WASHINGTON — A man born and raised in Honolulu could soon hold one of the most visible and controversial jobs in the federal government, a position that could put him at odds with elected officials in Hawaii.
Kevin Kealoha McAleenan, 45, has been nominated by the White House for the position of commissioner of Customs and Border Protection, and he appears likely to be confirmed within the next few weeks.
As acting commissioner, he is already de facto supervisor of the $13 billion agency that employs 60,000 workers and that oversees more than 300 U.S. ports of entry, including six in Hawaii.
McAleenan, an agency veteran, is at the center of the hot-button issues of immigration, trade and drug importation:
• If a border wall is built, as President Donald Trump has repeatedly insisted, McAleenan would be the one to oversee the construction.
• His employees decide who gets into the country and who stays out, even though American leaders can’t agree on who those people should be.
• And if the U.S doesn’t find a way to curtail the import of synthetic drugs like fentanyl tied to a rising opioid overdose death toll, he’s in line for the blame.
The agency has the twofold task of keeping the country safe from outside threats while also facilitating travel and trade. It has been criticized for racial profiling, hostility to immigrants, and using excessive force against suspected drug dealers and foreign nationals crossing the border.
Surprisingly, given that so many of these issues are politically divisive and fraught with emotion, McAleenan appears to have deep bipartisan support.
At his confirmation hearing last month, Sen. Mazie Hirono, a Democrat from Hawaii who has frequently denounced Trump’s immigration policies, acted as McAleenan’s sponsor, sitting alongside him while senators on the Senate Finance Committee asked him questions.
“While I don’t expect to support everything that CBP will be tasked by the president to do, Kevin’s long career in law enforcement and willingness to constructively work with members of the Senate will equip him to lead the agency with integrity and commitment to service,” she told her colleagues.
McAleenan also received a strong vote of confidence from Hawaii Gov. David Ige, whose attorney general, Doug Chin, has been among the most active in the country at litigating in opposition to Trump’s restrictive immigration policies for visitors from a group of majority-Muslim countries.
In a letter to the Senate, Ige voiced “wholehearted support” for McAleenan’s confirmation, crediting him with a “keen desire to serve the public with the spirit of aloha.”
Hirono and Ige worked closely with McAleenan over several years because he served as the point person at the CBP in establishing a pre-clearance facility in Tokyo to ease the arrival of Japanese tourists in Hawaii. In December, the agency reopened a federal inspection facility in Kona that had been closed in 2010, permitting Japan Airlines and Hawaiian Airlines to increase service from Japan to the Big Island.
McAleenan also helped Hirono in her efforts to expand the Global Entry program to citizens of Singapore, India, Japan and Taiwan. The program permits citizens of those countries to obtain the expedited customs clearance previously granted to countries such as Canada, Mexico, Panama, Germany, the United Kingdom and South Korea. Background checks and interviews allow them to become what the federal government calls “trusted travelers.”
The program allows people from those countries to pass through an expedited customs process using self-service kiosks at international airports such as Honolulu’s.
Despite the fractured political arena in Washington, McAleenan has gotten support from Republicans and Democrats, including top officials from the Obama and Bush administrations.
The work of Customs and Border Protection is important in Hawaii because so many people and so much merchandise passes through six ports of entry in the state — Hilo, Honolulu, the Daniel K. Inouye International Airport, Kahului, Kona and Nawiliwili.
McAleenan declined to comment for this report, saying he would be available for an interview if he is confirmed.
Although he does not yet formally hold the post, his questioning by senators at the Oct. 24 confirmation hearing underscored the ways the agency is responding to challenges simultaneously.
He was asked about efforts to detect imported goods that are counterfeit, illegal to bring to the United States, unsafe, or manufactured with forced labor. He described what the agency was doing to address each issue.
He was asked about overzealous questioning by border agents, which Sen. Maria Cantwell, a Democrat from Washington state, likened to “racial profiling.” He assured her that racial profiling was “absolutely prohibited.”
Several senators asked what the agency is doing to further secure the borders. McAleenan acknowledged that while the federal government generally knows who enters the country through an established port of entry, it has much less information to determine if they leave.
He said the agency is making “sound progress” toward improving its tracking of exits as well as entries.
Louisiana Sen. Bill Cassidy, a Republican and a doctor, urged the agency to be more aggressive about disposing of seafood illegally treated with antibiotics. He said that if samples of the seafood showed signs of antibiotics that pose dangers for human consumption, the entire shipment should be destroyed.
Sen. Sherrod Brown, a Democrat from Ohio, asked McAleenan to obtain more screening devices to detect fentanyl being imported illegally to the United States. Sherrod said it was urgent that the federal government do more to block drug shipments, noting that an average of 11 people each day die of drug overdoses in Ohio.
Despite the bipartisan support, McAleenan’s progress toward confirmation has been slow. The White House announced his nomination in March but didn’t formally present it to the Senate Finance Committee until May. He was scheduled for a confirmation hearing in July, but it was canceled after a scandal erupted in Newark, New Jersey.
In September, three customs and border protection officers were charged with assaulting two fellow officers, including allegations that victims were forced onto what was called a “rape table,” where senior officers simulated sex acts on the bodies of junior officers. All of the officers were men. The office of the inspector general of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security investigated the allegations, leading to criminal charges.
In the hearing, McAleenan said he sought the job because he comes from what he called “a family of public servants.”
McAleenan’s ties to Hawaii come from his childhood. When he was a boy, McAleenan’s father earned a doctoral degree at the University of Hawaii and worked with at-risk youths at Robert Louis Stevenson Middle School in Honolulu. He also taught summer classes at the University.
McAleenan attended Amherst College and the University of Chicago Law School. He worked in private practice until the 9/11 terrorists attacks, after which when he applied to the federal government. He initially thought he would look for work at the FBI, but ended up at the U.S. Customs Service, where he helped establish an anti-terrorism office.
The U.S. Customs Service became U.S. Customs and Border Protection as a result of a government reorganization. McAleenan has been employed at the agency ever since, climbing within the ranks during the Bush and Obama years.
He is expected to be confirmed by the Senate within the next few weeks, but no date has been set for a vote.
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A Kailua girl, Kirstin Downey is a special correspondent for Civil Beat. A longtime reporter for The Washington Post, she is the author of "The Woman Behind the New Deal," "Isabella the Warrior Queen" and an upcoming biography of King Kaumualii of Kauai. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.