SAN DIEGO (AP) — A career Border Patrol official who was backed by the agents' union was named Tuesday as chief of the agency, less than a week after his predecessor resigned under pressure.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection said Ronald Vitiello was appointed to lead the agency at a time when President Donald Trump has pledged to erect a wall on the U.S. border with Mexico and add 5,000 agents from the current level of about 20,000.
The National Border Patrol Council — an early and outspoken backer of Trump's presidential bid — openly supported Vitiello for the job and pushed for the ouster of his predecessor, Mark Morgan, who resigned Thursday at the request of the new administration. Morgan stepped down only seven months after being named the first outsider to run the agency since it was created in 1924.
Vitiello, who was most recently CBP's executive assistant commissioner for operations support, was acting Border Patrol chief when Morgan was appointed last year and had been considered a leading contender for the job then. He joined the Border Patrol more than 30 years ago and served as deputy chief in the administration of President Barack Obama.
Brandon Judd, the union president, said in an interview days before Trump took office that Morgan never had the support of agents.
"(Vitiello) and I do not see eye to eye on a great, great many things but we were always able to keep it respectful, always," Judd said. "Morgan and I have not been able to do that."
The union said Tuesday that Vitiello's experience will be invaluable for executing Trump's plans.
"The previous administration's attempts to treat the Border Patrol like any law enforcement agency resulted in leadership that was reactive and in constant crisis," it said in a statement.
Morgan's abrupt departure alarmed advocacy groups that criticized the Border Patrol for lack of oversight of agents and what they consider a culture that condoned abuse and misconduct.
"We look forward to working with Chief Vitiello to ensure that Border Patrol operates with the highest professional policing practices by implementing sorely needed transparency, oversight, and accountability reforms," said Christian Ramirez, director of the Southern Border Communities Coalition.
Morgan was briefly CBP's internal affairs chief in 2014 while on loan from the FBI, where he worked for 20 years and climbed the ranks to assistant director for training. During his first stint at CBP, he oversaw an extensive review of complaints of excessive use of force and employee misconduct.
Ronald Colburn, who preceded Vitiello as deputy chief and recommended him as his replacement, said Vitiello brings experience and a mild-mannered temperament to the job.
"He's a bootstraps leader, raised up the rough the ranks, tested by fire," Colburn said. "If I were picking among (the Border Patrol's) 20,000 employees, he's the first one I would think of."
The leadership change comes a week after Trump issued an executive order to build a wall on 2,000-mile border with Mexico, extending it from about 700 miles currently, much of it in California and Arizona. Vitiello also faces a tall order in hiring more agents. CBP says about two-thirds of job applicants fail a required lie detector, causing the Border Patrol to recently fall below 20,000 agents for the first time since 2009.
CBP did not make Vitiello available for an interview Tuesday and declined to comment beyond the announcement on Twitter, which was signed by Kevin McAleenan, CBP's acting commissioner.
The appointment is not subject to Senate confirmation.