Chris Magnus Tucson Police chief Mamta Popat / Arizona Daily Star

Curt Prendergast – reporting

President Biden plans to nominate Tucson Police Department Chief Chris Magnus to head Customs and Border Protection.

Administration officials cited Magnus’ role as police chief in a “diverse city close to the U.S.-Mexican border,” according to an announcement from the White House Monday morning.

In Tucson, “Magnus implemented de-escalation training, sentinel event review processes, and programs to promote officer health and wellness. Because of Tucson’s proximity to the border, he has extensive experience in addressing immigration issues,” according to the White House.

CBP oversees the Border Patrol and the legal ports of entry, such as those in Nogales and Douglas. CBP has a budget of more than $15 billion and over 60,000 employees. The commissioner of CBP must be confirmed by the Senate.

“Mr. Biden was compelled to choose him because of those efforts to reform departments, as well as his recent work policing a city close to the U.S.-Mexico border,” the New York times wrote, citing a White House official.

Tucson Mayor Regina Romero congratulated Magnus on his nomination.

“During his time in Tucson and throughout his career, Chief Magnus has developed a national reputation for his sensible, inclusive approach to policing that has always centered around community building,” Romero said in a news release.

“Chief Magnus has always understood the importance of distinguishing the role of local law enforcement from federal immigration enforcement and how critical this is to protecting community trust,” Romero said. “He has gained valuable experience serving as Police Chief of a major city here in the Borderlands.”

Magnus, a registered Democrat, has been TPD chief since 2016. He previously served as police chief in Richmond, California, across the bay from San Francisco.

“This is really the honor of a lifetime, being appointed by the president,” Magnus said in an interview with the Arizona Daily Star. “It’s not something I expected, but it’s something I’m very excited about.”

“I’m looking forward to meeting and getting to know the senators, who have obviously a lot of interest in the issues we’re dealing with right now involving CBP and immigration in general,” Magnus said.

If confirmed, Magnus would take over for Troy Miller, who has been the senior official performing the duties of CBP commissioner under Biden. Miller started his career at CBP in 1993 and previously served as director of CBP’s New York Field Office and executive director of CBP’s main anti-terrorism organization, the National Targeting Center.

Magnus would take the reins at CBP as tens of thousands of migrants and asylum seekers at the U.S.-Mexico border each month. Border encounters started rising in April 2020 and accelerated in the past few months, spurring federal officials to scramble to find temporary housing for migrant families and unaccompanied children. In March, Border Patrol agents encountered more than 170,000 migrants, including nearly 20,000 in the agency’s Tucson Sector.

Under the Trump administration, Magnus pushed back against some of the administration’s immigration policies.

In an op-ed Magnus wrote for the New York Times in December 2017, he objected to former Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ attempt to withhold federal funding from local jurisdictions that did not agree with the administration’s approach to immigration.

“The message from Washington is that cities need to refocus on ‘law and order.’ Yet the harsh anti-immigrant rhetoric and Mr. Sessions’s reckless policies ignore a basic reality known by most good cops and prosecutors: 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,” Magnus wrote.

In January 2020, TPD opted out of Operation Stonegarden, a federal program that provides funds to local law enforcement for overtime and equipment associated with border-related activities. TPD had received those funds for more than a decade, including about $600,000 at the time TPD opted out of the program.

The program ran counter to TPD’s mission “and the expectation of the community we serve,” TPD officials said at the time. The move by TPD came after a dispute with federal officials about using some of the Operation Stonegarden funds to cover costs for providing humanitarian aid to thousands of asylum seekers who were temporarily housed at Tucson shelters.

“As an established immigrant-welcoming community and in response to SB-1070, Mayor & Council directed a series of amendments to TPD’s General Orders that protect victims and witnesses of crimes from arbitrary immigration status inquires, prohibit stops and detentions based on ‘suspicions’ of unlawful status, and other actions aimed at protecting the rights of our immigrant communities,” Romero said.

“I am grateful for the Chief’s leadership in implementing these reforms, as well as other efforts including streamlining TPD’s U-visa process and the creation of a new refugee liaison program,” Romero said, referencing U-visas issued to victims of crime who help law enforcement.

Magnus’ nomination to the federal post comes a little less than a year after he offered to resign as Tucson’s police chief over his department’s handling of an in-custody death in April 2020 that led to a $2.9 million settlement with the deceased man’s family.

