Appointment of McAleenan as CBP Commissioner will please a worried trade
President Donald J. Trump’s groundbreaking nomination of Acting Commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection Kevin McAleenan to run the agency on a permanent basis was praised by former CBP officials and industry representatives as a much-needed shot of continuity for an agency at the center of many changes to border policy being pursued by the new administration.
It is the first time in modern history that a political appointee for commissioner of CBP or the legacy Customs Service has come out of the career ranks. CBP was created as a the unified border agency in 2003 as part of the Department of Homeland Security.
McAleenan’s familiarity on Capitol Hill should win him quick confirmation in the Senate, supporters say.
Most observers expected Trump to select someone in line with his political philosophy. Media reports last month from Arizona indicated the administration at one point considered for the position two local law enforcement officials from that state who were advocates of stricter measures to secure the southwest border from illegal immigration.
Import/export businesses, even those who may feel Customs could do even more to facilitate trade, are likely to feel reassured by the selection compared to the potential alternatives in the mix.
McAleenan will not require a learning curve to get up to speed on challenges and issues facing CBP, as well as how to manage an organization of 60,000 employees with a budget of nearly $12 billion. That’s an important consideration for an agency experiencing a higher operational tempo and being heavily relied on to further the new administration’s tough approach toward immigration and trade violations.
“Kevin’s a great choice,” said Jayson Ahern, a principal at The Chertoff Group and a former high-ranking CBP official who served as acting commissioner for a year during the first term of the Obama administration. “He brings all the different skill sets needed. When you have someone like him who has a unique understanding of mission he can hit the ground running on day one.”
CBP, the largest law enforcement agency in the United States, is responsible for managing the flow of travelers and cargo across the border, collecting revenue from duties, protecting domestic agriculture from foreign pest and disease threats, and stopping terrorists and their weapons from entering the country. The Border Patrol, which controls the border between ports of entry, is also part of CBP.
Customs has been at the forefront of several Trump administration initiatives during the president’s first 70 days in office, including budgeting for construction of a physical wall on the Mexican border, quickly returning to their country of origin people captured illegally crossing the border, and implementing a travel ban on people from several Muslim-dominated countries issued in the name of security.
McAleenan’s ability to manage the agency and publicly explain during a nationally broadcast press conference how the initial travel ban would be implemented under the glare of media scrutiny and protests over alleged civil rights violations probably went a long way in proving himself to Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly and others in the administration, former colleagues said. The ban was subsequently blocked by federal appeals courts.
“Clearly, when you look at the first travel restrictions, he carried the day for the administration during a very challenging time” by thoughtfully explaining how travelers affected by the ban and those in limbo in airports would be handled, said Ahern, who considers McAleenan a friend.
When you look at the first travel restrictions, he carried the day for the administration during a very challenging time.
The administration was heavily criticized by many for the substance of the executive order, but also the way in which it was issued without warning and with little apparent coordination between the White House and DHS. The rushed execution gave CBP little time to prepare its officers to deal with various contingencies, leading to much confusion and hardship for certain types of visa holders.
The situation “actually showcased Kevin’s tremendous capabilities to right the ship,” said a former executive-level official at CBP, who did not want to be identified because of ongoing business relations with DHS. “He went out like a good soldier, fell on the sword and showcased the he was competent and capable.”
Known quantity. McAleenan was the deputy commissioner until Jan. 20, when Obama appointee Gil Kerlikowske left office. Kerlikowske, who promoted McAleenan to deputy soon after taking office in March 2014, called the selection “outstanding.”
The deputy commissioner essentially is the organization’s chief operating officer, in charge of running day-to-day operations across a massive bureaucracy with 328 ports of entry and about 175 Border Patrol, and Air and Marine stations.
The commissioner typically plays a more strategic and political role, interacting with the White House and DHS to set policy and priorities, communicating those priorities down through the ranks, representing the agency in international settings, coordinating enforcement and information sharing with other government agencies with jurisdiction over imports and exports, and dealing with Congress.
McAleenan, those who know him say, is well-equipped to handle that role. He has experience at the headquarters level, work in the field as a regional port director, and practicing law.
After obtaining his law degree from the University of Chicago and working for firms in California, then-Commissioner Robert Bonner hired him in November 2001 in to head the post-9/11 Office of Anti-Terrorism and he was instrumental in helping CBP build up its National Targeting Center.
McAleenan was part of Bonner’s team that created the philosophy that it is possible to have faster, more efficient trade and border security at the same time. The two goals don’t have to be mutually exclusive, according to the strategy.
For the past 15 years, CBP and DHS have pursued a strategy of risk management at ports of entry whereby officers screen submitted shipping or travel data through an automated system that assesses potential security threats or violations of law by matching the subject’s criteria with a set of rules and intelligence on criminals and terrorists.
Suspicious people or container shipments are pulled aside for closer examinations or flagged overseas before reaching U.S. shores, while the vast majority is allowed to proceed. The strategy is designed to maximize the use of resources on subjects that present the greatest potential threat, while minimizing delays that would otherwise make international commerce very burdensome. Last year, CBP combined its passenger and cargo targeting centers in a joint facility.
