It's time to confirm permanent leadership for Customs and Border Patrol

It's time to confirm permanent leadership for Customs and Border Patrol
© Getty Images

Nine months in, the Trump administration remains hobbled by an unprecedented number of vacant positions, with nearly 272 key jobs lacking a nominee and some 180 nominees awaiting Senate confirmation. Some of those delays are costlier than others.

Take Kevin McAleenan, who has been acting commissioner of the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) since the Obama administration ended on Jan. 20. Trump formally nominated him in March to head the CBP, a crucial role in seeing through the administration’s plans to bolster border security, implement a better NAFTA deal and tighten immigration policies.

Six months later, McAleenan’s nomination is only now being heard by the Senate Finance Committee, a delay that has cast a pall of uncertainty over the CBP’s long-term leadership as well as other key positions, such as border patrol chief.

ADVERTISEMENT
Thankfully, his confirmation is set now to sail through. The Homeland Security Department’s inspector general had been investigating anonymous allegations against McAleenan but recently cleared him of all wrongdoing, according to a report last week.

 

Unlike so many of Trump’s nominees, McAleenan has solid bipartisan backing and is widely seen as highly competent, innovative, and smart, and he commands widespread support and respect among the department’s rank and file. The same is true of Carla Provost, the acting chief of the border patrol whose permanent appointment has also been held up.

Being stuck as an “acting” chief exudes an air of impermanence that can filter through to decision-making. It’s hard to launch long-term policy initiatives when you and your staff are unsure of how long you will be around to see them through. There are some crucial debates and decisions coming up that will need involvement from McAleenan and Provost as leaders with full authority rather than as placeholders. Musical chairs isn't the game to play when billions of taxpayer dollars and our national security are at stake.

The United States, Canada and Mexico will soon be getting to the sharp end of negotiations over NAFTA. Although the CBP chief is not directly involved in the talks, he would be on the front lines of responding to the possible collapse of the 23-year old deal with Canada and Mexico or any major changes that result from dissatisfaction with the accord. The CBP is the second-largest U.S. revenue collector, facilitating $4 trillion in trade in addition to its missions to promote border security and counter-terrorism.

Firm and consistent CBP leadership will also be needed to help shape Trump’s pledge to build a border wall into a more realistic plan that uses high-tech solutions rather than wasteful spending on a physical barrier.

Fortunately, McAleenan is not afraid to speak his mind and push back against hastily thought-out policies if necessary. One of the biggest assets that he brings to the job is his extensive grounding in the field of customs, whereas the previous two commissioners have come from a security-centric background. That is important because, despite all the focus on border security and the wall, there is no more crucial issue than upgrading the U.S. entry-exit system at land and air ports in a way that will allow us to better enforce visa rules for visitors.

Promoting new systems and technology to address that problem will be far more cost-effective than building a physical wall. Upwards of 40 percent of now-undocumented residents in the U.S. entered the country legally but overstayed their visas.

McAleenan has a proven track record of working with the private sector to find innovative solutions, such as the Global Entry system that he helped to implement. Working closely with academia, he put together an economic case for hiring more customs officers to improve enforcement and trade facilitation. A study by the University of Southern California in 2013 found that adding 33 customs officers (one for each selected port of entry) could lead to GDP gains of $61.8 million and 1,053 additional jobs.

The time to confirm McAleenan and Provost is now. Congress should be confident that they will implement policies that secure our border while facilitating legitimate trade and travel. Ultimately, we need to ensure that trade and enforcement are balanced to achieve the biggest benefits for American jobs and government revenues.

Nelson Balido (@NelsonBalido) is the managing principal at Balido and Associates, chairman of the Border Commerce and Security Council, and former member of the Homeland Security Advisory Council.