After City Manager Michael Ortega declined to accept the chief’s resignation, Magnus launched a reform effort that has drawn praise from police reform experts around the nation.

He invited a Sentinel Event Review Board to put TPD’s actions under a microscope in the April death and another in-custody in March 2020, a process that resulted in 53 recommendations for change. Many of the changes have already been adopted.

Ortega said the White House decision to tap Magnus reflects well on the entire city.

“Chris leads with passion, integrity and a deep commitment to serve his community. It’s a proud moment for the City of Tucson and a testament to the strength of the team we have assembled to have one of our own nominated for such an important position,” Ortega said.

He said Magnus has worked tirelessly to improve police-community relations and “has been instrumental in everything from improving (TPD’s) financial position to implementing progressive policing policies that serve as models to other cities.”

Biden administration officials said Magnus built a reputation as a progressive leader.

“His lengthy career in public safety includes coming up through the ranks of the Lansing, Michigan Police Department, and serving as police chief in the cities of Fargo, North Dakota, Richmond, California, and Tucson, Arizona,” according to the announcement from the White House.

“In each of these cities Magnus developed a reputation as a progressive police leader who focused on relationship-building between the police and community, implementing evidence-based best practices, promoting reform, and insisting on police accountability,” the White House said.

In Richmond, Magnus “played a key role in rebuilding community trust in law enforcement and dramatically reducing the number of shootings and homicides,” the White House said.

Magnus grew up in Lansing, Michigan, the son of an immigrant from Oslo, Norway. He received his bachelor’s degree in criminal justice and his master’s degree in labor relations from Michigan State University, the White House said. Magnus attended the Harvard Kennedy School Senior Executives in State and Local Government program. He has been with his husband, Terrance Cheung, for 15 years.

“I have some mixed emotions about the situation,” Magnus told the Daily Star. “I really love living and working here in Tucson. We have a tremendous team of people. Although I’m excited about Washington DC and the new people I hope to be working with, it’s still hard to contemplate moving or taking on a new job.”

“We have one of the best teams I’ve ever worked with in my career here,” Magnus said. “We have so many things going on. I feel really confident that If I’m fortunate enough to be confirmed by the senate, the good work is going to continue here.”

Magnus said he had never met Biden, “but I certainly am familiar with his policies and priorities around these issues and around criminal justice in general,” Magnus said.

“I’m also particularly excited about working with the DHS secretary, who I think is approaching these issues in a very thoughtful way,” Magnus said. “He’s the kind of person that I think will be a tremendous boss and tremendous resource as we talk about some of these really tough problems.”

“I’m really looking forward to getting to know and building a relationship with both Border Patrol and customs personnel,” Magnus said. “Think they have a very difficult job, look forward to being able to work with them.”

In a press release, Magnus said the confirmation process is “never a certainty.” 

As the Senate considers his nomination, “I remain committed to serving as your Chief of Police to the best of my ability.”

Arizona’s U.S. senators react

Sen. Kyrsten Sinema called Magnus’s nomination “a positive step toward ensuring the administration understands and addresses the needs of Arizona communities,” Sinema said in a news release.

“Our state pays the price for the federal government’s failure to fix a broken immigration system,” Sinema said. “I’ll continue working to ensure the administration takes meaningful steps to support our border communities, secure the border, and treat all migrants and unaccompanied children fairly and humanely – and I look forward to talking with Chief Magnus soon about his nomination.”

“I’ve known Chief Magnus for a number of years, and as the son of two police officers myself, I have respected his approach to public service and law enforcement,” Sen. Mark Kelly said in a news release. 

“With about 370 miles of U.S.-Mexico border and numerous ports of entry, Arizona requires strong, capable leadership at Customs and Border Protection to secure the border and ensure trade and commerce that is critical for our economy,” Kelly said. “As Tucson’s Police Chief, Chief Magnus understands what it looks like when the federal government fails Arizona on border security and immigration, and that is the experience and perspective he can bring to this position.”

“We’re facing a humanitarian crisis at our border that is already straining Border Patrol in Arizona, and I look forward to speaking with Chief Magnus about his plans for Customs and Border Protection and providing a secure, orderly process at the border that prioritizes safety and public health,” Kelly said. 

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Curt Prendergast


Curt has been with the Star since 2015 and covers the border, immigration and federal courts. He previously worked at the Nogales International.