The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Biden’s Border Patrol pick could start an era of immigration reform

On June 23, 2020, United States Border Patrol chief Rodney Scott gives President Donald Trump a tour of a section of the border wall in San Luis, Ariz. (Evan Vucci/AP)

On Wednesday, former president Donald Trump went to the southern border to meet with local officials to discuss immigration. It was an odd, theatrical affair. Down to the navy blue suit and red tie, Trump conducted himself as if he were still in the White House, a president being briefed on issues of national security. He was surrounded by some of his former immigration allies. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R), always willing to oblige, sat alongside Trump. “We have a sick country. It’s sick in elections, and it’s sick on the border,” Trump said, offering a cocktail of his two favorite topics.

Trump’s visit to southern Texas is only the latest episode of what has become a political war over the country’s border with Mexico. Trump’s chapter could perhaps be coming to a close, though, because Rodney Scott, the current head of the Border Patrol, has announced his departure. It shouldn’t come as a surprise. During Trump’s presidency, Scott blurred the lines between the political neutrality expected from a man at the helm of the Border Patrol and a partisan actor.

Scott publicly supported Trump’s draconian immigration policies. He was, for example, a longtime enthusiast of the border wall. Last summer, Scott closed ranks with Trump himself, joining him for a carefully staged photo next to the wall. It made no sense for President Biden to keep a political opponent in charge of a crucial piece of the very complicated immigration puzzle, one that has become the administration’s most visible challenge.

Biden will seize on Scott’s departure to reform the Border Patrol — an elusive goal, to say the least. If personnel truly reveals policy, the administration seems resolute. It has nominated Tucson Police Chief Chris Magnus to run U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

Magnus and Scott are opposites. While Scott has been zealously protective of the Border Patrol’s mores and has deflected even the most essential calls for improvement, Magnus has long advocated reform and been a vocal critic of Trump’s most extreme policies. In 2017, Magnus published an op-ed denouncing the Justice Department’s harsh approach to immigration. “The changes it wants to make — to force local police officers to cooperate much more closely with federal immigration authorities — will compromise public safety by reducing community confidence in law enforcement,” he wrote. In 2014, Magnus publicly supported the Black Lives Matter movement by holding a sign at a protest.

If confirmed, Magnus will lead an agency about 60 times larger than the Tucson police department. Reforming an agency that has grown this significantly over the past two decades won’t be easy. In 1999, there were just over 8,000 Border Patrol agents. Now there are close to 20,000 and plans to add around 750 more, according to its considerable 2021 budget. And it’s gigantic. Over the past two decades, the Border Patrol’s budget has quadrupled to nearly $5 billion, more than what Biden plans to spend over his whole presidency in Central America to address the root causes of emigration.

Just as its budget expanded, consecutive scandals shook the agency, involving secret Facebook groups with virulently racist and sexist posts, and multiple episodes of abuse along the border. Even though Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the much-reviled immigration authority, had a more negative perception over the past few years, the Border Patrol has faced severe — and deserved — criticism over Trump’s anti-immigrant agenda. The backlash led to what the New York Times described as a “morale crisis” within the agency.

Trump emboldened the Border Patrol to behave with impunity. His administration’s vision of enforcement and exclusion bolstered a pattern of null accountability within the organization. In 2015, a Department of Homeland Security panel issued a list of 53 recommendations for improvement. The agency later said it had enacted 42 of those recommendations. But according to ProPublica, the agency in fact dragged its feet. Border Patrol has remained abusive, opaque and resistant to proper oversight.

How can one administration transform such a conflict-prone behemoth?

Experts agree that reform must begin with accountability and transparency. In 2017, a Cato Institute report painted an ugly picture of an agency with severe discipline and performance challenges. The report advised a series of concrete measures, including a hiring freeze and a two-year evaluation period for new agents. It set out basic oversight actions to break the code of silence around misconduct, such as streamlining internal investigations and encouraging cooperation with investigators. Progressive voices suggest Border Patrol reform must fall within a broader reimagining of the Department of Homeland Security, 20 years after Sept. 11. That may be the case. In the meantime, Rodney Scott’s departure should at least turn a nasty page in the history of the Border Patrol, a troubled agency whose need for reform is ill-served by its use as a political pawn.

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