WASHINGTON — Chris Magnus of Tucson, Ariz., has always been an unusual police chief.
He publicly criticized the anti-immigration policies of the Trump administration. He appeared to surprise his own mayor when he abruptly offered his resignation after releasing a video of a man who died in police custody. He was recognized nationally as the man in uniform hoisting a “Black Lives Matter” sign at a protest.
President Biden is now preparing to nominate Chief Magnus to be the commissioner of Customs and Border Protection, signaling an intent to bring a seismic cultural shift to an agency at the center of some of the more contentious policies of President Donald J. Trump, particularly the separation of thousands of migrant children from their families. Chief Magnus will be expected to make good on Mr. Biden’s campaign pledge to increase oversight at the sprawling agency, one 60 times larger than the department of roughly 800 officers he led in Tucson.
If confirmed, Chief Magnus, who is gay and married to the former chief of staff to the mayor of Richmond, Calif., where he worked as the police chief, would also step into one of the Biden administration’s most politically divisive challenges: how to handle a record number of children and teenagers along the border that the administration has so far failed to release from detention facilities.
“Sometimes it’s frustrating how hyperpartisan all these issues can become, but I want to say from the very start, I am no ideologue and I do want to make a difference on things,” Chief Magnus said in a short interview on Monday, adding that the news of his selection had made for an overwhelming morning. He declined to elaborate on how he would specifically address the surge of migration at the border, citing a desire to speak to senators and border agents first.
The nomination was one of several the White House announced at the Homeland Security Department on Monday. Among them was that of Ur Jaddou, who worked as the chief counsel at Citizenship and Immigration Services before leading an immigration advocacy group, to serve as the director of the agency responsible for legal immigration policy. Chief Magnus, like Ms. Jaddou, will be tasked with unwinding immigration policies that largely sealed off the United States from immigrants.
Mr. Biden chose Chief Magnus in part because of his record reforming departments in Tucson and Richmond, a White House official said, as well as for his embrace of community policing programs. He was also picked because of his time policing a city close to the U.S.-Mexico border.
It was in Tucson in 2017 when Chief Magnus said that Mr. Trump and Jeff Sessions, the attorney general at the time, were hindering police efforts to crack down on crime because of their immigration policies.
“The harsh anti-immigrant rhetoric and Mr. Sessions’s reckless policies ignore a basic reality known by most good cops and prosecutors,” Chief Magnus wrote in a New York Times opinion article. “If people are afraid of the police, if they fear they may become separated from their families or harshly interrogated based on their immigration status, they won’t report crimes or come forward as witnesses.”
Former immigration officials under Mr. Trump said the comments were most likely going to come up during Mr. Magnus’s confirmation hearings. Tom Homan, a former acting director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, said the public criticism would also make it difficult for Chief Magnus to win over border agents, many of whom supported Mr. Trump’s tough policies.
“Is he really going to run C.B.P. and be in charge of 60,000 C.B.P. and border security officers when he’s made it clear in the past he doesn’t support their mission?” Mr. Homan said in an interview. “I don’t think he supports enforcing the immigration laws in this country the way they’re written.”
To be sure, Mr. Magnus wrote in an opinion piece for The Arizona Daily Star in 2019 that Tucson was not a so-called sanctuary city, although his officers did not conduct civil immigration enforcement. Last year, he declined to accept homeland security “Stonegarden” grants issued to local police departments that assist the federal government on border enforcement, after the Trump administration refused to allow a portion of the funds to be spent on humanitarian aid for asylum seekers.
Chief Magnus, who has master’s degree in labor relations, acknowledged that he had work to do. “I know much is made of how Border Patrol might feel about my nomination, and I want to say right off that I do recognize that a Border Patrol or customs agent is doing a very difficult job,” he said. “I’m going to be making it a priority to get to know the people doing that job, to learn from them and to try and help them.”
Chief Magnus will also have to answer to Mr. Biden and congressional Democrats to bring accountability to the country’s largest federal law enforcement agency, which is responsible for 7,000 miles of America’s northern and southern borders, 95,000 miles of shoreline and more than 320 ports of entry. There was widespread outrage about the agency when it became public in 2019 that dozens of border agents had joined private Facebook groups and other social media pages that included obscene images of Hispanic lawmakers and threats to members of Congress.
The Homeland Security Department is also under an inspector general’s investigation for aggressive actions by tactical border agents against protesters in Portland, Ore.
The son of a piano teacher and a Michigan State University professor — his father was the chairman of the arts department — Chief Magnus grew up in Lansing, Mich., where he volunteered for the United Farm Workers and was arrested after participating in a protest.
“Ultimately I was driven home,” Chief Magnus said during a New York Times panel in December. “I guess perhaps you could call that a function of white privilege at the time.” It left him, he said, “with a very bad taste.”
“It caused me to think how I really wanted to treat people differently,” he said. “And it had an influence, that’s for sure.”
Chief Magnus started his law enforcement career in 1979 as a dispatcher in the Lansing Police Department, rose through the ranks and in 1999 became the police chief in Fargo, N.D., where he helped establish a liaison program for refugees.
Later, as the police chief in Richmond, he helped drive down violent crime. In 2014, one of his last years with the department, the city recorded just 11 homicides, the lowest number in more than four decades. That year, Chief Magnus was photographed holding the Black Lives Matter sign and, when criticized by the local police union, said he would do it again.
But in Richmond, Chief Magnus also faced a racial discrimination lawsuit filed by seven Black sergeants, lieutenants and captains, although in 2012 a jury rejected all the claims. In 2015, a former Richmond police officer settled a wrongful termination lawsuit with the department after he said he was fired for complaining that Chief Magnus sexually harassed him and made racial slurs. Chief Magnus called the accusations “entirely bogus.”
“There were still people at that time who felt I’m an easier target because I’m a gay man,” he said. “That’s not the first time in my career I’ve experienced that.”
In Tucson last year, Chief Magnus again drew fire when the department took two months to release the body-camera video of the death of a 27-year-old Latino man, Carlos Ingram Lopez, who pleaded repeatedly for water as he was being restrained by police officers.
Chief Magnus attributed the delay to a bureaucratic breakdown, saying he did not immediately watch the video. But he said he wished he had done more to see it himself. “We should have asked to see the video but that didn’t happen, and when we did ultimately see it obviously we were very concerned about it,” he said. Chief Magnus offered his resignation during a news conference as the video was made public, but the mayor kept him on the force and praised his work in a statement on Monday.
Alba Jaramillo, the head of Arizona Justice for Our Neighbors, an immigrant advocacy group in Tucson, said Chief Magnus’s handling of the video raised questions about whether he was really committed to overhauling an agency that had a long history of rights abuses.
“There’s an entire culture of secrecy, lack of transparency, of cruelty, within the Border Patrol,” Ms. Jaramillo said. “Having someone lead that agency from our own community who has not been transparent is very problematic.”
Chief Magnus said he was ready to listen.
“I like a challenge,” he said. “I generally care. I think I want to be able to demonstrate humanity and empathy when approaching these programs. But I try hard to demonstrate an intellectual humility. It’s a fancy way of saying, I guess I have a lot to learn from other people.”
Simon Romero contributed reporting.
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