President Joe Biden announced Tuesday that he will nominate Harris County Sheriff Ed Gonzalez, a vocal skeptic of cooperating with federal immigration authorities in certain circumstances, to serve as director of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
As head of ICE, Gonzalez would help oversee one of the most contentious parts of Biden’s agenda: enforcing U.S. immigration law. Biden has promised to unwind much of predecessor Donald Trump’s hardline border policies.
Gonzalez is a former Houston police officer who served on the City Council before first getting elected sheriff in 2016. He won a second four-year term in 2020. During his first term, he was a vocal critic of Trump’s approach to immigration.
In 2019, when Trump tweeted that his administration would be deporting “millions of illegal aliens,” Gonzalez posted on Facebook that the “vast majority” of undocumented immigrants do not proposed a threat to the U.S. and should not be deported.
“The focus should always be on clear & immediate safety threats,” he said.
And soon after taking office, Gonzalez ended a Harris County partnership with ICE that trained 10 deputies to specifically screen jailed individuals for immigration status and hold any selected for deportation. According to the Houston Chronicle, cutting the program still meant Harris County would hold inmates for deportation regardless of their charge, but only if ICE officials themselves made the request. According to a 2020 report by Houston Immigration Legal Services Collaborative, ICE responded to the program’s cancelation by stationing nine ICE officers in the jail, who continued to screen and detain Harris County residents.
The program ended in late February of 2017, but between Jan. 20 and May 4 of that year, the number of people transferred into ICE custody from Harris County was 60% higher than it was for the same period in 2016. TRAC, a federal agency research center run by Syracuse University, found that Harris County received the most ICE immigration holds in both fiscal year 2018 and 2019, but it’s unclear how many resulted in deportations. The HILSC report estimated that ICE physically deported 6,612 Harris County residents in 2018.
Syracuse University found that Harris County had the third most immigrants transferred to ICE from local law enforcement in fiscal year 2018, in large part due to fingerprint records shared under the Secure Communities program. Harris County is the third most populous county in the United States.
Gonzalez also vocally opposed 2017 legislation that would prevent cities from banning local law enforcement from asking about immigration status and would push civil fines and a misdemeanor offense on law enforcement who don’t comply with federal immigration enforcement.
In a letter to the Senate Committee on State Affairs, Gonzales opposed what supporters dubbed “anti-sanctuary city” legislation, saying it would take public safety resources away from addressing other local safety issues, such as human trafficking and murder.
“I am also concerned about the risk of an unintended consequence: creating a climate of fear and suspicion that could damage our efforts to reinforce trust between law enforcement and the communities we serve,” he wrote.
Let’s just say that ICE is an institution in need of some big, big reforms. I have a ton of faith in Sheriff Gonzalez, and I believe he is up to the challenge. He’s going to have his work cut out for him.
More from the Chron.
Lina Hidalgo, Harris County Judge, lauded the nomination and called Gonzalez her friend.
“I’ll be sad for him to leave us, but President Biden will gain a compassionate, thoughtful and courageous leader,” Hidalgo said in a tweet.
Under state law, Harris County Commissioners Court, which Hidalgo leads, is tasked with appointing Gonzalez’s replacement, who would then serve until the winning candidate from the November 2022 election is sworn in.
Gonzalez took office after defeating Republican Ron Hickman, his predecessor and a Commissioners Court appointee, in 2015 after former sheriff Adrian Garcia resigned to run unsuccessfully for Houston mayor.
Garcia, now a Commissioners Court member, would be among the county leaders to pick Gonzalez’s replacement.
“He brings with him such a wealth of experience — the wealth of experience coming from the fact that he is a long-time law enforcement leader,” Garcia said.
Past immigration enforcement leaders, Garcia said, have not brought that experience to the table.
Garcia pointed to Gonzalez’s decision to end a contested ICE partnership — known as 287G — in which some Harris County sheriff’s deputies were trained to perform the functions of federal immigration officers. Under the program, deputies were trained to determine the immigration status of jailed suspects and hold those selected for deportation.
Gonzalez said the sheriff’s office saved at least $675,000 by redeploying deputies to other law enforcement duties.
“I supported him in abolishing that policy,” Garcia said.
Immigrant advocates expressed guarded optimism to the Biden administration’s ICE choice, with FIEL Houston officials calling him a listener.
“We can attest to is the fact that he has been and continues to be a man who listens to and takes input from the community,” Cesar Espinosa, FIEL executive director, said in a statement. “We understand that the role he is about to undertake is a huge and controversial role and we wish him well in this endeavor.”
Regardless of who leads the law enforcement agency, Espinosa said he would like for ICE leadership to end immigration raids, the use of the 287G program elsewhere and stop forcing ankle monitors on those “who do not pose a flight risk.”
Ali Noorani, president of the National Immigration Forum, called Gonzalez a humane choice for ICE leadership.
“His proven track record of pushing for smarter immigration enforcement, as well as advocating for Dreamers in his community, is an encouraging sign that he would run ICE with both practicality and compassion,” she said.
César Cuauhtémoc García Hernández, a law professor at the University of Denver focused on immigration, noted Gonzalez’s “complicated history” with ICE, given his decision to end the controversial 287(g) agreement with the agency.
“It will be interesting to see how much that decision is reflected in his work as head of ICE assuming he confirmed by the senate,” he said.
He also noted that while Gonzalez, if confirmed, would take over a significantly larger agency, but would be accepting a role where he would no longer be the top decision maker or policy setter — and instead accept direction from the Biden White House or Department of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas.
True, but Sheriff Gonzalez was also a City Council member, so he has experience in not being the top person in the organization. He’ll do fine, as long as he has the resources and the mandate to do what needs to be done.
As for the local political implications, we may get a current Constable elevated to the Sheriff’s job, or we may get one of Gonzalez’s top assistants. I’m sure we’ll start hearing some names soon, and I expect Commissioners Court to fill the spot within a month or so of his departure. Which will not be until after he’s confirmed, so we’ll see how long that takes. Whatever the case, all the best wishes to Sheriff Gonzalez. We’ll miss you, but the country as a whole will be better off.
(The same press release also announced that former CD23 candidate Gina Ortiz Jones was nominated to be under secretary of the Air Force. She is highly qualified for that job, and I wish her all the best as well.)