From 2006 to 2008, McAleenan served as the area port director of Los Angeles International Airport, directing CBP’s border security operations at LAX and 17 other airport facilities in one of CBP’s largest field commands.
The commissioner typically plays a strategic and political role, interacting with the White House and DHS to set policy and priorities.
In 2008, he moved to the private sector as vice president of Sentinel HS Group, a Virginia-based homeland security consulting firm. He returned to CBP in May 2010 to be deputy assistant commissioner of field operations and was promoted to assistant commissioner in January 2012.
McAleenan received a 2015 Presidential Rank Award, the nation’s highest civil service award. He also received the Service to America Medal, Call to Service Award in 2005 for spearheading efforts to develop and implement a comprehensive antiterrorism strategy in the border context.
Some precedent. There is precedent for presidents to pluck talented career people for a political position. In 2002, Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta appointed Adm. James Loy, the Coast Guard commandant, to be undersecretary of the newly formed Transportation Security Administration.
When the agency was incorporated into DHS in 2003, then-President George W. Bush nominated him to be deputy secretary of homeland security. John Pistole later took over the TSA after being the deputy director of the FBI. In both cases, however, the officials were not incumbents in the same agency to which they were appointed.
“The benefit for the trade community is you have someone who believes in the twin goals of security and facilitation sitting at the table when those discussions about enforcement and red tape are being held in the administration,” said Brian Goebel, a senior policy advisor to former Commissioner Bonner and currently a distinguished fellow at the Stimson Center. “So you’re going to have an effective advocate and operator when these kinds of decisions are being made.”
In a phone interview from Boston, where he is lecturing this semester at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, Kerlikowske noted that McAleenan is well regarded on Capitol Hill and within CBP for his integrity, work ethic and depth of knowledge, including the importance of global supply chains and how Customs can help streamline international commerce.
“He can clearly articulate the security issues and the importance of driving the economy,” he said.
Kerlikowske, a former police chief and White House drug czar, acknowledged he was a novice when it came to the trade management side of CBP’s mission.
“It takes a while to understand the size, scope and complexity of the mission, so when you have all the different executive orders impacting CBP and all the different priorities, it helps not having to spend time orienting a new commissioner,” said Ahern.
The trade community “should be comfortable” with the choice of McAleenan, Ahern added, because he’s already worked closely with industry on trade facilitation efforts, has chaired meetings of the Commercial Operations Advisory Committee (COAC) and is a known quantity compared to an outsider that might have taken a Trump-inspired hardline enforcement approach without balancing economic considerations.
Kevin’s appointment assures the trade of a thoughtful and experienced leader who knows first-hand how CBP’s decision-making critically impacts the business community.
Respect abounds. McAleenan “is so well respected by the business community,” said George Weiss, who served as Customs Commissioner for more than four years in the mid-1990s and is now a senior advisor at trade management software provide Integration Point. “He’s a known commodity who understands the job and the need to balance enforcement and commercial issues.”
Those involved in the import/export field agreed.
“There are many moving parts to CBP, and the Administration’s desire to recalibrate those parts is creating uncertainty and raising lots of questions,” Lenny Feldman, a trade attorney in the Miami office of Sandler, Travis & Rosenberg and a member of COAC, said via e-mail. “Kevin’s appointment assures the trade of a thoughtful and experienced leader who knows first-hand how CBP’s decision-making critically impacts the business community. Kevin really was the strongest choice for the position and I am glad the Administration realized it in light of the policy changes that lie ahead.”
McAleenan “has been a strong advocate for striking the right balance between CBP’s dual missions of facilitation and enforcement,” Stephen Lamar, executive vice president of the American Apparel & Footwear Association said in a statement to the Adam Smith Project. “We believe Mr. McAleenan will continue to strike the right balance as Commissioner, using his experience to immediately address the important issues of protecting our borders and implementing the Trade Facilitation and Trade Enforcement Act. We hope, and expect, the Senate to confirm Mr. McAleenan’s nomination quickly.”
The American Association of Exporters and Importers is interested in hearing McAleenan’s priorities “and how he plans to implement the president’s policies,” President Marianne Rowden said.
If McAleenan is confirmed, the administration will name his replacement as deputy. The most likely candidate is Randolph D. “Tex” Alles, a former Marine Corps officer who was appointed acting deputy commissioner on Inauguration Day after leading CBP’s Air and Marine Operations for three years.
The Border Patrol, meanwhile, recently underwent a shakeup of its own. Mark A. Morgan resigned as chief in January after only six months on the job, at the apparent behest of McAleenan and under pressure from the powerful union that represents many Border Patrol agents, the Washington Post reported at the time.
The National Border Patrol Council supported Trump and during the presidential campaign and bristled at an outsider heading Border Patrol. Union officials accused Kerlikowske of ignoring the problem of illegal immigration.
Morgan, a career FBI official, was chosen by Kerlikowske to change the “confrontational” enforcement approach at the Border Patrol that had resulted in multiple fatal shootings of illegal immigrants and allegations of less-than thorough investigations. He was replaced by Ronald Vitiello, who had risen through the Border Patrol to become acting chief in December 2015, only to be replaced by Morgan last July. Through January, Vitiello served as CBP’s executive assistant commissioner of operations support.