Obama alums, police chief named to lead immigration agencies

The nominees will yield ‘a lot less drama’ compared with the Trump administration, says one former USCIS official

Chris Magnus, police chief in Richmond, Calif., during this 2014 photo of him standing with demonstrators, is the White House pick to head U.S. Customs and Border Protection.  (Kristopher Skinner/MediaNews Group file photo/The Mercury News via Getty Images)
Chris Magnus, police chief in Richmond, Calif., during this 2014 photo of him standing with demonstrators, is the White House pick to head U.S. Customs and Border Protection. (Kristopher Skinner/MediaNews Group file photo/The Mercury News via Getty Images)
Posted April 12, 2021 at 3:06pm

President Joe Biden has tapped a number of Obama administration alumni to lead key immigration agencies within the Department of Homeland Security, the White House announced Monday.

Biden will nominate Ur Jaddou to lead U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, the agency that processes visa requests and other immigration benefits, following two years without a permanent leader.

Jaddou, widely rumored for months to be a top contender for the role, most recently led the Biden administration’s DHS transition team. Before that, she worked at America’s Voice, an immigration advocacy group, and served as chief USCIS counsel during President Barack Obama’s second term.

Biden will also nominate Chris Magnus, currently the police chief in Tucson, Ariz., to lead U.S. Customs and Border Protection, which oversees trade and travel through U.S. entry ports and enforces immigration laws at the nation’s borders.

Both of those roles require Senate confirmation.

The administration has yet to announce a nominee for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the DHS agency responsible for immigrant enforcement from within the U.S.

Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, who was confirmed to his role in February, described the candidates announced Monday as “highly-regarded and accomplished professionals with deep experience in their respective fields.”

“Together they will help advance the Department of Homeland Security’s mission to ensure the safety and security of the American people. I look forward to working with the Senate in support of their swift confirmation,” Mayorkas said in a statement.

Both Jaddou and Magnus have been critical of the Trump administration’s immigration policies.

At America’s Voice, Jaddou, the daughter of immigrants from Mexico and Iraq, directed the organization’s DHS Watch, created during the Trump administration. The group “shines a light on policies and administration that fail to adhere to basic principles of good governance,” according to the organization's website.

Leon Rodriguez, a partner at Seyfarth Shaw LLP who served as USCIS director from 2014 to 2017 when Jaddou was chief counsel, said in an interview that Jaddou “honestly is the most qualified of all of us who’ve ever held the title.”

“She has management experience within the agency. She has this great diversity of experience, on both immigration policy and practice,” Rodriguez said, adding that the USCIS workforce already “knows her and respects her.”

Danielle Spooner, president of the USCIS employees’ union, also expressed support for Jaddou’s nomination.

“Her knowledge and experience in immigration law will go far in healing the dysfunctional policies of the past few years and put in place policies that will secure the Homeland while supporting a solid immigration program,” she said.

While the evenly divided Senate could make it difficult for anyone to sail through the confirmation process, Rodriguez said “it’s going to be very hard for anybody to argue with her qualifications.”

Magnus notably critiqued the Trump administration in a December 2017 op-ed for the New York Times, where he wrote he was “deeply troubled” by that administration’s attacks on so-called “sanctuary” jurisdictions, which limit local officials’ cooperation with federal immigration authorities, including by withholding federal grant funds for those localities.

Magnus, the son of an immigrant from Norway, said these policies and the administration’s “anti-immigrant rhetoric” have had “a chilling effect on police-community relations here.”

“When crime victims and witnesses are unwilling to testify because they’re afraid an Immigration and Customs Enforcement agent will be waiting to arrest them at the courtroom doors, real criminals go unpunished,” he wrote.

'Less drama'

Other nominees include Jonathan Meyer, another member of the Biden-Harris transition team who is currently a partner at law firm Sheppard Mullin, to serve as DHS’ general counsel. Meyer previously served as deputy general counsel for the department during the Obama administration.

John Tien, a managing director at Citigroup who previously served as senior director of the National Security Council under the Obama administration, and before that served in the U.S. military, was chosen to serve as deputy secretary of DHS.

Rob Silvers, a partner at law firm Paul Hastings LLP, was picked to serve as DHS Under Secretary for Strategy, Policy, and Plans. Jen Easterly, currently at Morgan Stanley, was tapped as the director of the Cybersecurity & Infrastructure Security Agency.

Rodriguez, who also worked with both Silvers and Meyer directly, praised both of those choices as well.

“I think you’re going to see just a lot less drama overall,” he said of the slate of nominees, compared to the Trump administration.

The nomination announcements come as the Biden administration faces political and operational challenges presented by a recent increase in migrant children crossing the U.S. border without their parents.

In March, border agents encountered a migrant more than 172,000 times — though some who attempted to enter the U.S. multiple times were counted more than once — including nearly 19,000 unaccompanied children.

The government is turning away most single adults, and some migrant families, under a public health directive allowing border officers to rapidly “expel” migrants from the U.S. without first considering their claims for protection.

However, the Biden administration has exempted unaccompanied children from the policy and has struggled to open up enough shelters quickly enough to transfer children after they are picked up by border agents.