WASHINGTON, DC - MAY 15: Customs and Border Protection acting Commissioner John Sanders speaks at a news conference proposing legislation to address the crisis at the southern border at the U.S. Capitol on May 15, 2019 in Washington, DC. Senate Republicans met with Vice President Mike Pence and White House Advisor Jared Kushner yesterday to discuss President Donald Trump's plan to overhaul the immigration system. (Photo by Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images)
Washington CNN  — 

Acting Customs and Border Protection Commissioner John Sanders had only been in the job a month when a 16-year-old Guatemalan boy died in the agency’s custody. The death sparked a national outcry among lawmakers and immigration advocates. It also deeply resonated with Sanders and shaped his roughly two-month tenure at the top of the agency.

“It hit me hard, that he was in the cell sleeping,” Sanders told CNN in an exclusive interview, recalling watching video and viewing still pictures of the incident after the boy, identified as Carlos Gregorio Hernandez Vasquez, died.

“Helping the kids. That has forever changed me. And I think a lot more needs to be done for them,” he added.

Sanders, who left the agency last week, assumed the role of acting commissioner in the heat of the border crisis, but the death of the minor took a personal toll on him, following his work helping lead the agency’s humanitarian efforts. While the death moved Sanders to double down on those efforts, the agency was roiled in controversy as it struggled to accommodate a dramatic spike in migrant arrivals.

At the same time, Immigration and Customs Enforcement had been working on plans to arrest and deport families with court-ordered removals – a plan that received pushback following an unprecedented announcement by President Donald Trump that an operation to remove undocumented immigrants was imminent.

In his interview with CNN, Sanders, who joined Customs and Border Protection in 2018, did not explicitly criticize any of the administration’s policies.

But the planned ICE operation became a point of contention for Sanders, according to a DHS official, who added that the administration’s rhetoric on ICE deportations was a “red line” for the acting commissioner.

Wednesday, acting US Citizenship and Immigration Services Director Ken Cuccinelli said raids are “absolutely going to happen.”

Customs and Border Protection, charged with policing the US borders and managing legal trade and travel, is at the front line of the President’s immigration agenda, as he tries to crack down on illegal immigration amid an ongoing influx of migrant arrivals. The agency has been under intensifying scrutiny following government and media reports of squalid conditions at facilities, and derogatory Facebook posts by current and former Border Patrol agents.

Last week, the Homeland Security inspector general issued a report on Border Patrol facilities in south Texas, which included extreme overcrowding and children younger than 7 being held in custody for more than two weeks – far longer than the allowed 72 hours. The report included several photos of packed cells and standing-room-only conditions in some Border Patrol facilities, which are designed to hold people for short periods of time.

“That’s what conditions were like,” said Sanders about this and other recent inspector general reports. “They were very, very bad.”

“Why ever people come, they are here. I think that compassion and empathy is important to ensure they are treated humanely with dignity with respect,” Sanders told CNN.

The departure

Sanders’ decision to leave is indicative of an administration marked by continuous leadership turnover, particularly within the ranks of the Department of Homeland Security, which is charged with executing on the President’s campaign promise to curb immigration.

Vasquez’s death, in particular, pushed Sanders to take further action to prevent another, he said, including bolstering medical assistance at the border and pushing ahead on setting up additional temporary facilities for children and families. But some of his efforts weren’t realized by the time he left.

“I didn’t see it coming,” said a DHS official, who worked with Sanders, about his resignation. “He’s just a good guy, and I wish he was still here.”

Sanders departure adds to the tumult at Homeland Security, which began in mid-April with the forced resignation of then-Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, and has left the department’s immigration agencies without permanent leaders. CBP-Commissioner Kevin McAleenan was named acting secretary, creating the opening for Sanders.

The rotating cast of characters filling the leadership ranks within the department has raised concerns, as the situation along the southern border persists.

“DHS is charged with keeping the nation secure, but the President is putting its leadership through a constant game of musical chairs to fit his political agenda,” said House Homeland Security Chairman Bennie Thompson in a statement late last month.

