President Biden’s pick to run U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement pledged Thursday to uphold the “rule of law” with a goal of improving public safety — and said he would not end a voluntary program that allows local law enforcement to cooperate with federal deportation efforts.
Gonzalez, the grandson of immigrants, also praised the role that newcomers have played in this country’s history. “America has shown the world that it’s not only possible to survive, but thrive as a nation that welcomes those seeking a new home and a better life through hard, honest work,” he said. “We have proven that people from varied backgrounds cannot just coexist, but rally around common values and a shared dream of always doing better.”
Gonzalez would be the first Senate-approved ICE director since the Obama administration. A career law enforcement officer, he has faced criticism for withdrawing his sheriff’s office from a voluntary program that helps ICE find immigrants inside county jails who are accused of crimes and eligible for deportation. At the hearing, Sen. Rob Portman (Ohio), the committee’s ranking Republican, questioned the decision to withdraw.
“I am concerned from our conversation about whether it would be appropriate for you to lead an agency that you’ve been so critical of,” Portman said, noting that border apprehensions are at 20-year highs.
Gonzalez said his decisions as sheriff reflected local worries about a budget shortfall and community policing in Houston, where immigrants make up nearly 30 percent of the population. But he said he had an “amicable” relationship with ICE and allowed agents into his jail when they were seeking to take custody of immigrants, as Texas law requires.
“I never declined a detainer” — ICE’s version of an arrest warrant — he said.
Under questioning from Republicans, Gonzalez said he believes unauthorized entry into the United States should remain a crime. He said he would not seek to terminate the voluntary program he ended for Harris County, known as 287(g) after the federal law that authorizes it, and would be “aggressive” in pursuing anyone who matches the administration’s priorities.
But Gonzalez emphasized that ICE should prioritize arrests of recent border crossers and serious criminals, rather than undocumented immigrants jailed for minor infractions. “We should be strategic and smart in our enforcement,” he said.
The American Civil Liberties Union called Gonzalez’s testimony “deeply disappointing” and “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.”
“Gonzalez seemed more interested in placating anti-immigrant politicians on the committee than laying out a vision for reform,” Naureen Shah, a senior policy counsel at the ACLU, said in a statement.
ICE officials say it is safer to arrest immigrants inside jails than on the streets. But the agency has been criticized for detaining immigrants in custody for traffic violations or other minor offenses. Hundreds of county and local governments known as “sanctuary” jurisdictions have limited their cooperation with the agency.
Two years ago, Gonzalez tweeted that diverting law enforcement to pursue anyone but a public safety threat “silences witnesses & victims” by making unauthorized immigrants afraid to report crimes.
“I do not support #ICERaids that threaten to deport millions of undocumented immigrants, the vast majority of whom do not represent a threat to the U.S.,” he also tweeted.
The Trump administration targeted anyone illegally in the United States for deportation, noting that they were in violation of civil immigration laws. The Biden administration has limited immigration arrests to recent border crossers and convicted criminals who pose a threat to public safety, effectively sparing most of the 11 million unauthorized immigrants in the United States from being deported.
Biden has urged Congress to pass a bill that would allow those people to apply for U.S. citizenship.
ICE detention centers have continued to fill, however, as attempted border crossings increase, in what GOP critics say is a reaction to Biden’s more welcoming tone. The growth in detentions — from more than 15,000 in April to more than 27,650 last week — has frustrated liberal Democrats, who have called for the president to abolish the agency.
Republicans noted at the hearing that ICE averaged nearly 6,800 arrests in October, November and December; in February, that fell to about 2,500 arrests.
A congressional aide said committee Democrats are aiming to advance Gonzalez’s nomination by Aug. 9. “ICE urgently needs a qualified, committed leader,” Sen. Gary Peters (D-Mich.) said at the hearing.
If confirmed, Gonzalez would take over a federal agency with 20,000 employees and an approximately $8 billion annual budget. ICE detains and deports immigrants, but it also has an investigative arm, Homeland Security Investigations, which arrests Americans and foreign nationals for crimes such as human trafficking.
Gonzalez served for 18 years in the Houston Police Department, rising from a civilian employee to a police officer, homicide investigator and hostage negotiator, before retiring in 2009. He also served three terms on the Houston City Council before being elected sheriff in 2016, and he was reelected last year. He received a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice from the University of Houston Downtown and a master’s degree from the University of St. Thomas.
At the hearing Thursday, Gonzalez said his grandparents were immigrants and his father was a “self-taught welder” who never learned to read or write. His mother owned a modest beauty shop.
Sarah Saldaña, the ICE director during President Barack Obama’s second term, when Biden was vice president, said in an interview that Gonzalez would be an “outstanding” leader, because he understands community policing and would take a more narrow approach to enforcing the law.
“To turn to a law enforcement figure, not a community activist or somebody else, should communicate to everyone, including advocates for immigrants, that as long as the laws are on the books, they’re certainly going to be enforced,” Saldaña said. “He has, in my view, that balance.”