A clash between two top Department of Homeland Security officials became public Friday when U.S. Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Chris Magnus said Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas asked for his resignation a day after the midterm elections.
Magnus is feuding with a Cabinet member less than a year after his Senate confirmation. The dispute follows months of Republican criticism of the Biden administration over a record number of migrant apprehensions on the southern border.
Magnus and Mayorkas also had their own differences: Magnus said in an interview that he was pushing to reform a large and troubled agency, while Mayorkas was more concerned with maintaining order on the border and assuaging the concerns of officials contending with the influx.
DHS did not respond to requests for comment.
The labor union that represents Border Patrol agents appeared to support the pressure on Magnus to resign.
“He was so busy chasing imaginary “culture” problems in BP he forgot his primary job,” the National Border Patrol Council said on Twitter. “BP doesn’t have a culture problem. It has a leadership problem, starting with Biden. Good riddance.”
Magnus said in an interview that tensions reached a boiling point Wednesday after Magnus traveled to El Paso against the secretary’s wishes to attend a meeting of the Border Patrol sector chiefs. Magnus said Mayorkas asked for his resignation during a videoconference, telling Magnus that he and CBP staff had lost confidence in him and that Magnus had disobeyed him by traveling to El Paso.
The two men appeared together later that day when Mayorkas arrived to address the chiefs. The men shared an awkward handshake, Magnus said, but did not speak privately. Magnus said Deputy Secretary John Tien also stopped by his office Thursday and urged him to resign or risk being fired. On Friday, DHS blocked him from his official Twitter account.
Mayorkas does not have the authority to fire Magnus, who serves at the discretion of the president. Biden administration representatives at the White House did not respond to requests for comment.
Biden nominated Magnus in April 2021 to lead CBP, a massive agency with more than 60,000 border agents, customs officers and other employees who patrol the nation’s ports and borders and oversee billions of dollars in cross-border trade and travel. The Senate confirmed Magnus in December, mostly along party lines.
Magnus arrived with a reputation as a seasoned leader and reformer who supported Biden’s immigration policies. He became CBP’s first Senate-confirmed chief since 2019, and also is the agency’s first openly gay commissioner. He had served mostly in smaller law enforcement settings, as police chief in Fargo, N.D.; Richmond, Calif.; and Tucson, where he took over in 2016.
Border Patrol agents and other DHS officials have expressed frustration with Magnus, as they contend with a major migration surge in the months since Biden took office. CBP set a record with more than 2.7 million border apprehensions last fiscal year, mostly at the Mexican border.
Some Republicans have called for Magnus’s resignation and threatened to impeach Mayorkas.
Sixteen House Republicans wrote Biden on Nov. 1, demanding that he call for Magnus’s resignation, citing a Politico report portraying him as an isolated, disengaged leader who sometimes nodded off during meetings. Magnus said in an interview with The Post that he experiences spells of fatigue as a side effect of multiple sclerosis, a neurological condition he was diagnosed with 15 years ago.
Magnus said in his statement Friday that he had much more to do at CBP.
“I haven’t been afraid to ask ‘why’ things are done in certain ways and want to continue to do so,” he said.
Mayorkas and Magnus differed over whether to offer Border Patrol Chief Raul Ortiz a $50,000 retention bonus to remain on the job instead of retiring. Ortiz defended Mayorkas in February when an officer confronted Mayorkas at a staff meeting in the Arizona border city of Yuma and turned his back to him.
Magnus opposed the bonus, saying Ortiz did not support the Biden administration’s messaging on the border. He said Mayorkas dismissed his concerns as a “personality conflict” with Ortiz.
Ortiz did not respond to a request for comment.
Another point of friction, according to Magnus, has been his concerns about CBP authorities that allow officers access to the phones and personal devices of travelers entering the United States, including U.S. citizens. Magnus said he told Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), chairman of the Senate Finance Committee that considered his nomination, and privacy advocates that he would suggest reforms, calling the searches “something that needs to be handled carefully.”
Magnus said he also raised objections to CBP practices that sometimes require officers to work 16-hour shifts, calling it “inconsistent with our supposed commitment to wellness.”
“These were the things I was looking into and trying to address,” he said in the interview.
Magnus told senators in prepared testimony at his Senate confirmation hearing that he was a “pragmatic and bipartisan problem-solver” and that for him, immigration is also personal. His father was an immigrant from Norway, and his husband, Terrance Cheung, came to the United States from Hong Kong.
Magnus signaled at the hearing that he faced a difficult task at CBP. Immigrant advocates constantly accuse the agency of abusing its authority, while the Border Patrol’s labor union openly supported the Trump administration’s more restrictive immigration policies and complained loudly when the Biden administration tried to rescind them.
CBP also struggled with internal resistance to taking coronavirus vaccines and suffered a rash of officer deaths.
“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?” Magnus said in the written testimony. “And here is my answer, which [is] the same answer I gave when I started my public safety career in 1979: I want to make a difference.”