Mr. Magnus’ Opus
November 17, 2022
In the midst of a blockbuster mid-term election, the ouster of Chris Magnus as the appointed head of Customs and Border Protection has been largely ignored.
Magnus was appointed by President Joe Biden and confirmed last year after scathing questioning and a great deal of coordinated push-back from the law enforcement lobby. (Aside: An example of the sheriff lobby’s success was the tanking of Ed Gonzalez’s appointment as the head of ICE. The right lobbied enough that Gonzalez stepped down to avoid more scrutiny. Biden has yet to nominate a replacement.) In October, Politico published a story in which “current administration officials” who worked with Magnus complained that he was “badmouthing” people and was too focused on “reforming the culture of the Border Patrol.” (He was also accused of falling asleep in meetings, which Magnus explained was due to the medications he takes for multiple sclerosis.)
Magnus was the reform-minded police chief of Tucson before his appointment. In that role, he expressed hesitation on law enforcement cooperation with ICE. Magnus was brought to CBP as a sort of reform-minded move, as much as such a thing is possible. He had previously refused money from the Orwellianly named Operation Stonegarden, which is a federal program that militarized local police as extra foot soldiers for the border police, and he wrote an op-ed in the New York Times opposing Trump’s immigration policies.
The National Sheriffs Association – a group that purports to represent all sheriffs across the country regardless of partisanship – opposed Magnus’s appointment and confirmation. They expressed their disapproval in a letter to Biden, which is very short, and states their case with characteristic nuance:
(Note: It’s not true that Magnus “declined numerous invitations,” because other Arizona sheriffs – the Democratic ones – have testified they went to the border with Magnus.)
The Arizona Sheriff’s Association issued a similar letter.
Magnus was in office less than a year, so it is difficult to comment on his work, which no one appears to have understood anyways. It does appear that Magnus was focused on reforming CBP procedures, which were notoriously cruel – remember the whipping of migrants – and the high rates of misconduct and criminal behavior of Border Patrol agents, behavior that kills and injures people. You know, the kind of stuff you would expect of someone who, pre-nomination and pre-confirmation, had expressed concerns about America’s draconian, treaty- and international-law-violating border practices.
In any event, it seems highly plausible to me that, given the sorts of opponents Magnus had before he assumed this role, he is the fallout from those forces’ success in selling yet another panic about crime in general and immigration in particular in this country. Repeatedly, sheriffs (and Republican governors) have used the number of migrants crossing the U.S.-Mexico border as a reason to call for militarization, arrests, and racism.
I’ve written before about how the National Sheriffs Association poses as nonpartisan even as its leaders – especially the ex-Republican operative and current NSA president Jonathan Thompson – express increasingly far-right positions, including most notably: (1) opposition to all police reforms, like limits on use-of-force and increases in accountability; and (2) lobbying for more and more militarization on the U.S.-Mexico border, like funding for sheriffs to purchase equipment such as ATVs, helicopters, weapons, and surveillance technology. The NSA also partners regularly with FAIR, an extremist, anti-immigration organization that has been intentionally funded to seed the media with anti-immigration messaging. FAIR’s “legal arm” the confusingly-named “Immigration Reform Law Institute” publicized and sent around a large amount of oppo research on Magnus that was used by the NSA and other sheriff groups. Their complaints? Magnus once held a Black Lives Matter sign at a protest; he opposed the construction of a border wall; and he thinks that local law enforcement shouldn’t spend their time and energy looking for immigrants to deport. Plus, he wrote some tweets before he got locked out of his account.
As an example of how hard it is to reform law enforcement agencies, CBP pushed against any minimal reforms Magnus suggested with all their might, spreading rumors that Magnus was unengaged and refusing to meet with them, portraying both his medical condition and desire to reform as signs of his lack of “engagement.” Brandon Judd, the president of the Border Patrol Union, of course also opposed Magnus’s confirmation and complained about each and every reform he suggested. Here’s Judd complaining about being asked not to run a criminal organization:
I think it’s a good thing. He was just working on policies that were just going to incentivize more criminal activity. The vehicle-pursuit policy [a policy to stem high-speed, dangerous car chases], had he implemented that, all it would have done is increase criminal activity.
Most media outlets reported on this as linked to the “border crisis,” which conveniently merges border militarization with the movement of migrants across the U.S.-Mexico border.
In light of Trump’s announcement that he will run for president in 2024, the media needs to scrutinize their narratives on border policing and immigration, which will likely be a cornerstone of Trump’s political campaigning. Media should reconsider the use of “border pornography,” photos and videos that exploit the bodies and physical markers of migrants to argue for more militarization. The far-right benefits when militarization is confused with immigration policy. An increased number of migrants attempting to move across the U.S.-Mexico border is an issue of immigration and asylum law – in other words, how should the U.S. comply with international law and requirements that people seeking asylum have an opportunity to seek safety? We should not confuse humanitarian obligations rooted in long-standing human rights laws and traditions with the far-right desire to make the U.S.-Mexico border an empire controlled by force.
If there is even the slightest bit of good news out of any of this is that, at least because nobody has leaked the texts and emails that must surely exist on the subject, Mangus’ sexual orientation has not been made an issue. I guess when you have a filibuster-proof majority in favor of same-sex marriage that includes about a dozen Republican senators, that old saw just doesn’t cut anymore. As a gay friend of mine pointed out, “Such equality: decades of activism have won the LGBTQIA+ community the right to stultifying government involvement in personal relationships and top cop jobs. What a revolution.”