President Biden’s nominee to lead U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement says he sees “many possibilities” to “move forward in a positive direction” in relationships with local law enforcement agencies as he doesn’t believe “one agency can work alone” in enforcing immigration laws with maintaining public safety as the priority.
Harris County Sheriff Ed Gonzalez, who was picked to lead the agency in April, told senators at his Thursday confirmation hearing that he doesn’t believe administration guidance on enforcement priorities has kept ICE from enforcing the law or has had the effect to “preclude anyone from being, obviously, the focus of enforcement if it meets the priority areas,” and that “there is ample latitude for us to be effective and get the job done” within what he would hope to see as “a strategic agency, a preeminent law enforcement agency that works effectively, that is prioritized.”
“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. 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 said at the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs hearing. “With that said, the American dream relies upon the rule of law and a functioning legal immigration system.”
“I have been proud throughout my career as a law enforcement professional to uphold our nation’s laws,” he added. “If confirmed as ICE director, I will be responsible for 20,000 dedicated men and women who work every day to guard against threats to our national security, public safety, and safeguard the integrity of our borders.”
Gonzalez lauded the work of Homeland Security Investigations and ICE Enforcement and Removal Operations, which conducts “a difficult and often thankless job, but leading such a team would be the honor of a lifetime.”
Gonzalez began his career as a patrol officer at the Houston Police Department, and worked as a homicide detective and hostage negotiator in his nearly two decades at the department. He ran for Houston City Council in 2009 and served three terms, including as mayor pro tempore. He was elected Harris County Sheriff in 2016, managing the third-largest sheriff’s office in the country that includes a maritime security unit.
“As sheriff, I have partnered with ICE, the FBI, DEA, U.S. Marshals Service, U.S. Attorney’s Office, and other federal agencies in order to investigate and prosecute crimes that span multiple jurisdictions and countries,” he said. “If confirmed as ICE director, I look forward to building on these partnerships to make our community safer, while working closely with communities to ensure ICE is able to carry out its mission.”
The sheriff described himself as “an inclusive leader” and stressed that the “morale of the ICE workforce is critical to making sure we successfully accomplish its mission.”
Gonzalez said he looked forward to joining HSI on their “great success” in battling human trafficking, “learning what’s being done, and how we could continue to advance their work, and use my experience to continue to seek continuous improvement.” He cited Houston’s work on the issue, including working with partners on task forces particularly around large-scale events that draw upticks in human trafficking activity.
Asked by Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) whether admitting unaccompanied minor migrants was “letting in people who are potentially gang members” or drug traffickers, Gonzalez replied, “I’m always mindful of not profiling and developing any stereotypes in my work, so I try to look at the facts.”
“At the end of the day, they’re still teenagers. I know that, if they’re coming into our country, they’re processed through CBP, there’s different screenings that are done. And, at the end of the day, they’re still teens,” he added. “And I think that HSI is a preeminent law enforcement agency when it comes to investigating how criminal networks are manipulating the immigration system to take advantage of these individuals. And I think it’s important that we use our resources to combat and dismantle those criminal networks.”
“Will you facilitate the release of aliens who’ve committed sex crimes, assault crimes, other violent crimes?” asked Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.).
“I would work in accordance to the law with what I’m allowed to do,” Gonzalez responded. “And then there’s a court order that orders me to remove them, otherwise, I would go with the guidance that we have which allows me, if confirmed as ICE director, to be able to remove them. I see them as a threat; if it’s under my authority, I would move to remove them.”
“Public safety is always my North Star,” the nominee stressed when prodded further about what to do with undocumented migrants who have committed crimes.
“Part of the role of ICE is to conduct enforcement operations. I think that those, obviously, have to be prioritized when we’re considering limited operations and resources. I think that we do that every day,” Gonzalez said. “There’s a lot of crimes on the books, but it’s a matter of trade-offs. It’s making sure that we’re focusing on the strategic approach that goes after those individuals that do pose the greatest danger to the integrity of our border, public safety, and national security.”
Asked by Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.) if he believes ICE should be abolished, Gonzalez replied, “No.”
“Do you believe that local jurisdictions should cooperate with ICE when it comes to apprehending criminals who pose a threat to our public safety or national security, yes or no?” Carper asked.
“Yes, sir,” Gonzalez answered.
“We could be firm on enforcement but we don’t have to lose our compassion and humanity as well,” the sheriff later said. “So I try to be a leader that approaches things from a thoughtful manner that looks for results.”
Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) asked Gonzalez why in 2017 he ended his department’s participation in a program that allows local law enforcement to partner with ICE on removals. Gonzalez said he “made a thoughtful decision” that “considered a number of different factors.”
“When I first began as Harris County sheriff, I was inheriting a budget that was $8 million in arrears, so I had to look at the monetary component of how my resources were being utilized. I think an effective leader needs to look at the resource allocation,” Gonzalez continued. “Two, that this was a voluntary program so I was working in an amicable manner in coordination with the local ICE director to making sure what the impacts of my decision would be and I had to consider, obviously, the local realities as well and the importance of local law enforcement also working with the diverse immigrant community.”
“I also wanted to make sure that we continued to remain focused on having the avenues necessary to arrest serious offenders in our community that impact our public safety,” he added. “So ICE has always maintained a presence to this date inside our facility. We work in a coordinated manner when it comes to that. There has never been any issues. I’ve never declined a detainer.”
Citing last year’s firing of an ICE contract employee at the Nevada Southern Detention Center who was active on a neo-Nazi website, Sen. Jacky Rosen (D-Nev.) asked Gonzalez how he would “ensure that ICE properly screens for individuals who embrace white supremacy or, frankly, other dangerous ideologies.”
“I think, obviously, maintaining a workforce that has the highest integrity is always critical to making sure that we are maintaining public trust,” Gonzalez said, adding that he recently met with his team at the sheriff’s office “to see how we could do better with our screening protocols, making sure that we are onboarding the right leaders into our agency.”
“I know across the board nationally that many law enforcement agencies are also grappling with this, not only the initial onboarding but further check-ins throughout their career to make sure that things somehow aren’t getting, you know, gone sideways in some way or no longer fit the mission of the agency when it comes to a team member’s behavior,” he said.