After four years and a rotating cast of temporary leaders, Immigration and Customs Enforcement is inching toward a confirmed head to helm the agency, which came under mounting scrutiny during the Trump administration and continues to face criticism from immigrant advocates.
On Thursday, President Joe Biden’s pick for ICE director, Ed Gonzalez, will testify before the Senate Homeland Security Committee, in a step toward possible confirmation. The last time the agency came close to permanent leadership was 2019, with the appointment of Ron Vitiello. Vitiello’s nomination was unexpectedly yanked by then-President Donald Trump and consistent turnover followed.
ICE, which is currently led by career official Tae Johnson, ultimately never had a Senate-confirmed director during the four years of the Trump administration.
Since Biden took office, ICE has stayed at the center of some of the administration’s policy changes. The agency changed its immigration enforcement guidelines and issued new guidance that states women known to be pregnant or nursing should not be detained, arrested or taken into custody unless release is prohibited.
Gonzalez, who was elected sheriff of Harris County in 2016, has a decades-long career in law enforcement, according to his biography. He has met with key representatives in ICE, including Johnson, to talk about the state of the agency, according to a Department of Homeland Security official. There’s a “degree of excitement over his possible arrival very soon,” the official said, noting that the Houston Police Department has worked closely with ICE, particularly on financial crimes and intellectual property issues.
The agency’s immigration mission, though, is likely to stay in the spotlight as the Biden administration tries to chart a new path and reverse the hardline policies put in place under Trump.
For example, officials have already been quietly soliciting information about trying to make sure migrants appear for their court dates once they’re let into the US by offering a range of services, according to a post on a federal contracting website.
The solicitation is indicative of the administration’s interest in moving away from detention and setting up alternatives that still ensure immigrants attend their court dates – a move welcomed by advocates. This comes as the administration braces for the anticipated easing of pandemic-related border restrictions.
“From the immigration advocacy space, we have long campaigned the idea that these families deserve a humane dignified approach which doesn’t involve mass incarceration,” said Krish O’Mara Vignarajah, Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service president and CEO.
In 2016, ICE launched a pilot initiative to provide services to “non-dangerous, low-flight-risk” migrant families as they worked their way through the immigration system. A “Request for Information” recently posted by ICE seeks information on similar services, including confirming enrollment in school for school-aged children, trafficking and safety screenings, and providing age-appropriate and culturally sensitive services.
In a statement to CNN, ICE underscored that the “Request for Information” is solely for information and planning purposes.
Ahead of Gonzalez’s hearing Thursday, immigrant advocates made clear their expectations of him, if confirmed.
“The Biden administration has a mandate to transform ICE, and that requires the new ICE director to make bold moves,” American Civil Liberties Union Senior Policy Counsel Naureen Shah said in a statement. “New leadership must thoroughly reorient the agency to prioritize the dignity of immigrants and ensure accountability for human rights violations committed by ICE personnel.”
In addition to ICE, US Citizenship and Immigration Services and US Customs and Border Protection have been operating under acting leadership, until those selected to lead are confirmed by the Senate.
Ur Jaddou, who was selected to serve as Citizenship and Immigration Services director, already had her hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee and was voted on favorably. She’s now on the Senate executive calendar for a final confirmation vote. Jaddou was formerly chief counsel at the agency under President Barack Obama and led the Biden-Harris DHS transition review team.
But still missing on the calendar is Tucson, Arizona, Police Chief Chris Magnus, whom Biden nominated to head Customs and Border Protection. The agency, currently helmed by acting Commissioner Troy Miller, was confronted with an increase of migrants at the US-Mexico border this year that led to overcrowded facilities and unaccompanied children staying in custody for prolonged periods.
CNN’s Geneva Sands contributed to this report.