As officials have departed, and deputies have moved into new leadership positions, more than half of the department’s top roles are filled by temporary leaders. For instance, acting Immigration and Customs Enforcement Director Mark Morgan, a vocal proponent of the administration’s immigration enforcement policies, replaced Sanders as acting CBP commissioner.

Asked if he requested for Sanders to resign or why he was leaving his post, Trump told reporters last month: “No, I know (sic) there was going to be a change there. I’ve made changes, very good changes. We’re moving some people around to different locations,” attributing the personnel changes to Mexico’s new immigration efforts resulting from his tariff threat.

Pressed further as to whether he called for Sanders’ resignation, Trump said, “I hear he’s a very good man. I hear he’s a good person. I don’t know him. I don’t think I ever spoke to him.”

Morgan took over the top job at the border agency, where he previously served as the chief of the US Border Patrol, this week.

“They made a choice, and so I thought it was a good time to go,” Sanders said.

Although he was offered other opportunities at the Department of Homeland Security, which oversees CBP, Sanders left government and plans to work with NGOs helping children, particularly in Mexico, he said.

Sanders’ tenure at the Department of Homeland Security

In an interview with CNN, Acting DHS Secretary McAleenan said of Sanders that, “he had the trust on the political side as well as the operational chops and really the drive to innovate and address our problems and challenges at the border in new ways.”

Sanders joined CBP in July 2018 as the chief operating officer, where he worked on hiring, IT modernization and data analytics. “I chose him to come in as our chief operating officer because of his business acumen, because of his reputation at his time at TSA and really because of his mission focus,” McAleenan said.

Sanders later spearheaded CBP’s humanitarian coordination after the deaths of two Guatemalan children – Jakelin Caal Maquin and Felipe Gómez Alonzo – last December.

Homeland Security and CBP officials announced a series of new procedures following the deaths of the two children, including secondary medical checks on all children with a focus on those under age 10.

In his first days as COO, Sanders wondered how he would be received among agents, given his lack of law enforcement experience, he recalled.

Sanders – a former entrepreneur with a graduate degree in physics – was a political appointee at the Transportation Security Administration under the Obama administration, serving as the chief technology officer until 2014.

After leaving TSA, Sanders again worked in the private sector until he joined the transition team for then-President-elect Trump. Sanders was impressed by John Kelly, who would go on to be secretary of the Department of Homeland Security and later White House chief of staff, he said. He had also known former acting Homeland Security Secretary Elaine Duke and former acting Deputy Secretary Claire Grady for years.

But it was McAleenan that convinced him to join CBP. “He had a vision,” said Sanders. “So I came to CBP to work for him and learn from him.”

“I didn’t see any of it is political,” Sanders said. “I saw it as an opportunity to try to do good.”

Before leaving his position as acting commissioner, Sanders worried that the agency had become politicized and believed CBP would be “well served to be as apolitical as possible.”

The official who worked with Sanders, said that it is a “rare circumstance” when you have someone outside of law enforcement that was accepted as well as he was by leadership at CBP.

“It had to do with his willingness to step in and learn what they did, understand what they did and do what he could to support them,” added the official.

Sanders said he advocated for supplemental funds from Congress, telling them, “I believe another child will die,” if CBP doesn’t receive additional resources.

He was also quick to praise the professionalism of border agents, saying, “I also saw amazing acts of kindness and compassion from Border Patrol agents trying to make a bad situation as best as possible and I know the conditions were frustrating to them as well.”

Rep. Veronica Escobar, a Democrat from Texas and an outspoken critic of the administration’s immigration policies, nevertheless said she was “saddened by the news” that Sanders was leaving.

“He was very open to new ways of approaching the situation and very thoughtful and strategic about how he wanted to implement change,” said Escobar. “He absolutely acknowledged the deficiencies and that acknowledgment to me, gave me hope, and when you acknowledge the deficiencies, there’s more of a willingness to address them.”