David V. Aguilar is taking retirement and will step down as the head of U.S. Customs and Border Protection, the Department of Homeland Security announced late Friday.
In an e-mail to employees, Aguilar said his retirement takes effect at the end of March.
Aguilar has led the border management agency for more than a year over two stints. Aguilar rose through the ranks and became chief of the Border Patrol in 2004 in the early days of its integration with U.S. Customs, part of a federal agency reorganization after the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks that resulted in the creation of the Department of Homeland Security. In January 2010, he was named deputy commissioner of CBP and served as acting commissioner for a few months while the confirmation process for Obama appointee Alan Bersin dragged out. When Bersin was forced to leave office at the end of 2012 because he was a recess appointment that never received permanent Senate confirmation, Aguilar took over as acting commissioner. In recent months, his official title has been deputy commissioner even though he is leading the agency because federal rules limit how long someone can serve in an acting capacity for a position that requires Senate approval.
In his departure announcement, Aguilar said it was an honor working with more than 60,000 men and women dedicated to protecting U.S. security.
"It has not been easy but the accomplishments, successes and evolution of our organization have proven that a strong unified border agency is our nation’s best defense against those who threaten or plot to attack us. Securing our nation and its citizens while ensuring the highest levels of economic competitiveness for our trade and industry is what you do every day, and you do it very well. For this I thank you as a member of the CBP family, but more importantly as a citizen of this great country," he wrote.
During his tenure, Aguilar has continued the aggressive reform process begun under his predecessor, earning gratitude from the businesses engaged in international trade. During the past 13 months he presided over the first West Coast Trade Symposium to complement the annual outreach event in Washington, the expansion of trusted traveler programs, the mainstreaming of the Centers of Excellence and Expertise into a permanent trade facilitation program and the addition of eight new industry-specific centers months ahead of schedule, the full implementation of the Anti-Border Corruption Act of 2010 requiring all applicants to undergo polygraph screening, the launch of an export component to the Customs-Trade Partnership Against Terrorism and the ongoing development of the Automated Commercial Environment under difficult budget circumstances.
Despite those successes, it is difficult for an agency or department to help shape new policy and be relevant within an administration without a politically appointed leader. The White House opted not to nominate someone to take Bersin's place because there were only 11 months until the presidential election, which acted as a disincentive to go through the confirmation process when there might be a change in power and the selection of a new commissioner.
With Aguilar's departure, CBP will be down to its third-in-command, acting chief operating officer Thomas Winkowski, although in practical terms he's the No. 2 person on the leadership team. The White House has not given any indication of when it will nominate a new CBP commissioner.
Aguilar faced mandatory retirement. According to career information on CBP's Website, Border Patrol agents face mandatory retirement at age 57 with 20 years of service, but can work beyond 57 until they meet the combination of age and years on duty. Aguilar joined the Border Patrol 34 years ago. He turned 58 in December.
Prior to becoming Border Patrol chief, Aguilar was chief of the Tucson sector, with responsibility for guarding 261 miles of the Arizona-Mexico border. He went through the federal government's senior executive fellow program at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. He received the President's Meritorious Excellence Award in 2005 and achieved Presidential Rank in 2008.
"Because of his efforts over the past three decades, our country’s borders and border communities are safer and more secure, and he leaves behind a more sophisticated and agile law enforcement agency – our nation’s largest," Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said in a statement. "I am deeply grateful for his contributions to DHS, CBP and our country. I congratulate him on his career as a selfless public servant and wish him and his family the very best in his retirement. David will be missed.” - Eric Kulisch