Biden’s nominees to lead ICE and Border Patrol signal sharp departure from Trump era

By Eileen Sullivan

Ed Gonzalez, sheriff of Harris County, in Texas, made ending a partnership with Immigration and Customs Enforcement one of his first decisions on the job because, he said, the program encouraged “illegal racial profiling.”

Chris Magnus, police chief in Tucson, Arizona, has taken pride in his city’s boast of “being welcoming to immigrants.” It is also home to one of the busiest sectors of the Border Patrol, an agency that is rarely praised for its hospitality.

The two men have been tapped to run the federal government’s immigration enforcement agencies, an abrupt shift from rough-justice immigration chiefs in the Trump administration. If they are confirmed by the Senate — Gonzalez at ICE and Magnus at Customs and Border Protection — they would be responsible for delivering on President Joe Biden’s promise to return compassion to the immigration system after the roundups, zero tolerance, wall-building and family separations of the last administration.

Gonzalez’s confirmation hearing, before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, was set for Thursday. A hearing for Magnus has not been scheduled. But in a reminder of how charged the immigration issue has already become for Biden, Sen. James Lankford, R-Okla., said Tuesday that he had placed a hold on both nominations until “we can actually get the Biden administration to lay out what their policy is going to be, and what they’re going to do to be able to actually enforce the law” regarding immigration.

The local law enforcement backgrounds of the nominees would bring a new perspective as Americans demand changes in how the police treat communities of color. But it could also become their greatest challenge, as Gonzalez and Magnus try to gain the trust of agencies they have interacted with as distinct outsiders. Local law enforcement leaders tend to see working with their communities as a paramount responsibility. Federal law enforcement has rarely operated that way.

“The job of local law enforcement is pretty significantly different from the role that these immigration enforcement policing agencies play, in part because there’s no way to build trust between ICE and CBP and immigrant communities,” said Shaina Aber, deputy director of the Center on Immigration and Justice at the Vera Institute of Justice in New York. ICE and the Border Patrol, she added, “really start with this kind of specious notion of immigrant guilt.”

Within the ranks of immigration law enforcement, officers are already wary. Brandon Judd, president of the Border Patrol union, suggested that Magnus, who loudly criticized the Trump administration’s policies, was sympathetic to people who enter the United States without legal permission. “That’s a concern,” he said.

And anti-immigrant groups are girding for a fight. “In the midst of the current border crisis, ICE needs a strong leader at the helm — not an open-borders apologist opposed to the enforcement of our immigration laws,” Preston Huennekens, a government relations manager for the Federation for American Immigration Reform, said of Gonzalez’s nomination.

The sheriff, whose tenure in Harris County, which includes Houston, began weeks before Donald Trump’s inauguration, is no stranger to ICE, an agency that makes a lot of arrests in the area. In 2019, he shared his objections to raids conducted by ICE agents and made clear his department did not participate in them. “I do not support #ICERaids that threaten to deport millions of undocumented immigrants, the vast majority of whom do not represent a threat to the U.S.,” he posted on Twitter. “The focus should always be on clear & immediate safety threats. Not others who are not threats.”

In Tucson, Magnus limited the reach of the federal immigration authorities by narrowing the scope of the situations deemed appropriate for one of his officers to call ICE or Border Patrol.

But if conservatives are leery of the nominees, local immigrant groups are skeptical of their good-cop images.

“Our communities in Texas have witnessed firsthand how Sheriff Gonzalez has worked with ICE to transfer immigrants to ICE detention facilities and perpetuated the pain and trauma of our communities,” said Norma Gonzalez, a lead organizer in Texas for United We Dream, which represents young immigrants brought to the U.S. illegally as children.

Some pro-immigration activists in Tucson are equally skeptical of Magnus. After a 2017 protest against Trump’s immigration policies, a video of a Tucson police officer pushing an 86-year-old woman went viral. Another woman, in her 60s, was pepper-sprayed by police when she reached down to help her. At the time, Magnus said his officers managed the situation, which he described as a peaceful protest that escalated to “a safety and logistical challenge.”

Still, the outspoken opposition of Magnus and Gonzalez to using local law enforcement to enforce federal immigration law is a sharp departure from the past four years, when Trump often threatened to cut off federal funding to cities that did not assist in his crackdowns.

The Trump administration sought to expand a program, created in a 1996 law, that teamed federal immigration agencies with local law enforcement. Biden has said he did not believe that local police should turn over immigrants living in the U.S. illegally to ICE to be deported.

Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas has started a review of such agreements. In May, he ended agreements with two county jails, in Georgia and Massachusetts, which had been under investigation over whether they had mistreated immigrant prisoners. Other agreements could also be terminated in the coming months.

“For several decades now, immigrant leaders have been demanding total disentanglement of local law enforcement with federal immigration enforcement,” said Simon Sandoval-Moshenberg, a lawyer with the Legal Aid Justice Center. “I think the nomination of these two individuals gives a lot of people hope that we might actually see some real concrete action on that front.”

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