Biden CBP Nominee Puts Admin to the Left of Obama on Immigration

Former police chief Chris Magnus in 2020 rejected federal grant for border towns

Chris Magnus / Getty Images
October 18, 2021

President Joe Biden’s pick to lead Customs and Border Protection, while working as police chief in Tucson, Ariz., rejected funding for a border security program championed by the Obama administration, the latest example of the White House’s commitment to undo years of immigration policy once thought of as a consensus between Democrats and Republicans.

Chris Magnus, a champion of softer policing tactics, rejected a federal grant in January 2020 that assisted border towns, arguing the program, first implemented by the Bush administration in 2006, was inconsistent with the Tucson Police Department’s priorities "and the expectation of the community we serve."

His opposition to the grant was partially rooted in the Trump administration's refusal to let Tucson spend part of the grant money on humanitarian aid. Magnus's request went far beyond the parameters of the program, called Operation Stonegarden, which "funds investments in joint efforts to secure the United States' borders." A description of the latest iteration of the program under the Biden administration does not say whether funds may be used for medical treatment or housing illegal immigrants.

Operation Stonegarden was championed by former president Barack Obama, who injected millions more dollars into the program than was allocated by the Bush administration as part of a broader effort to deter narcotics trafficking and cartel violence. Former Department of Homeland Security secretary Janet Napolitano called the grants "critical" and said they would "ensure that our first responders are equipped with the resources they need to confront the complex and dynamic challenges that exist along our borders."

As the southern border sees a record number of crossings, the Biden administration remains committed to liberalizing the nation's immigration system with a range of new policies, including relaxed asylum rules, stricter deportation protocols, and fewer raids against suspected illegal immigrants. Magnus appears prepared to oversee these policies. In 2017, he wrote in an op-ed for the New York Times that he was "deeply troubled" by the Trump administration’s opposition to local sanctuary policies, a practice by Democrat-controlled cities that sharply limits cooperation with federal immigration authorities.

Magnus's decision to reject the funds in 2020 sparked outrage from his own department, with the Tucson Police Officers Association calling the decision "bad for public safety in our community."

"The Stonegarden deployments have resulted in hundreds of arrests that would not have occurred without this federal money. Additionally, the Stonegarden deployments have taken countless guns and drugs off the streets of Tucson," the association's president, Tony Archibald, said at the time. "Without these federally funded overtime deployments, an already understaffed police department will have a hard time addressing these crime issues."

Toward the end of his second term, Obama instituted a policy that denied Department of Justice grants to any jurisdiction that refused to enforce federal immigration law. His Justice Department also released a rule in February 2016 that made it harder for sanctuary cities to help illegal aliens in federal custody avoid deportation.

That move was applauded by Republicans, with former Texas representative John Culberson (R.) saying he was "deeply grateful."

Biden reversed the Obama-era policy and his Justice Department has sought dismissal of any Supreme Court cases concerning sanctuary cities.

On the campaign trail, Biden chided his former boss for overseeing a "long-broken and chaotic" immigration system. In a debate with former president Donald Trump, he said the Obama administration "made a mistake" by deporting hundreds of thousands of illegal aliens. He promised to make amnesty a centerpiece of his administration.

Last month, Obama granted an interview to ABC News where he offered veiled criticism of the Biden administration's handling of the migrant crisis. As thousands of Haitian migrants were stranded under a bridge on Del Rio, Texas, the former president said the scene was a "painful reminder that we don't have this right yet and we've got more work to do," before rejecting the idea of open borders as "unsustainable."

"And the question is now: Are we gonna get serious about dealing with this problem in a systemic way, as opposed to these one-offs where we're constantly reacting to emergencies?" Obama said. "And I think that that's something that every American should wanna put an end to."

Magnus's confirmation hearing will be held in the Senate Finance Committee on Oct. 19.