HSToday Executive Editor Kristina Tanasichuk sat down with Chief Ron Vitiello at the recent Border Security Expo in San Antonio to talk about his ascension at Customs and Border Protection, observations on leadership, and the missions and challenges facing the component.
Ronald Vitiello became the acting deputy commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) on April 25, 2017, and has served as chief of the U.S. Border Patrol since February 2017. As its chief operating officer, he was responsible for the daily operations of the Border Patrol and reported to the commissioner of CBP, assisting in planning and directing nationwide enforcement and administrative operations. Chief Vitiello entered the Border Patrol in 1985 as a member of Class 174 and was instrumental in the formation of the Laredo Sector Criminal Alien Program. He has also served as a deputy assistant regional director for the Border Patrol at the Central Region Office in Dallas, where he oversaw the regional implementation of Operation Rio Grande and rose to assistant patrol agent in charge of the Nogales Station. In November 2002, he was selected as an assistant chief at Border Patrol Headquarters and was one of the key contributors in the unification of CBP and the creation of the Department of Homeland Security. After a number of other promotions, in 2010 he was assigned as the deputy chief of the Border Patrol until July 2016, when he was promoted to the executive assistant commissioner of Operations Support.
HSToday: I wanted to start out to congratulate you personally for your success and promotions at CBP. You have always been such a tremendous asset to Border Patrol – and you were elevated to chief there for a few hot seconds before you were promoted to Acting Deputy Commissioner – I think I can say on behalf of the border security community we are all very happy to see you there. I think a lot of folks wonder how your life is different for you now.
CHIEF VITIELLO: Well, there’s a whole mission area of CBP and the trade, the trade enforcement, the travel, the National Targeting Center, all the things that CBP does across the mission. I’ve learned a lot more about those missions and I’ve had to come up to speed on those other parts of CBP that are just as vital as everything we do in border security and contribute to border security but have real economic benefit to the country. We at CBP generate about $44 billion in revenue that’s collected. Not only for CBP and the customs realm but for collecting duties and enforcement at the border for the FDA and Fish and Wildlife, so we have some 40 government partners that help regulate things at the border. I believe learning about and being able to articulate all of the mission elements and how well our folks do out there has been the biggest learning curve.
HSToday: Has that changed your perspective – going from operations to administration, so to speak?
CHIEF VITIELLO: Definitely. It’s a different sort of pace and point of view. You’re a little closer to the political machinations of what we’re asking Congress to do, of what the president has asked us to do. The pace is much different. But I think the pace would have changed regardless – everything has sped up for other border security elements. The trade reinforcement at CBP – just because this candidate made some promises — now we need to deliver on that for him, so it would have changed either way. So it kind of conveniently happened at the same time.
HSToday: So are you seeing any trends on the border that concern you?
CHIEF VITIELLO: We saw a marked decrease in activity of border crossing attempts that started in late December (2016), end of January (2017), so we saw for the first four or five months of the president’s term the bottom come out of border activity. Until about May. Now, since May, we’ve had almost every month since May – we’ve seen increases. Sixteen, eighteen percent. So what’s happening is – the drivers that bring families and children to the border, the policy loopholes that exist are still in current law. So despite the fact that everyone recognizes the fact that we’re going to do better at the border, and there’s a commitment that slowed people down at the beginning of the year — they’ve kind of caught on to where the policies are still able to be exploited. So we’re very encouraged – the president came to us early on in January and said ‘I want operational control of the border and I want for CBP to design and build a border wall.’ He did a lot of other things as well – the travel regulations, they looked at refugees and all these things, they looked at improvements. We’ve been dedicated to developing plans to build the wall and secure the border, but they’ve got to shore up the policy loopholes. These loopholes continue to be exploited by criminal networks, the smugglers, those individuals trying to come here outside the lawful immigration process.
HSToday: Have there been any changes to the type of illegal incursions agents are seeing? And are there different types of threats crossing or are they pretty much the same?
CHIEF VITIELLO: The makeup of the people who come to the border has changed slightly. So if you come as a child or as a member of a family unit – ICE doesn’t have the authority to remove them because of the current loopholes in policy. So people are coming and the government does not have the ability to remove them, so we’ve seen an increases in that population. And then on the drug smuggling side – we are seeing the effect of the opioid epidemic and its associated demand, which is essentially affecting the entire nation. CBP has seen a lot of seizures of Fentanyl and other opioids. So we’ve had to get better at the workforce protection and training because some of the drugs are dangerous to our agents even in very small amounts. So we’ve gotten better at workforce protection, personal equipment, and then we’ve looked to technology to be able to identify these things and give our workforce the tools to continue to make these seizures but doing so in a safe way. So we’re seeing increases over the last several years, of Fentanyl specifically. CBP is uniquely configured to help address that problem.
We’re working very closely with the U.S. Postal Service, because a lot of this stuff comes in via international mail. And so the Postal Service is in charge of those relationships with foreign governments, foreign postal services. CBP is the entity that makes sure no illicit cargo comes through that mail. We’re to add authorities for them to get advanced information and target these packages. And then elaborating on that capability across the eight or nine International mail facilities across the United States, where mail flies directly into the United States. CBP is part of the screening process along with the Postal Service. So we’ve added equipment and capacity in those locations.
We need to do more to tackle these packages before they get here, so they are looking for more authorities to use their relationships with their international partners to work on that. And then there’s a couple of efforts on the Hill to add capacity and authority for the Postal Service so they can do this better.
HSToday: With all of these different challenges – what do you really think it’s going to take to get full border security? And what does that mean to you: full border security?
