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Thursday, October 6, 2022

PERSPECTIVE: A Day in the Life of a DHS/ICE Field Office Director

We deal with sensitive situations involving people, expect the unexpected and must adjust our mindset and schedules to address public safety and national security issues at a moment’s notice.

My morning can begin quietly with a cup of coffee and end with the investigation and arrest of MS-13 gang members or an individual wanted for committing violent crimes overseas. How did a child of Greek heritage who grew up in Bay Ridge (Brooklyn, N.Y.) and later received a degree in Electrical Engineering, go on to become a Field Office Director (FOD) leading the Enforcement and Removal Operations (ERO) division of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) in Newark, New Jersey? It’s a question I still occasionally ask myself.

First, as to my Greek heritage, I share a similar experience with many Americans. My parents emigrated to the United States for a better life. As I was growing up in Brooklyn, initially attending public school and later parochial school, my father worked 18 hours a day in the restaurant business to support our family and pay for parochial school. Losing my mom at age 13 was very tough, but she has been an inspiration to me. My parents taught me to always work hard and never give up to be successful in life.

As to how I went from engineering into law enforcement, originally, it was supposed to be a temporary arrangement. Plus, my father did not want me and my brother to go into the restaurant business. He wanted us to do something much better where we didn’t have to work 18-hour days and could spend more time with family. I received my engineering degree, got an entry-level temporary job, and about a year later during the recession in the early ’90s could not find another job in that field.

After sending out hundreds of resumes without results, I signed up to take the civil service test for law enforcement. I did well and was hired by then Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) in New York. I completed the INS Academy at the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center Academy in Glynco, Ga., and began working as an Immigration Examiner interviewing individuals to obtain legal permanent residence (Green Card) in the U.S. Nearly 30 years later, here I am.

Working for INS in several positions, including at JFK Airport inspecting incoming international flight passengers and at Detention, Deportation and Parole (now ERO) removing mainly criminal noncitizens, helped me become very familiar with all aspects of immigration law and procedures. I was a Supervisor at the Varick Street Detention Center in New York City on 9/11 about a mile or so from where the Twin Towers were. It was total chaos and destruction that day, no phone service, and no way to get in contact with my family in Brooklyn. After securing the federal building and safely transferring over 200 detained individuals to facilities in New Jersey, I left the city and was the only vehicle going over the Brooklyn Bridge at around 2 a.m. — a once-in-a-lifetime ride.

Wanting to contribute more to our great country and advance in a career I grew to love, in June 2002, I left NYC to take a position in Washington, D.C. (INS Headquarters). In 2003, INS and U.S. Customs units were merged to form ICE under DHS. I spent several rewarding years in D.C. leading several national programs for DHS and ICE related to case and custody management, removal and enforcement programs oversight, and working with the Department of State and foreign governments, as well as developing national IT modernization initiatives. In 2008, I returned to New York City as the Deputy Field Office Director (DFOD) for the NYC Field Office and was later promoted to Field Office Director of the ERO Newark office, which covers the state of New Jersey.

What’s an average day like for me as an FOD? That’s easy. There’s no such thing. No two days are alike, and I never complain of boredom. It can be quiet and routine one moment, and chaotic the next, with no end in sight to the day. That is how law enforcement works, especially in ICE. We deal with sensitive situations involving people, expect the unexpected and must adjust our mindset and schedules to address public safety and national security issues at a moment’s notice. Most recently, the COVID pandemic turned everything upside down — coming up with effective safety measures for staff and detainees while ensuring we continue our agency’s public safety mission and maintain the integrity of our nation’s immigration system was a tough challenge.

I can tell you some of the things my team and I deal with day-to-day. I manage over 250 employees and a budget of over $40 million, as well as a facility with contract security staff. I oversee all immigration enforcement programs and activities in New Jersey, including identifying criminal noncitizens incarcerated with federal, state, and local facilities. I also manage the Fugitive Operation Program, which locates and apprehends noncitizens ordered removed from the U.S. and those wanted overseas.

I oversee cases of noncitizens going through removal proceedings, both detained in ICE custody and those required to report to ICE, and coordinate removals of individuals to their country of citizenship. I collaborate on activities within my field office with the highest level of federal, state, and local government officials, with intelligence organizations and international law enforcement entities such as Interpol, and I exercise final authority in the grant or denial of prosecutorial discretion related to deportation or removal.

