ICE may finally get a Senate-confirmed director after over four years without one

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WASHINGTON, DC - JULY 15: Ed Gonzalez, nominee to be an Assistant Secretary of Homeland Security, speaks during a Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs hearing in the Senate Office Building on Thursday, July 15, 2021. (Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times)
Ed Gonzalez speaks Thursday during his confirmation hearing to head U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. (Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times)

Ed Gonzalez, a Texas sheriff and President Biden's pick to lead the embattled Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, faced a grilling from Republican senators Thursday as to why he ended a voluntary collaboration between local law enforcement and federal immigration officials — and whether his past criticism of ICE makes him the right person for the job.

If confirmed, Gonzalez will be the first Senate-approved director of the agency in more than four years. As the sheriff of Harris County, where Houston is located, he presides over the third-largest sheriff’s department in the country.

“I am concerned … about whether it would be appropriate for you to lead an agency that you’ve been so critical of,” said Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio, the top Republican on the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, which held Gonzalez's confirmation hearing Thursday. The panel also considered the nomination of Robert Santos to be Census Bureau director.

Gonzalez, whom Biden hopes will revitalize and refocus ICE, walked lawmakers through his decision to withdraw from the program, known as 287(g), which delegates some federal immigration enforcement authority to police at the local and state levels. The program was dramatically expanded under the Trump administration, but Biden pledged during his presidential campaign to end all such deals struck by his predecessor.

The sheriff explained that the decision came down to budgetary concerns and his office's ability to work with a “diverse immigrant community.”

Gonzalez frequently appeared to seek middle ground during the hearing, telling Portman when pressed that despite having terminated the program in Harris County, he does not intend to end such collaboration on a national level.

“I also wanted to make sure that we continue to remain focused on having the avenues necessary to arrest serious offenders in our community that impact our public safety,” he said.

In recent years, ICE has grappled with a host of challenges including eroding officer morale and public outcry over the agency's policies and practices, which led to the popularization of the #AbolishICE movement among progressives.

Gonzalez decried a series of ICE raids in 2019 that targeted immigrants in the U.S. illegally, tweeting that the vast majority "do not represent a threat to the U.S.” In the tweet, he added that the focus of ICE raids “should always be on clear & immediate safety threats,” and that his sheriff’s department would not participate in such broadly targeted efforts.

“Diverting valuable law enforcement resources away from public safety threats would drive undocumented families further into the shadows & damage our community safety,” Gonzalez said in another tweet at the time. “It silences witnesses & victims & [would] further worsen the challenges law enforcement officials face.”

While ICE is responsible for immigration enforcement in the U.S. interior, many senators focused their questions on the border, where authorities made more apprehensions in June than in any month in at least a decade, CNN reported Wednesday.

ICE arrests and deportations have plummeted in recent months under the Biden administration. In February, Biden issued temporary guidelines instructing ICE to narrow its focus and prioritize arresting people who have recently crossed the border or are deemed public safety threats.

In April, ICE deportations fell to the lowest monthly level on record, according to data obtained by the Washington Post — a point of concern for the Senate Republicans as they questioned Gonzalez on his plans to strengthen the agency’s operations.

While ICE arrests and deportations are on the decline, the number of people held by ICE has risen this year, with more than 27,000 people currently in ICE custody compared with about 15,000 at the start of the year, according to data from the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University.

Nearly 80% of ICE immigrant detainees have no criminal record. Many of those detained recently entered the United States and were apprehended by U.S. border officials, then transferred to ICE's custody. And with deportations down, others are being held in custody longer.

Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.), an immigration hard-liner and one of former President Trump’s most vocal allies, questioned Gonzalez repeatedly on whether he supports expelling immigrants who came to the U.S. illegally when they have committed crimes, which Gonzalez affirmed.

Meanwhile, Democratic senators on the committee focused their questions on allegations of abuse, including reports that came to light in September of forced sterilization of women held at a Georgia detention facility.

Sen. Jacky Rosen (D-Nev.) asked Gonzalez what policy changes he would consider following the allegations at the center, which the Biden administration recently announced would be shut down.

“I've heard stories of some of the inhumane treatment. And that would not be in alignment with the vision that I would have for ICE if confirmed,” Gonzalez responded, but he did not offer any specific policy changes.

Sen. Alex Padilla (D-Calif.) asked Gonzalez what he thinks about ICE officers impersonating local law enforcement when conducting immigration arrests — a controversial practice that civil rights groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union say is unconstitutional because it violates the 4th Amendment's prohibition against unreasonable search and seizure, but that the agency has said is permitted in some circumstances.

Gonzalez again avoided specifics, saying it is important to make sure ICE is not “unnecessarily scaring” or “terrorizing communities.”

The ACLU said in a statement Thursday that his responses were “deeply disappointing."

The group slammed what it called Gonzalez’s “lack of commitment” to end collaboration agreements nationally between ICE and local law enforcement.

“Gonzalez seemed more interested in placating anti-immigrant politicians on the committee than laying out a vision for reform,” the ACLU said. “This was a huge missed opportunity to make it clear to immigrant families and communities that the Biden administration is truly committed to making a decisive break from the Trump administration’s racist and anti-immigrant policies.”

Representatives from ICE, the American Federation of Government Employees, and the federation's National ICE Council did not immediately respond to requests for comment about ICE’s reported abuses and criticisms of the agency.

Throughout the hearing, the Republican lawmakers repeatedly returned to the relationship between ICE and local-level law enforcement — in what may be a test of Gonzalez’s potential to become the first Senate-approved ICE director since the Obama administration.

“Do you believe you’re going to be able to create a relationship where law enforcement will want to work with ICE going forward?” Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.) asked, questioning how Gonzalez would measure the agency’s success.

Developing relationships with local communities would be a marker of success, Gonzalez said, adding that "the work of ICE can be hard to understand, and it's important for us to be engaging with the community."

“We are a nation of immigrants," he continued. "We are a generous country and we should be. But we also have to have immigration laws that are enforceable.”

Times staff writer Molly O'Toole contributed to this report.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

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