President BidenJoe BidenUN meeting with US, France canceled over scheduling issue Schumer moves to break GOP blockade on Biden's State picks GOP Rep. Cawthorn likens vaccine mandates to 'modern-day segregation' MORE’s nominee to lead U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) appeared before senators Thursday, striking a more moderate tone as he pledged to retain a program allowing local police departments to assist with immigration enforcement.
Biden has nominated Ed Gonzalez — sheriff of Harris County, Texas, which includes the Houston metro area and is one of the largest sheriff offices in the country — to lead the sprawling agency responsible for pursuing those who violate immigration laws.
If confirmed by the Senate, Gonzalez would end the more than four-year period in which ICE has gone without a Senate-confirmed leader, something Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee Chair Gary PetersGary PetersDHS chief 'horrified' by images at border FBI withheld decryption key for Kaseya ransomware attack for three weeks: report Hillicon Valley — Presented by Xerox — Democrats press FTC to resolve data privacy 'crisis' MORE (D-Mich.) said “has made it even more difficult for ICE to effectively carry out its mission.”
He would also take control of the department at a critical time, both as numbers swell at the border and as the Biden administration has sought to push officers to target only those with serious criminal histories and given the department’s lawyers more discretion to drop low-priority cases.
"We can be firm on crimes, we can be firm on enforcement, but we don't have to lose our compassion and humanity as well," Gonzalez said during the hearing.
The sheriff has been a vocal critic of the Trump administration's immigration policy and in 2017 terminated his county’s 287(g) agreement with ICE, ending the practice of allowing local officers to carry out some immigration enforcement.
He also declined to participate in a 2019 ICE raid, according to reporting by the Houston Chronicle, arguing it would "drive undocumented families further into the shadows.”
“It silences witnesses & victims & [would] further worsen the challenges law enforcement officials face,” Gonzalez tweeted.
But when asked if he would terminate the program nationwide, Gonzalez said “that would not be my intent.”
Still, that did little to assuage Sen. Rob PortmanRobert (Rob) Jones PortmanOvernight Defense & National Security — Presented by AM General — Afghan evacuation still frustrates DHS chief 'horrified' by images at border DHS secretary condemns treatment of Haitian migrants but says US will ramp up deportations MORE (R-Ohio), who read a number of previous critical comments from Gonzalez.
“I am concerned, as you know from our conversation, about whether it would be appropriate for you to lead an agency that you've been so critical of,” Portman said, adding that his previous criticism could have an effect on morale at ICE.
But Gonzalez defended his remarks, saying they were in reference to a Texas effort to force agreements with ICE, something he thought should be a matter of local control.
”I made a thoughtful decision,” he said, noting the department was facing a budget hole.
“I had to consider obviously the local realities as well and the importance of local law enforcement also working with a 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's never been any issues. I've never declined a detainer.”
Gonzalez did, however, seem to satisfy Sen. Josh HawleyJoshua (Josh) David HawleySchumer moves to break GOP blockade on Biden's State picks Dems punch back over GOP holdup of Biden SBA nominee DHS chief 'horrified' by images at border MORE (R-Mo.), who had numerous questions about the ICE’s current enforcement priorities, which pushes officers to focus on serious criminals.
“In evaluating whether an individual poses a threat to public safety, officers and agents are to consider the extensiveness, seriousness, and recency of any criminal activity, as well as mitigating factors, including, but not limited to, personal and family circumstances, health and medical factors, ties to the community, and evidence of rehabilitation,” ICE wrote when the policy was unveiled in February.
Still, some Republicans have argued the memo is too vague, leaving the door open for some with drug offenses or other crimes to remain low priorities for ICE.
Hawley asked Gonzalez if he would push to deport those convicted of assault and sex and drug crimes.
“Yes, to me those are serious crimes,” Gonzalez said, pledging to work in accordance with the law. “Public safety is always my North Star.”
But Gonzalez strongly pushed back against Sen. Ron JohnsonRonald (Ron) Harold JohnsonLiberal group launches campaign urging Republicans to support Biden's agenda Domestic extremists return to the Capitol GOP senator: Buying Treasury bonds 'foolish' amid standoff over debt ceiling, taxes MORE (R-Wis.), who alleged teens crossing the border were likely to be involved in gangs.
“I'm always mindful of not profiling and developing any stereotypes in my work, so I try to look at the facts,” he said. “I'm saying at the end of the day, they're still teenagers.”