Magnus Looks Ahead
After four decades in law enforcement, Commissioner Chris Magnus maintains an enthusiasm for learning new things from other people. CBP photo by Glenn Fawcett. Graphic by Janice Swan-Jones
Sitting down with U.S. Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Chris Magnus to discuss his first 100 days at the helm of the nation’s largest federal law enforcement agency, the conversation quickly focused on the importance of working with people to get things done. “Everything I feel has been a successful accomplishment has been the result of a team that I’ve been part of.”
Working with others is a trademark of his management style. He describes himself as having a participative leadership ethos. “I know I certainly don’t have all the answers [and] you can be in a career like I had for four decades and still have a lot to learn,” said Magnus. “My management style will always reflect my enthusiasm and acknowledgement that there’s a lot that I can learn from other people and that will help me be more effective in leading CBP.”
Magnus’ career spans four decades and the continental U.S. He began his law enforcement career in Michigan, with the Livingston County Sheriff’s Department before achieving the rank of captain with the Lansing Police Department. Magnus moved on to become chief of police in Fargo, North Dakota; Richmond, California; and Tucson, Arizona.
Leading an Agency of Innovators
Going from a force of just under 1,000 personnel in Tucson, the jump to lead CBP’s over 60,000 workforce at first left Magnus feeling stunned by the sheer size and scope of the agency’s mission and responsibilities. After a few months on the job, he’s most impressed by the workforce, calling CBP an “agency of innovators.” He emphasized, “There are some incredibly talented people who are leading this agency and I really feel fortunate to have so many of them helping me as I make this transition.”
Magnus is impressed by how well so many of CBP’s personnel are performing their jobs and responsibilities despite the incredible challenges and obstacles they face. “I knew their work was difficult, but I had no idea quite how difficult it really is,” he said. “And so, getting out as I have to multiple locations so far has really been important, because it’s helped me see how much they’re doing, how dedicated they are, but really how difficult their jobs are.” When asked what he thought was CBP’s greatest strength, Magnus responded, without hesitation, “Its people.”
CBP employees are charged with ensuring border security while also facilitating safe and legitimate trade and travel – an extensive effort that requires the collaboration and teamwork of people, programs and resources nationally and internationally. Magnus recognizes the magnitude and complexity of the challenges the agency faces, which he succinctly laid out in an address at the U.S. Conference of Mayors in January.
“Our nation is currently confronting many challenges that involve border security and immigration, Magnus said. “CBP is caught in the middle of a frequently changing legal landscape that requires our personnel to take on additional responsibilities, learn new skills, interact with larger numbers of people, and adjust to increasingly complex expectations. None of this is easy. CBP must constantly balance how we follow the law, develop and ensure processes that are efficient and effective, and be responsive to concerns and questions from members of Congress, the media, advocacy groups, and the larger public.”
Magnus expressed his appreciation for how often the CBP workforce embraces taking on large problems. “Give these folks a challenge, and they’ll find a way to tackle it,” he said. “Whether it’s performing rescues, attending to migrants who are sick or injured, apprehending human traffickers, confiscating dangerous counterfeit products that are being imported into the country, or identifying and arresting persons who are intending to commit acts of terrorism. CBP personnel are all over it.”
Reflecting on the most rewarding moments of his career, Commissioner Chris Magnus, right, says he felt most proud when he could see he had a positive impact on the department he’s worked in, improved working conditions for those under his command, and when he’s been able to positively serve his community. CBP photo by Glenn Fawcett
Taking Care of CBP Personnel
Magnus believes that of all the challenges facing CBP today, and there are many, the biggest is that the public does not understand what CBP does. Helping the public, legislators, and the media understand CBP and the difficulties it faces is at the top of his long to-do list.
“I think there is a lot of misunderstanding for example about the Border Patrol,” he said. “About their humanitarian efforts, about their role in interdicting just incredibly serious amounts of drugs that are coming across the border, their role in addressing human smuggling. And I think you can say the same thing about so many other parts of the agency as well. I think the public really does not understand the scope of what we do, nor do they realize fully the talents and the dedication of the people who are doing it.”
Among other projects Magnus will take on as commissioner, he wants to spend time addressing the welfare of the people that work there. He wants to both help employees be more resilient and effective in their jobs and to show them that he and the other CBP leaders truly care about them. He wants to invest more in mental health, provide more support to families of employees, and improve suicide prevention efforts. For front-line officers, agents and specialists at ports of entries, branches, checkpoints, sectors and other facilities and locations, national defense is a 24/7, 365 days a year operation that requires dedication, commitment and sacrifice.
“Every job at CBP can take a toll on physical and mental health, family life, satisfaction with work, and interactions with others. I plan to provide numerous opportunities for personnel to share their views on ways we can tackle these challenges.”
Another important area for Magnus is the need for internal procedural justice at CBP. According to the Department of Justice, procedural justice refers to the idea of fairness in the processes that resolve disputes and allocate resources. Magnus explains how the term applies to law enforcement and the way they interact with members of the community. It involves being a good listener, treating people fairly, allowing people to feel like they’re being heard, and explaining why things are done.
Internal procedural justice, as defined by Magnus, is the way organizations treat their own employees. It includes the need to really listen to the workforce, making sure they feel heard, the need to treat employees fairly, and explain what decisions are made and why. He said, “Without internal procedural justice, it’s hard to expect people to practice external procedural justice.”
