WASHINGTON — Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., is stalling the confirmation hearing of President Joe Biden’s pick to run U.S. Customs and Border Protection over questions about the federal government’s role in quelling protests in his home state.
Wyden, the chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, congratulated Tucson Police Chief Chris Magnus in April after Biden nominated him to serve as commissioner of CBP, the nation’s largest law-enforcement agency.
But Wyden says his committee will not hold the confirmation hearing until the Departments of Homeland Security and Justice answer questions about the federal agents deployed by the Trump administration to Portland, a liberal stronghold in the Pacific Northwest.
Among Wyden’s questions is whether a federal officer who shot a protester in the head with a less-than-lethal munition, fracturing the man’s skull, has been investigated or disciplined.
“Six months into the new administration, the Departments of Homeland Security and Justice have failed to answer basic questions about how the Trump administration misused federal resources to stoke violence against peaceful protesters in my hometown,” Wyden said in a statement. “While it is clear that Customs and Border Protection faces pressing issues, as the senior senator from Oregon, I am unable to advance this nominee until DHS and DOJ give Oregonians some straight answers about what they were up to in Portland last year, and who was responsible.”
A Wyden aide said the senator’s office notified the White House on June 11 “of what was needed to have a hearing on Magnus” and reiterated this week that the Finance Committee — which oversees the confirmation process for this agency — would not hold a hearing “until his questions are sufficiently answered.”
CBP safeguards the nation’s ports and borders and also facilitates travel and trade.
The Trump administration dispatched hundreds of DHS officers and U.S. marshals to Portland to respond to demonstrations over police killings of Black Americans such as George Floyd in Minneapolis.
In Portland, local officials said agents used force against demonstrators and detained some of them in unmarked vehicles. U.S. officials said they were there to secure buildings, including the federal courthouse, and that some demonstrators attacked them with fireworks, Molotov cocktails and lasers. Officials charged dozens of people with crimes, and federal watchdogs opened investigations.
Homeland Security and Justice Department officials said Wednesday that they are working with Wyden to provide information, and a White House official urged the Senate to proceed with Magnus’s hearing.
“We are pressing for the nomination of Chris Magnus to move forward through committee and to the Floor,” the White House official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the personnel process, wrote via email. “CBP needs its leadership in place to continue implementing the President’s vision for an orderly immigration system, and we hope the Senate will cooperate with that.”
Wyden acknowledged that federal officials have responded to some of his questions. But he said in June 9 letters to Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas and Attorney General Merrick Garland that the answers fell short.
The senator said he wants to know, among other details, which federal agencies and units deployed to Oregon, whether the officers were “identifiable” by name or badge number, and to which cities they were sent.
He also asked about the officers’ mission and training, including the undercover officers who arrested people, and asked the agencies to respond by June 30.
Wyden warned officials in the June letters that “ignoring these questions will not make them disappear.”
He cited a DHS Office of Inspector General report in April that said the agency had the authority to deploy officers to protect federal buildings — and sent a total of 755 officers to Portland at various times last year from June 4 to Aug. 31 — but that some officers lacked required training and equipment.
“The uncoordinated deployment of poorly trained federal law enforcement in Oregon and in other parts of the country must never occur again,” Wyden wrote last month to DHS, where CBP is housed. “Americans must understand how it occurred.”
Justice Department spokeswoman Dena Iverson said in an email Wednesday that “the department is working with Senator Wyden’s office to address his requests.”
Homeland Security spokeswoman Marsha Espinosa said Mayorkas “has directly communicated with Senator Wyden” and would work to resolve his concerns.
Mayorkas has also directed a “Department-wide review to ensure that all DHS law enforcement personnel receive appropriate training and operate pursuant to policies in keeping with best practices and law,” Espinosa said in an email. “DHS is committed to respecting the rights of all individuals who peacefully exercise their First Amendment freedoms of speech and assembly,” she said.
The delay in Magnus’ confirmation hearing comes as apprehensions of migrants attempting to cross the U.S.-Mexico border are at 20-year highs, and have remained steady into the hot summer months, when crossings are especially risky.
Apprehensions surpassed 1 million this fiscal year for the first time since 2006, with more migrants trying multiple times to enter the United States — in many cases, after being expelled under a public-health order during the pandemic.
Magnus is a critic of the Trump administration’s hard-line immigration policies. If confirmed, he would also be the first openly gay commissioner.
A hearing for Biden’s nominee for Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which detains and deports immigrants after they have entered the United States, was held last week before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.
CBP has more than 60,000 employees and includes the U.S. Border Patrol as well as the Office of Field Operations, which manages legal ports of entry.