but I also believe, and I certainly learned this over my career in policing, that a full and thorough investigation is necessary before any final conclusions are drawn,” he said.

Magnus also told the Senate panel that migrants should be tested for Covid-19 before they’re released into the United States. CBP has leaned on nongovernmental organizations along the US southern border to test migrants who are released from custody for Covid-19.

In his line of questioning, the top Republican on the Senate Finance Committee, Sen. Mike Crapo of Idaho, asked Magnus: “Do you think we should test migrants for Covid-19 before releasing them into the cities?”

Magnus replied: “Senator, yes, I absolutely do.”

“And in fact I appreciate where you’re coming from with this question because as a chief in Tucson, we’ve also experienced similar challenges and it puts a great deal of pressure on not only our NGOs, but on the really dedicated men and women of the Border Patrol. And, for that matter, ICE who have to interact with these folks so it’s a humanitarian matter, but it’s also a public health matter, and I would totally commit to that,” he added.

Magnus later said he wants to explore the possibility of vaccinating migrants who are encountered at the US-Mexico border against Covid-19. CBP doesn’t currently do so. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, however, does offer the vaccine to detainees.

If confirmed, Magnus will take the helm of the largest law enforcement agency and the second-largest revenue-collecting source in the federal government.

Magnus also served for 10 years as police chief for Richmond, California, and prior to that as police chief in Fargo.

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