Ed Gonzalez, the Texas sheriff tapped to lead U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, said Thursday that he supports preserving cooperation between federal immigration authorities and local law enforcement and would not end a controversial program facilitating that collaboration.
Testifying before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, Gonzalez said, if confirmed, it “would not be my intent” to end the 287(g) program, which can allow local police officers to make immigration arrests and gives ICE access to jails.
Gonzalez acknowledged that, as sheriff, he terminated the 287(g) contract for Texas’ Harris County, which includes Houston, but he told lawmakers this was a “local decision.”
He also repeatedly emphasized the importance of collaboration between local jurisdictions and ICE: “I believe in working in coordination. I don’t think one agency can work alone,” he said.
House Democrats have pushed to defund the federal program, warning it can have a chilling effect on immigrant communities’ willingness to assist law enforcement or call the police for help.
If confirmed, Gonzalez would inherit an agency that has lacked a Senate-confirmed director since former President Donald Trump took office in January 2017.
ICE has also been mired in controversy in recent years. Reports released earlier this year revealed immigrants have faced poor and unhygienic conditions in immigration detention facilities, which have seen nearly 20,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19.
Some more progressive House Democrats have called to abolish the Homeland Security agency, which was created in 2003, and spread its duties across existing departments.
Gonzalez said reports of inhumane treatment in ICE detention facilities, often run by private contractors, “is an area of concern.”
“I’ve heard stories of some of the inhumane treatment, and that would not be in alignment with the vision that I would have for ICE if confirmed. So I would commit to make sure that we’re reviewing that very closely,” he said.
However, his stances on immigration enforcement appeared to earn him the support of several farther-right Republicans who generally have opposed President Joe Biden’s Homeland Security nominees. His positions also indicate Gonzalez would be unlikely to depart significantly from the immigration enforcement postures of past presidential administrations.
When further pressed by Republican senators on his enforcement priorities, Gonzalez stressed the importance of prioritizing immigrants with serious criminal convictions for deportation. He added that reports of ICE agents being denied permission to arrest people with convictions under the Biden administration’s enforcement guidelines are “concerning.”
Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., who voted against Biden’s picks to serve as Homeland Security’s deputy secretary and as its director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, said he was “heartened by what I’ve heard so far.”
“I appreciate your answers, sheriff. I think they do put you in significant tension with this administration’s policies. I’m personally fine with that. I hope that you’ll go and enforce the law vigorously,” Hawley said.
Gonzalez sparked quick opposition from more liberal immigrant advocates who oppose increasing local cooperation with ICE and expanding detention.
“Gonzalez seemed more interested in placating anti-immigrant politicians on the committee than laying out a vision for reform,” Naureen Shah, senior policy counsel at the American Civil Liberties Union, said in a statement after the hearing.
“This was a huge missed opportunity to make it clear to immigrant families and communities that the Biden administration is truly committed to making a decisive break from the Trump administration’s racist and anti-immigrant policies.”