Cooperation from our state and local partners is the ideal scenario to help accomplish our mission. We work as best we can whatever the circumstances and keep the focus on professionalism and results.

I also represent ICE in the media, at local events, and at seminars with stakeholders such as non-governmental and private-sector organizations, and international organizations to achieve common goals. For example, we may meet with representatives from a foreign country’s consulate regarding a removal of a high-profile detainee or with organizations opposed to ICE ERO activities, all in the interest of achieving better relations and an understanding of ICE’s mission. The point is to build coalitions where open dialogue and a professional working relationship is maintained.

A good part of my day is spent on administrative matters such as leading the workforce, managing the budget and resources to support the mission, facilities, etc., and ensure my staff work efficiently toward our mission, develop policies to ensure accountability, make personnel- and discipline-related decisions, and enhance employee engagement given our challenging mission.

My staff is a key element here and to that end I strive to provide an inclusive workplace that fosters the development of others, facilitates cooperation and teamwork, and supports constructive resolution of conflicts. I work with both union and non-union employees and make all efforts to achieve parity in my approach to accomplish what matters most: results. The human element is crucial, but I also apply technical knowledge, analyze problems, and calculate risks when making decisions on behalf of the agency. I’ve worked side-by-side with many of my support staff and officers for many years. We are like family, in many cases spending more time on the work front than the home front. Our law enforcement employees are familiar with the struggle to achieve work/life balance, but they are also resilient and support each other in tough times, whether it be the pandemic or anti-ICE rhetoric.

As I wind down my career, I continue to work diligently to develop the next generation of leaders. Although some leadership qualities are instinctual, many are developed over time. I have found that one of the most important leadership qualities is communication. Clear and effective communication ensures proper execution of the mission, good employee performance, and timely conflict resolution. Communication can often make or break a situation — either operational or personnel-related.

I offer my key ingredients for success to my employees, so they can develop to become successful leaders: Professionalism, Accountability, Safety. I also advise them to adopt the best “officer qualities” of others, but to also make proactive efforts to learn on their own. I encourage them to develop their skills, use common sense in complex situations, become well rounded in the duties of the position, learn to adapt to change, execute the assigned mission in line with regulations and policies, to not become complacent, to build their reputation with their peers and supervisors, and to stay out of the politics. I meet with every new employee, so I can get to know them and offer advice. I also meet with every new supervisor I promote and counsel them to own their responsibilities, implement accountability measures, face conflict head-on, treat everyone respectfully, and recognize the high performers.

I’ve had a great career and am blessed to have an understanding wife and children who supported me throughout, despite mission-related challenges that impacted them. I’m confident in saying that I made significant positive contributions to this great nation and to public safety in my numerous roles with INS and ICE. Although I miss the engineering world at times, I cannot say I regret the career transition to law enforcement.

I ask you to honor the efforts of our law enforcement officers and support employees who remain resilient in protecting the homeland with Honor and Integrity.

The views expressed here are the writer’s and are not necessarily endorsed by Homeland Security Today, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints in support of securing our homeland. To submit a piece for consideration, email Editor@Hstoday.us.

John Tsoukaris
John Tsoukaris is the Field Officer Director (FOD) of ICE-ERO Newark, New Jersey, U.S. Department of Homeland Security. He serves as the Director of the Newark Field Office, which consists of the entire State of New Jersey. In this position, he directs and maintains oversight of all immigration enforcement operations and activities throughout the state. He has been instrumental in developing outstanding partnerships and innovative public safety initiatives with law enforcement and prosecutors’ offices throughout the State, resulting in the identification, arrest, and removal of dangerous criminal noncitizens from the community. ERO Newark supports local offices of the FBI, USMS, DEA, U.S. Customs and Border Protection at the area’s major airports (Newark and JFK), as well as other ERO field offices with removal assistance. FOD Tsoukaris actively participates in outreach and public engagements in support of the ICE mission. He holds a Bachelor of Science Degree in Electrical Engineering from Polytechnic University, a certificate in Management Development from Cornell University, School of Industrial and Labor Relations, and a Certified Public Manager certificate from Rutgers University.

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