Recognizing that CBP is still a fairly young agency, Magnus wants to continue to professionalize the workforce and keep up with best practices. He wants to use technology more effectively and look at the ways CBP recruits, assigns and trains people to get them out into areas where they’re needed most. He includes integrity and accountability in this as well. He wants to ensure CBP has adequate resources to conduct internal investigations and address misconduct when it occurs. “The majority of personnel within the agency are doing their jobs exactly the way they should, if not exceeding our expectations for them.” Any agency this size, he explained, may have some people not following the policies and not doing their jobs as they should. CBP must be able to hold those accountable in a way that is fair but also in a way that addresses the damage they could potentially do. “We owe that to their coworkers, but we also owe that to the American public.”
CBP Commissioner Chris Magnus, left, signs a Global Entry joint statement with Jordanian Ambassador Dina Kawar, at the Embassy of Jordan, in Washington, D.C., Feb. 22. Magnus believes policymaking should be a dynamic process and should include stakeholders and industry best practices. CBP photo by Glenn Fawcett
Magnus also wants to take on the various missions of CBP and look at the internal policies and procedures driving them. He asserts that when tackling things like human trafficking and border security, policy making should be a dynamic process, with participation from many of CBP’s stakeholders, including external partners. Policies and procedures are always changing because the world is always changing. He wants to address operational issues as thoughtfully as possible and with the right people involved, while recognizing CBP is not always in control of its own destiny.
Magnus concedes that CBP is a law enforcement agency, which means they do not make policies or laws. “We’re the only ones involved in border security and immigration that can’t say no,” he said. “We have to deal with whoever is coming across the border.” CBP must enforce whatever changes with the laws or policy on any given day and it must do it in a way that is legal and humanitarian. He notes that CBP is under tremendous scrutiny, and while he thinks that’s appropriate, he says, “We are on the front lines of having to deal in some cases with a lack of policy, a lack of legislation and that can make things very, very difficult for our personnel.”
Magnus acknowledges that CBP is at the center of political controversy because there is so little agreement among legislators and even the public about how to handle immigration issues. “I want to try to step away from the controversy and the politics and focus on doing the best we can in terms of managing the border and handling security concerns.”
This involves regular and intentional collaboration with stakeholders. As a police chief, Magnus routinely looked to the local community to provide feedback, share concerns and for best practices. As commissioner, Magnus plans to prioritize meaningful partnerships with external groups, like local governments, trade and travel industry, other federal and state agencies and other partner governments. “I know it’s easy to say we’re seeking a meaningful partnership, but I am committed to doing my best to assure our actions demonstrate that commitment.”
Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas, left, reads the Oath of Office during the ceremonial swearing in of Commissioner Chris Magnus, right. Magnus joined CBP after spending 40 years working in local law enforcement. The hallmarks of his career have been building trusting relationships, accessibility to the community, and fighting for resources for the officers under his command. CBP photo by Jaime Rodriguez, Sr.
Finding Meaning Through Positive Interactions
Magnus’ personal approach to handling the challenges in front of him is finding a balance between taking the work seriously while not taking himself too seriously. He always encourages other people to have fun in the job, to take care of themselves, to maintain a sense of humor, and to fight cynicism, which he admits is often a team project.
“This is really serious work much of the time,” he said. “These are really hard jobs. But you have to figure out ways to keep it interesting and find new aspects of the work that keep you intellectually stimulated or that make you feel good about how you’re engaging with other people, finding things that are positive, finding things you care about, finding things that make you want to go to work.”
Recognizing the reality of the difficulties of the work, Magnus says it’s hard to take on big challenges and not get discouraged at times. “Sometimes things go so much slower than you’d like them to go,” he said. “Sometimes you really have to deal with the very worst of people.”
During difficult moments, he encourages CBP employees across the country and the world to remember why they took this job. “What was it that got you into this and what is it that makes you proud of doing this work? Don’t ever forget those things.” He also asserts that in a job when carrying a gun and a badge, dealing with vulnerable people, and issues as critical as those at CBP, employees should not lose sight of what they know is right. “It’s very easy sometimes to fall in with group think and lose sight of your own identity and your own beliefs. When you know you’re right, you have to be willing to step away from the crowd and do what’s right.”
Magnus readily shares his experience of when he joined law enforcement, making two commitments to himself. “One was that I was never going to let myself be bored. The other was that I was going to come to work every day and find a way to make it fun.”
“Is every day super fun? Oh no. Certainly not. There are some days that it’s really rough. But I still look for interactions with other people or learning about something new or just feeling like you’ve accomplished something, even if it’s not a whole of something, but even if it’s a part of something. To me, that’s fun. Maybe I have an odd sense of what fun looks like.”
Improving Conditions Through Collaboration
When reflecting on his most rewarding career moments, he says he’s felt most proud when he can see the positive impact on his departments and when he’s improved working conditions for his colleagues, whether it be a much needed pay increase, essential and lifesaving equipment, or putting in place programs that were long overdue. It’s a strategy he plans to use at CBP. He has consistently found people within the organizations he’s worked in who were waiting for opportunities to take on more and to tackle problems.
Magnus feels good about the people he’s met so far at CBP who are willing to help him challenge the status quo. “I’m an optimist. I believe that even when you have a huge organization and when there are huge issues to deal with, I think you can still, with the right people, have an impact."