Acting Deputy Commissioner of Customs and Border Protection Ronald D. Vitiello, who began his career as a Border Patrol agent in Laredo, Texas, in 1985, was named by DHS Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen today as the new deputy director and acting director for Immigration Customs and Enforcement.
While serving since last year as CBP deputy commissioner, Vitiello became a spokesman on the logistics of President Trump’s proposed border wall and problems with unaccompanied children being smuggled across the U.S.-Mexico border illegally.
Vitiello assumed leadership of the agency today, at a time when the agency is facing strong public criticism over the administration’s hardline policy on locating and removing undocumented immigrants with criminal histories and the “zero-tolerance” policy that includes blanket prosecution for all adults who illegally enter the United States.
In a recent interview with Homeland Security Today, Vitiello said he has sought to put a new face on the Border Patrol by increasing communication between headquarters in Washington, D.C., and agents serving in the field.
“I have a deep appreciation for what the field knows and never assume that I can solve their problems from up here,” Vitiello told HSToday. “Being in the headquarters is a unique opportunity to add to the whole enterprise or make improvements to the enterprise … I think that it’s important they have a voice up here, so that we’re not trying to drive solutions from 3,000 miles away.”
Understanding what agents on the ground are thinking about is a key aspect of Vitiello’s philosophy on implementing newer strategies as threats evolve.
“You’ve got these criminal cartels, human trafficking – all sorts of things going on out there – but I also know that from my experience there are individual agents and teams in particular locations where they’re solving problems effectively,” Vitiello said. “They found a technique or tactic or they’ve tried out a piece of equipment that’s really made a difference in their effectiveness.”
Vitiello said he has always tried to be a leader who listens to the agents on the ground and aims to maintain a steady flow of information between the field and headquarters.
Nearly 20,000 agents comprise the Border Patrol. This makes relying on liaison teams to spread messages quickly and encouraging leaders in the field to ask questions and make requests key to ensuring the system runs efficiently.
“I also like to spend time – when I’m in the field – asking groups of employees or individuals what I need to know to make my decisions more informed as it relates to what they’re doing,” Vitiello said. “They’re closer to the problem they sometimes find unique ways to solve. I think it’s maybe a little bit more important with the rising generation to know why we’re doing something the way we’re doing it.”
CBP Operations Officer Patrick Berry told HSToday that Vitiello is “a deep thinker; he’s very quiet, thoughtful, and he listens,” adding that Vitiello is professional, intelligent and articulate when it’s his turn to speak or offer information. “There’s not a lot of fluff when the man talks.”
Berry began working with Vitiello in fall 2017. He said he’s been able to get to know Vitiello on a personal level and learn from him on how to help manage a large agency such as the Border Patrol.
“In everything he does, he is a sincere person,” Berry said. “He is truthful to a fault; he wants to make sure everything is accurate. When he says something, you can bank on it.”
Berry added that the way Vitiello has gained experience over time and applied it directly to the agency also stands out. Berry considers Vitiello a role model and looks up to him.
Berry said the Border Patrol would not be where it is today without Vitiello, as “he’s gotten us through some difficult years.”
Vitiello said he feels the U.S. government has renewed its focus on securing U.S. borders in recent years, allowing CBP officials to more openly discuss their strategies with news outlets and during public appearances.
“We’re now able to talk in a way publicly that we couldn’t … the workforce gets to see us represented in venues that we weren’t existing in two years ago,” Vitiello said. “Certainly, the Border Patrol wasn’t getting on TV talking about things that were going on – good or bad, if it were covered at all. But now, we’re actually covered proactively in these venues … It’s useful for the workforce to see that representation.”
Some aspects of Border Patrol agents’ duties are unseen by the general public. Vitiello noted that agents protect the border at all hours during often inclement weather, and sometimes those agents have to confront individuals who may or may not be a threat to the officers’ safety.
“You’ve got to be proud of people who have the courage and dedication to do that, and that do it often and regularly, without problem or provocation, without anybody being hurt or offended,” Vitiello said. “There’s a lot of encounters and contacts [in which] they typically do a pretty good job of protecting the border – from those who might break the law – in a humane way.”
What also flies under the radar is the work that Border Patrol agents do to rescue immigrants and save lives, Vitiello said, adding that during 90 percent humidity in Arizona or Texas agents might shift from enforcement to providing first responder aid to people in distress.
In terms of dealing with intense public criticism or outrage over current events, Vitiello said it’s important for officials to support their staff while also holding them to account.
“It’s important for people to understand that you have their back as a leader,” Vitiello said. “People have to be held to account when they make a mistake or when they go off script, violate policy or worse, but when we get criticized for things that are not factual or mischaracterized or overly hyped in the media … I want somebody to go up there and speak on behalf of the line agents, and I think most recently we’ve been able to do that. It’s very valuable.”