President Biden’s nominee to run U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement has abruptly withdrawn from consideration after months of uncertainty, leaving the Homeland Security agency that detains and deports undocumented immigrants without a confirmed director for the sixth consecutive year.
“I arrive at this difficult decision with the understanding that the challenges of preserving both the integrity of America’s borders and our country’s global standing as a beacon of light for those seeking freedom and opportunity have never been greater,” he wrote, according to a copy of his letter obtained by The Washington Post.
Gonzalez, who runs the nation’s the third-largest sheriff’s agency, said he had decided to devote his full attention to rising crime in the Houston area, where he was first elected sheriff in 2016 and is now in his second term. Homicides are up, as they are in other cities nationwide, he wrote, and the jail population has swelled “beyond capacity,” placing strain on the jail staff.
“All of this leads me to the unavoidable conclusion that in 2022, I must devote my full, undivided attention and energy toward fulfilling the duties that the people of Harris County elected me to perform,” he wrote.
Biden first nominated Gonzalez, a career law enforcement official, in April 2021 to run an agency that has been a political lightning rod amid partisan debate over immigration arrests and rising numbers of border apprehensions.
Department of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas called him a “strong choice” and urged his swift confirmation to lead the DHS agency with an $8 billion annual budget and more than 20,000 employees worldwide. ICE detains and deports immigrants, but it also has an investigative branch, Homeland Security Investigations, that investigates crimes such as drug smuggling and human trafficking.
Republicans had questioned Gonzalez, a career law enforcement officer, for withdrawing his sheriff’s office from a voluntary program that helps ICE locate immigrants in county jails who are accused of crimes and could be deported. But Gonzalez testified at his July 2021 confirmation hearing before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee that he would uphold the “rule of law” and would not end the program, if confirmed.
The committee approved his nomination along party lines, but he did not receive a floor vote and the president had to resend his nomination to Congress in January.
In March, Gonzalez’s nomination was upended when Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.), a member of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, urged Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Committee Chairman Sen. Gary Peters (D-Mich.) to delay a floor vote on his nomination. Lankford said he wanted the committee to investigate an allegation made by a former community college police officer that Gonzalez’s wife, Melissa Gonzalez, now a community college president, had wanted to file a domestic abuse complaint against the sheriff.
The committee conducted a bipartisan investigation and found no evidence to support the allegation, according to a summary of the findings prepared by the majority staff and obtained by The Post.
The committee found that the former police officer who had raised the allegation in a federal discrimination lawsuit that had nothing to do with the sheriff admitted in an interview with the committee staff and in sworn testimony that he “did not prepare or file a written report of any kind” regarding the matter.
The Gonzalezes had denied the allegation and cooperated with the committee’s investigation.
Lankford had said the National ICE Council, which had a contentious relationship with the Obama administration when Biden was vice president, and the Federal Police Foundation brought the allegation to his attention.
Gonzalez said he had considered withdrawing his nomination for months but did not want to leave until the investigation had cleared him and his family.
“I feel vindicated,” Gonzalez, 53, said in an interview Monday, referring to the committee’s findings.
He said that as a Mexican American grandson of immigrants, whose family had grown up poor, being nominated had been “the honor of a lifetime.” Ultimately, he said, he felt he was no longer willing to wait for the Senate to confirm him.
His supporters said it had been frustrating to watch the Gonzalezes contend with the unsubstantiated allegations.
“It’s unfair to everyone involved,” said Jason Spencer, a former sheriff’s office spokesman, noting that ICE has lacked a Senate-confirmed leader since the Obama administration. “It’s such a critical role, and to have it hijacked by dysfunctional politics is not in anyone’s best interest.”
The White House issued a statement praising Gonzalez on Monday.
“Sheriff Gonzalez has the qualifications and experience to do this important job and would have been a great leader of ICE,” the White House said in the statement.
ICE has struggled to find its footing under Biden, who has tried unsuccessfully to persuade Congress to pass an immigration bill that would legalize the nation’s 11 million undocumented immigrants, and has tried to limit immigration arrests to recent border crossers and people who pose a threat to public safety.
The Biden administration’s direction over the agency suffered a blow this month when U.S. District Judge Drew Tipton in Texas, a Trump appointee, vacated a Department of Homeland Security policy that sought to spare most undocumented immigrants from being arrested. Since Biden took office, immigration arrests in the interior of the United States have fallen sharply, but Tipton’s ruling vacating the DHS policy raises questions about how the agency will operate going forward. DHS has said it “strongly disagrees” with the ruling and will appeal.