With the U.S. as politically divided as nearly any time in our nation’s history, government executives are faced with an increasingly difficult challenge of leading their agencies and the broader community.
On Jan. 11, a panel of current and former federal customs and border executives discussed those challenges with online participants during a Center for Homeland Defense and Security Executive Leaders Program online seminar entitled “Leading in Polarized Times: Managing the Problem Up and Down the Chain of Command.”
The seminar, which included a lively back-and-forth between panelists and online participants on the topic, also served as a joint session of ELP cohorts 2101/2102.
Led by former U.S. Commissioner of Customs and Border Protection Alan Bersin, the five-person panel focused on how best to manage political “divisions” in the homeland security and emergency management enterprise, and also discussed two high-profile case studies involving the U.S. Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) including: the allegations involving border patrol agents on horseback and their handling of Haitian migrants at the southern border’s Del Rio, TX, sector last year; and the deployment of CBP special response units during attacks on federal buildings during violent protests in Portland, OR in 2020.
- Former U.S. CBP Trade Remedy and Law Enforcement Office of Trade executive director Ana Hinojosa (retired);
- Former U.S. CBP Chief Patrol Agent Rudy Karisch (retired);
- MIT Associate Prof. of Political Science Chappell Lawson;
- U.S. Department of Homeland Security attache at the U.S. Embassy in Mexico Edgar Ramirez (ELP cohort 1701);
- And, former U.S. CBP Trade Policy and Programs executive director Cynthia Whittenburg.
Bersin, currently a Senior Fellow at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at the Harvard Kennedy School, introduced the panel and the topic by asserting that “the problem of polarization is central to our times,” though he also observed that such division is not “unprecedented” in our nation’s history and pointed to the period before, during and after the Civil War. That precedent serves to highlight the gravity of the current situation, he said.
In recent years, he said, this context and the proliferation of people including employees with “opposing views” has made executive leadership jobs very much tougher.
The panelists offered opening statements opining on everything from the importance of “compartmentalizing personal views” while assuring the workforce knows an executive leader is dedicated to seeking the “moral high ground” and is willing to “speak truth to power,” to the commitment to maintaining “engagement and dialogue” with the workforce and the community, and continuing to focus on the pursuit of an agency’s long-term goals “despite politics.”
The bulk of the seminar was spent on discussing a potential executive leadership response to the two scenarios involving the CBP.
In the Del Rio, TX, scenario, Bersin asked the panel to assume that the Biden White House and DHS Sec. Alejandro Mayorkas both had ordered a CBP sector chief to issue no further statements regarding the incident involving CBP agents on horseback allegedly using their reins to control the movement of Haitian migrants. This order was made with an investigation underway, even though Biden and Mayorkas had been reported as already having made statements condemning the agents’ actions.
Bersin said that left the CBP sector chief caught between the Biden Administration and his own workforce, which expressed disappointment that he was not publicly backing them.
Suggesting that statements from all parties involved should not have been issued before the investigation was completed, the panelists discussed whether the CBP sector chief should have pushed back on the Biden Administration or at least reached out internally to reassure the workforce, and one panelist even suggested the CBP should be more proactive in seeking support within the White House and getting its own narrative in the public domain.
In the Portland, OR, scenario, the panelists discussed the Trump Administration’s deployment of CBP special response units and any internal pushback among the workforce to such a move.
Bersin pointed out that the domestic deployment of CBP units was not unprecedented, having been sent to assist during school integration efforts during the 1960s in the South, among other similar deployments.
Panelists variously suggested that the CBP workforce shouldn’t be allowed to question such assignments unless they’re illegal even if one personally disagrees with the deployment, and special unit agents knew they were signing on for difficult and sometimes controversial duty. They also pointed out that the workforce doesn’t have the same free speech rights to object to such assignments and the like as the general public, and leadership can’t allow agents to choose to decline assignments for personal political reasons.
At the same time, panelists agreed that it was essential to “keep a finger on the pulse” of the workforce and community, maintaining an open dialogue with both.
Several ELP participants weighed in during the seminar, including a student knowledgeable of the situation who suggested the Del Rio, TX, incident reflected “very poor” internal communication, and another who argued that public trust in the CBP had “eroded” and that “silence” should never be an option under such circumstances.
During an active chat session during the seminar, one person asked if there was an effort to maneuver law enforcement and homeland security “above the political fray.”