Nelson Balido: Five priorities for new Border Patrol Chief Mark Morgan

With less than a year left on the job, Customs and Border Protection (CBP) Commissioner Gil Kerlikowske announced in June that Mark Morgan will be the new U.S. Border Patrol Chief. It was a curious move. With so little time before Kerlikowske is replaced in the next administration, it was surprising to some that he would appoint a new chief for whom he will have no responsibility nor accountability — at least not for long.

Nevertheless, Chief Morgan is taking the reins of an agency facing significant challenges. Here are five priorities for him to tackle on Day 1.

An effective Border Patrol Chief must have his finger on the pulse of what’s happening south of the border. That takes working relationships—and not just with Mexico City. We need strong relationships in places like Matamoros, Reynosa, Tijuana, Juarez, and Tampico.

— Nelson Balido

1. Engender Agency Support

It has been 92 years since a Border Patrol Chief was drawn from an outside agency. Morgan is currently the Assistant Director of the FBI Training Division, and his career includes a 2014 stint as acting assistant commissioner for CBP Internal Affairs. While he brings a strong law enforcement background, Border Patrol agents on the frontlines have intimated that they are at least confused (and at most resentful) of why the outgoing CBP Commissioner would select a leader who has never made an immigration arrest in his career, even as that is one of the fundamental responsibilities of the U.S. Border Patrol.

A primary challenge for Morgan will be to rapidly secure the confidence of the rank and file agents. Not an easy task, considering these agents have spent their entire career guarding the border and climbing the ranks — only to see an outsider placed at the top of hierarchy. Morgan can achieve this goal, in part, by pushing partisan politics out of policymaking. He also needs to immediately integrate his efforts with the existing leadership team and ensure he takes their suggestions seriously. Without their support, Morgan’s tenure will be short.

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2. Satisfy Equipment Needs on the Border

Border Patrol agents lack tools, resources and the full support they need. Former U.S. Border Patrol National Deputy Chief Ron Colburn told me in February, “I see it in the eyes and hear it in the voices of the men and women of the Border Patrol. They understand the mission, and they want to accomplish it, but they feel like they have been abandoned,” when talking about the communications infrastructure on the border.

Morgan must reverse course and use his authority to deliver the necessary equipment for his agency to operate. The immediate needs include:

- Communications technology that works. Currently, Border Patrol agents working in the vast uninhabited stretches of land along the U.S.-Mexico border can often find themselves without any means of contacting their fellow agents, their local law enforcement partners, and their superiors.

- Improved mobile surveillance along the border. The Border Patrol must be able to move to emerging threats. Static surveillance infrastructure simply pushes drug traffickers, illegal migrants and others to less secure, less monitored portions of the border. The agents must be able to go where the mobile threat is located.

- Sufficient weaponry for every agent. It was reported in 2015 that Border Patrol agents are forced to share rifles, creating a serious detriment to operations. Before use, a rifle must be sighted in, meaning the sights are adjusted to the individual’s eye and adjusted to compensate for other factors — a process that takes a while to perform. Shared rifles means that in critical situations, agents may be more at risk than most think.

- Ensure that elements of “Holding the Line in the 21st Century,” authored by Assistant Chief Robert Schroder, are put into motion and not just remain in soft bound copy, especially when it comes to intelligence processing and sharing between the Joint Task Force agencies — a gap that is seriously lacking and has gone mostly ignored.

3. Work with All Stakeholders

Given that Morgan is new to the agency, it is essential that he solicit the counsel of the organizations and private citizens who are directly impacted by border security policies and tactics. As Chairman and CEO of the Border Commerce & Security Council, I regularly interact with law enforcement, citizen advisory groups, and private individuals on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border. From experience, there are critical insights that Morgan will need to hear if he is to effectively advance the Border Patrol mission.

One approach is to establish a quarterly roundtable where Border Patrol leadership meets with the stakeholders directly impacted by the policies dictated from the DC Beltway. It is imperative that the new chief gets a real understanding of the field from a non-federal perspective. At the same time, Morgan needs to speak with the citizen advisory groups that have formed independently to support and advance oversight and accountability. The citizens have taken this into their own hands, and the new chief must recognize these groups as the valuable assets they are.

4. Build Relationships Across the Border

The new governor-elect of Tamaulipas, Francisco Javier Garcia Cabeza de Vaca, has been working to mend the broken trust between Mexican and U.S. officials, meeting with every U.S. agency at the federal and state levels, including the Border Patrol, the Texas Rangers, the DEA, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), and many others. The governor is but one example of a willingness by some in Mexico to build new, stronger relationships with the United States. This is an opportunity to enhance border security.

An effective Border Patrol Chief must have his finger on the pulse of what’s happening south of the border. That takes working relationships—and not just with Mexico City. We need strong relationships in places like Matamoros, Reynosa, Tijuana, Juarez, and Tampico. If we are able to build better relationships with the Mexican police and military, we can more effectively halt illegal movements before individuals cross the border and not once they cross into the United States. Doing that will go a long way toward solving many of our border security problems.

5. Be a Champion for the Agency

While Morgan was briefly serving as CBP Acting Assistant Commissioner for Internal Affairs, he redesigned CBP’s Use of Force Incident Response protocols, launched CBP’s criminal and serious administrative misconduct investigative unit, and obtained new authority for CBP to investigate allegations of misconduct against its employees. That previous role may cast suspicion for some that he is less an organizational leader than an organizational critic. Morgan needs to show that his role is not about focusing on the agency’s missteps but rather about leading the agency toward mission success.

The chief will need to show support for hard-working border patrol agents, while carefully navigating external critics who have consistently made overly broad accusations about agents exceeding their authority. Legitimate concerns about abuse must be addressed, but it’s vital that Morgan challenge unfair allegations levied against Border Patrol agents who are doing their job and enforcing the law of the land.

To that end, when partisan persuasions arise, it is the chief’s obligation to double-down on the mission. When the politics of immigration reform threaten the Border Patrol’s allegiance to the rule of law, Morgan will need to back his men and women in uniform. And when unfair allegations of use of force are levied because the Border Patrol agents are simply doing their job and enforcing American laws, Morgan must stand to the fore and defend the people he now leads.

Chief Morgan has a steep hill to climb, little time to do it, and the agency he is charged with leading is skeptical of his agenda and credentials. Those are difficult circumstances in which to operate. Success will mean winning the support of his agents and delivering the resources and relationships they desperately need. Failure will be maintaining the status quo, and if that’s what the Morgan pursues, nothing will improve. I am hoping for the best.