CHIEF VITIELLO: So the border security is the whole system, right? That means it’s the ability to remove people if they come illegally. We need the ability to remove them. As people are going to continue to try and cross the border – we want to know, as those people are starting their journey and their international travel, before they get on planes, who they are and what kind of risk they pose. Whether they’re eligible to enter the United States. On border security between the ports, my area of expertise – the president set a standard for operational control, which comes out of a previous law passed in 2006, the Secure Fence Act. The president said that this is what he needs and he asked us what resources we need for operational control so that we are all working in tandem. Where are the weak spots, and how do we address them? So if somebody comes across the border, can we get them through the immigration enforcement system and due process rights or grant them asylum or what they’re eligible for, and if they’re not, do we have a swift way to remove them? That’s border security, that’s being able to address cases from the furthest point out to contact with our personnel here with CBP and ICE. And then operational control is the part that Border Patrol takes on, which is being able to understand what’s happening in real time at the border and between the ports.
…we want to know, as those people are starting their journey and their international travel, before they get on planes, who they are and what kind of risk they pose.
HSToday: Deputy Secretary Duke spoke this morning about the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s “unity of effort.” What does unity of effort mean for CBP?
CHIEF VITIELLO: There are some specific examples she addressed like the joint task forces. You have people from Border Patrol, people from Coast Guard, all elements of CBP. ICE is also present so all of these departments work toward specific targets in their particular corridors. That’s sort of a practical example of what happens and the effort on the ground and in a more tactical sense. Strategically, the unity of effort is — from the CBP perspective — what are our requirements and what are the other parts of DHS that can help us do that right? So we are very dependent on ICE and very dependent on the Department of Justice. So the unity of effort is getting all of those priorities sorted so that Tom Homan, the acting director of ICE, has the right capabilities so that when we make contact with someone who is eligible to have a removal hearing he has the capacity to hold on to them. Or if it’s an unaccompanied minor that, between us, we have enough time to move that minor into a safe setting. It’s us understanding holistically what the requirement is across the department and not working at cross purposes; in fact, complimenting each other.
HSToday: And how are we doing?
CHIEF VITIELLO: I think we’re doing well. I think the Task Force West is the one I’m most familiar with because that’s the Southern border – you know that’s the one where I have personal experience. They do a really good job identifying threats by the corridor and strategically focusing on areas of the cartels, the human trafficking, and where the networks are weak and where we can impact illegal activity. I’m not talking just about seizures on the border, we can always do that, I’m talking about targeting those illicit networks and reducing their capability at the time those arrests are being made and tracking that data backwards. Pushing the information out so we stop the criminal activity before it reaches our country
Task Force West is a good example of where we’re succeeding in the unity of effort. The director and the commissioner are regularly in communication about where our needs are and where they need to add capacity and how we can help them with that. We’re in a project with them now where we outline the entire life cycle of activity and actors we come in contact with so we understand how long it’s going to get criminals into ICE’s custody and how long it takes the Justice Department where the immigration judges are. We’re trying to elaborate that whole picture so we’re understanding each other’s needs, and we can show the secretary where she can make strategic investments and add capacity to meet the mandate of immigration enforcement.
HSToday: You’ve made a lot of great progress unifying the missions of the department – and that goes right into the next question of building a border “wall.” In the public imagination, many just see bricks or fencing across the border. Deputy Secretary Duke said this morning that it is a system, a combination of physical barriers and technological advancements. What kind of tools do you think are needed to add to or augment that wall?
CHIEF VITIELLO: We at CBP talk about master capabilities – mission readiness is the people and the right information. People with the right training and deployed to the right locations. We need access and mobility to get to the border and to where your resources are, so something as simple as an access road and an easy way of getting to the border. Domain awareness is critical to us. We need to know when people are approaching the border and where they are coming from. That’s the cameras, that’s the sensors, that’s the early warning, the queuing of the work of the enforcement. Those all have to be connected.
So we have done a lot of action planning at CBP to get ready to build the border security system with barrier wall in addition to technology in the Southwest system. We’ve looked at every single mile. We’ve prioritized where we would go first. It’s been difficult, if you listen to the rhetoric and watched the headlines, to get people to understand it’s more than just a barrier. All those things together, all those master capabilities, work in tandem to shore up the southern border. Technology, physical barriers need to be put together and that’s what we’ve been asking for. We’re not just asking for a barrier in and of itself. You know it will slow people down, but without supporting mission-readiness or domain awareness it’s not going to succeed. So that’s what we’re asking for.
HSToday: How do some of the policies, or the political communications, impact your work?
CHIEF VITIELLO: Well, I think at the beginning of the administration we saw people kind of step back and think, ‘Well, how is this all going to work’?
HSToday: The Trump effect?
CHIEF VITIELLO: Yeah. The attorney general called it that. So we saw that for a while; we saw less traffic on the border as people figured out what it all meant.
We want to deliver on this operational control, but the policy loopholes need to be shored up as well. So even though there was a drop in numbers, people figured out that the loopholes were still there while we are figuring it all out – and the traffic is now coming back.
HSToday: And is there anything that you want, or that’s missing, to keep our border agents safe?
CHIEF VITIELLO: I’d say a safer environment to operate in. I think we do well on the training and equipment – we can always refresh them. We’re getting much better. We changed the curriculum in the academy to incorporate the lessons learned in the aftermath of events and incidents. We have better training, better equipment. We’ve also trained our agents on non-lethal engagement. We’re using more of the less-than-lethal equipment, because there’s more of it out there and there are more certifications for our agents. We want to continue to refine that. We’ve done a really good job in the review process and being more transparent in getting that information back in the hands of the public. So I think we’re doing OK as it relates to safety, but we need to be vigilant to see the next threat and prepare our agents against it.
HSToday: It’s good to know about the constant improvement. We really thank you for everything that you do. This was terrific.