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Vitiello Tells Senate Defending ICE Mission, Existence Would be Priority if Confirmed

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Acting Director Ronald Vitiello told lawmakers Thursday that, if confirmed to lead the agency, one of his highest priorities “will be to better demonstrate to the public, Congress, and the media the importance and criticality of the mission to protect the homeland and improve public safety and why our agency’s existence should not be up for debate.”

Vitiello, the former chief of the Border Patrol and acting deputy commissioner of Customs and Border Protection, was named acting director in June to fill in for retired Acting Director Thomas Homan. President Trump had nominated Homan for the permanent directorship in November 2017, but his nomination remained pending in the Senate.

In his confirmation hearing before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, Vitiello said Americans need to remember “why ICE was created in the first place” to address “critical gaps in our national security” after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

“I believe Congress shares the goal of a strong border and an immigration system that has integrity,” he said. “…The men and women of ICE are among our nation’s finest and most hard-working public servants and it is a privilege to serve alongside them.”

Vitiello said that ICE’s successes “are too often drowned out or wrongly maligned by misleading rhetoric and misinformation in the public sphere,” and charged that “this kind of rhetoric needlessly escalates the risk in our operational environment, making an already challenging job all the more difficult and dangerous.”

“It also harms the morale of our workforce, which is composed of people just like you who go to work each day to make our communities and our country safer,” he added.

READ: New Acting ICE Director Vitiello Feels Strongly About Listening to Agents in the Field

Sen. Gary Peters (D-Mich.) asked Vitiello about his September participation in a media day held by the Federation for American Immigration Reform, which the Southern Poverty Law Center says has ties to white supremacist groups and eugenicists. Vitiello said he conducted several interviews promoting the ICE mission at the event but did not know about the criticism against FAIR.

“Although, it is supported by a group that’s classified as a hate group. So would you in a future avoid those kinds of situations, if confirmed?” Peters asked.

“Obviously, having more information on a scenario like that would be better,” Vitiello replied, adding “that we can add that to our protocols” to check groups before committing to events.

Vitiello also told Peters that a Sept. 12, 2012, tweet in which he suggested that the Democratic Party should be renamed the “liberalcratic party” or the “Neo-Klanist party” was “a mistake.”

“I was trying to make a joke. I thought it was a direct message. I wasn’t familiar with how the platform worked, as it related to that,” he said. “I did not mean to suggest that the party is somehow against American values or — and I deeply regret that I did it. It was a momentary lapse of judgment and I apologize.”

Questioned on family separations under the zero-tolerance border security policy, Vitiello said the ensuing public backlash “was not perceived in the moment” that enforcement began.

“What we were trying to do at CBP and in the department was not separate families, but apply consequences as the Justice Department leaned forward and offered up additional prosecutorial resources as a so-called zero tolerance policy,” he said. “We tried to take advantage of that capacity.”

“…We’d like to be in a place where no one got separated, right? But the separations occur when — in most cases before zero tolerance when the guardian or the parent is not suitable to be a parent, they have a violent history or they have other crimes that need to be addressed in federal prosecution and so that requires a separation. So, yes, we’d like to be in a place where lots of people didn’t bring their kids to the border and try to cross illegally, but that’s the situation we’re faced with now.”

Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) asked the acting director if he saw “parallels” between the “perception” of the Ku Klux Klan and the “power and the discretion” being used by ICE.

“I do not see a parallel between what is constitutionally mandated as it relates to enforcing the law,” Vitiello replied.

“Are you aware that there is a perception that ICE is administering its power in a way that is causing fear and intimidation, particularly among immigrants and specifically among immigrants coming from Mexico and Central America? Are you aware of that perception?” Harris continued.

“I do not see a parallel between the power and the authority that ICE has to do its job and agents and officers who do it professionally and excellently with lots of compassion,” Vitiello said. “There [are] a lot of perceptions in the media and in the public that are incorrect about the agency.”

Sen. Maggie Hassan (D-N.H.) asked the nominee about a June letter to Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen from 19 Homeland Security Investigations agents asking that HSI be separated from ICE because deportations were making their jobs more difficult and taking more ICE funds.

“Have you or will you take money from HSI and undermine their counterterrorism and national security capability in order to provide additional funding to ICE’s deportation force?” Hassan asked.

“We would never take money from one part of the organization to another if it meant an increased risk to national security,” Vitiello replied. “…I would love to be in a place where the appropriation was adequate to cover all the needs and the mandatory authorities that we have to exercise. In every enterprise you have to make choices and you have to weigh the risks.”

Vitiello noted that he read the letter, “considered the idea” of an ICE/HSI split “and I don’t think we should take any steps in that direction.”

“I think that what HSI brings to the table in money laundering, its complex narcotics investigations, their work against MS-13 relies on the agency’s complete resources and their authorities under Title 8 to prosecute and MS-13 gang members to clean up communities like we did in Long Island — and having those two complementary missions side-by-side is better for America than it isn’t,” he said.

Lawmakers are gone for the Thanksgiving break and the HSGAC does not currently have a meeting on the calendar to vote on Vitiello’s nomination.

MORE at HSToday: #RealDeal Interview: Chief Vitiello on Uptick in Crossings, CBP’s Future

Bridget Johnson
Bridget Johnson is the Managing Editor for Homeland Security Today. A veteran journalist whose news articles and analyses have run in dozens of news outlets across the globe, Bridget first came to Washington to be online editor and a foreign policy writer at The Hill. Previously she was an editorial board member at the Rocky Mountain News and syndicated nation/world news columnist at the Los Angeles Daily News. Bridget is a terrorism analyst and security consultant with a specialty in online open-source extremist propaganda, incitement, recruitment, and training. She hosts and presents in Homeland Security Today law enforcement training webinars studying a range of counterterrorism topics including conspiracy theory extremism, complex coordinated attacks, critical infrastructure attacks, arson terrorism, drone and venue threats, antisemitism and white supremacists, anti-government extremism, and WMD threats. She is a Senior Risk Analyst for Gate 15 and a private investigator. Bridget is an NPR on-air contributor and has contributed to USA Today, The Wall Street Journal, New York Observer, National Review Online, Politico, New York Daily News, The Jerusalem Post, The Hill, Washington Times, RealClearWorld and more, and has myriad television and radio credits including Al-Jazeera, BBC and SiriusXM.

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