(CN) — Harris County Sheriff Ed Gonzalez said Thursday that as director of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, he would prioritize deporting violent convicts because the agency lacks the resources to deport all undocumented immigrants in the country.
Calls to abolish ICE became a rallying cry for Democrats and immigrant advocates under former President Donald Trump, as the agency led his crackdown in which virtually anyone in the country without lawful status was fair game to be deported.
President Joe Biden entered office promising a more compassionate approach. Biden’s shift of ICE’s focus to deporting terrorist threats, gang members and those convicted of aggravated felonies has stirred dissension among ICE’s ranks.
A group ICE agents who belong to the Federal Police Foundation, a nonprofit association of federal law enforcement officers, joined four Texas sheriffs in a July 1 lawsuit against the Biden administration. They claim the White House is not letting ICE officers take custody of immigrants who have been convicted of serious crimes, even child molestation, after they are arrested by local authorities and booked into county jails, and forcing ICE officers to get approval from their managers to make arrests.
In Gonzalez’s confirmation hearing Thursday before the U.S. Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, Senator Josh Hawley, a Missouri Republican, vetted him about his views on the issue.
Hawley said since Biden took office, the number of ICE arrests has significantly declined. Citing a May 5 report by the Washington Post, he said ICE under the Trump administration averaged 6,000 arrests per month, but agents have made a monthly average of 2,500 arrests during Biden’s presidency.
The senator asked Gonzalez if he believes unauthorized immigrants convicted of assault, kidnapping, sex offenses and weapons offenses should be removed from the country.
“In my opinion yes. … To me those are serious crimes,” Gonzalez said.
But Gonzalez, who as sheriff of Texas’ most populous county has developed a reputation of a criminal justice progressive, said he agrees with the tailored enforcement approach, due to ICE’s limited resources and inability to deport all the estimated 11 million immigrants living in the U.S. without lawful status.
A lifelong Houstonian, Gonzalez testified he learned the value of hard work from his parents. “My father was a self-taught welder. He never finished school or learned how to read or write. He made up for it by outworking his competition. … My mother owned a modest beauty salon,” he said.
After earning a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice, Gonzalez entered law enforcement as a civilian employee of the Houston Police Department. He transitioned to an HPD policeman and attained the rank of sergeant while serving as a hostage negotiator and homicide detective.
After 18 years with HPD, Gonzalez retired in 2009 and was elected to the Houston City Council, where he served three terms under then-Mayor Annise Parker.
Parker told Courthouse News that Gonzalez is well-qualified to lead ICE.
“He is smart, measured and thoughtful. He is congenial and works well with people of different backgrounds and beliefs, but he stands his ground when he thinks he is right. He likes to innovate and is open to better ways of doing things, but does his homework before launching something new,” she said.
Gonzalez showed his willingness to buck the status quo after a group of Harris County inmates brought a class action over Harris County judges’ and magistrates’ practice of setting bail for misdemeanor arrestees with no regard for their ability to pay.
Though Gonzalez, as leader of the county jail in Houston, was named a defendant in the class action, he testified in support of reforms.
“When I see that many of the people inside the jail, on any given day an average of 9,000, are just poor and can’t bond out, and I look at racial disparities, disproportionally communities of color, then that’s very concerning to me,” he testified in March 2017.
One of Gonzalez’s first moves as Harris County sheriff was to end the county’s voluntary detainer program in February 2017 and reassign 10 deputies who had been trained to check inmates’ status against an ICE database and hold them for possible deportation. ICE’s so-called 287(g) program allows state and local law enforcement agencies to partner with ICE to help it enforce immigration laws.
Gonzalez said Harris County’s program eroded trust between immigrants and law enforcement, making those in the country illegally less likely to report crimes.
But the sheriff told the Senate committee that even after he ended the voluntary partnership, ICE continued to maintain a presence in the Harris County Jail, and he has never declined a “detainer request” to hold immigrants in the jail so ICE agents can pick them up.
Senator Rob Portman, an Ohio Republican, cited Gonzalez’s criticism of a bill the Republican-led Texas Legislature passed in 2017 mandating Texas sheriffs comply with ICE detainer requests or face criminal penalties.
“I’m just concerned about a potential leader of ICE having these views about ICE and what the effects would be on the morale of the individuals [ICE personnel]. Do you stand by those statements today?” Portman asked.
Gonzalez said he spoke out against the Texas bill because he believes in local control, and he disagreed with the Legislature placing the mandate on local law enforcement.
After Biden announced Gonzalez's nomination in April, a group of organizations that advocate for immigrants said they were shocked by the selection.
"Though Sheriff Gonzalez terminated Harris County’s 287(g) contract in 2017 in response to three years of community pressure, he has continued to work with ICE. In fact, Harris County has the highest number of ICE arrests in the nation," they said in a statement.
The Senate is expected to approve Gonzalez as director of ICE, which is part of the Department of Homeland Security, and he said he is eager to lead the agency’s more than 20,000 law enforcement officers and support staff.
If confirmed, he will inherit an agency grappling with outbreaks of Covid-19 and frequent hunger strikes among immigrants in ICE detention centers, and trying to rehabilitate its image in the wake of Trump’s punitive tactics.
Under Trump, ICE agents frequently carried out sweeps in large cities in which undocumented immigrants with no criminal records were arrested and placed into deportation proceedings alongside those ICE was targeting. It also rounded up hundreds of immigrants in workplace raids.
ICE agents were also accused of knocking on doors and falsely claiming to be local law enforcement to get into people’s homes and arrest them without warrants.
Though ICE is arresting less people under Biden – 3,428 in June – the number of immigrants in ICE detention centers grew to more than 27,000 as of July 8, up from less than 14,000 at the end of March, according to Syracuse University’s Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse.
Most of these detainees have no criminal record and were arrested by Border Patrol agents after entering the country without papers from Mexico, as the Border Patrol deals with a 20-year high of illegal entries.
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