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Customs and Border Protection nominee pledges to balance security and humanity

Chris Magnus testifies before the Senate Finance Committee on his nomination to be the next U.S. Customs and Border Protection commissioner, Tuesday, Oct. 19, on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C.
Rod Lamkey
Chris Magnus testifies before the Senate Finance Committee on his nomination to be the next U.S. Customs and Border Protection commissioner, Tuesday, Oct. 19, on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C.

President Biden's nominee to lead U.S. Customs and Border Protection faced tough questions from a Senate committee about how he would handle the southern border.

Tucson Police Chief Chris Magnus told senators on Tuesday that he would seek to balance border security with humane treatment of migrants.

"First and foremost, we need to enforce the law. And secondly, we need to have a process that's humane and efficient," Magnus said. "How we engage with the public — even the public we may be arresting — is what defines us as professionals. And this is something we have a moral obligation to do," he said.

Magnus is an unconventional choice to head the nation's largest law-enforcement agency, which has been without a confirmed leader for more than two years.

He's an outsider to Washington, D.C., who built a reputation in Tucson and Richmond, Calif., as a progressive police chief — and an outspoken critic of former President Trump's immigration policies. He drew national attention for a 2017 Op-Ed in the New York Times warning that the Trump administration's crackdown on so-called "sanctuary cities" would hurt public safety.

Republicans on the Senate Finance Committee, meanwhile, blame the Biden administration for the soaring number of illegal crossings at the southern border this year. And they pressed Magnus repeatedly on whether he would describe the situation there as a "crisis."

Magnus largely deflected those questions, although there were several moments where he did find common ground with GOP senators.

Montana Sen. Steve Daines asked if Magnus would support resuming construction of the wall on the U.S.-Mexico border, which the Biden administration has mostly suspended. Magnus responded that there are some places "where that could make sense."

Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa asked if the administration should continue to use the controversial public health order known asTitle 42, which allows immigration authorities to quickly expel migrants without giving them a chance to apply for asylum.

"It's absolutely imperative that we do everything possible to stop the spread of COVID," Magnus replied, and that Title 42 "helps with this." Magnus also said he would support coronavirus testing and vaccination for migrants in federal custody.

If confirmed, Magnus would oversee the U.S. Border Patrol, which has been widely criticized by immigrant advocates and Democrats because of photos and video of agents on horseback clashing with Haitian migrants in Del Rio last month. Magnus said he found those images "troubling," but declined to say more while the incident is under investigation.

In his opening remarks, Magnus told the committee that he is the son of an immigrant from Norway. And that his husband, Terrance Cheung, came to the U.S. from Hong Kong along with his mother.

Magnus pledged to bring a "pragmatic and bipartisan" approach to the job.

"I care about innovative ideas, not ideology," he said. "And will lead with intellectual humility and enthusiasm every day."

Magnus's nomination could clear the Senate Finance Committee without securing any Republican votes, as long as all of the Democrats support him. He would still need to be confirmed by the full Senate.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Joel Rose
Joel Rose is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk. He covers immigration and breaking news.