U.S. Senators questioned Harris County Sheriff Ed Gonzalez in a confirmation hearing Thursday morning to determine his qualifications to lead U.S. Immigration Customs and Enforcement.
The sheriff fielded a wide range of questions during the 2-hour hearing regarding his approach to managing the large and controversial agency.
Some harped on Gonzalez’ prior stances on his department’s cooperation with ICE — most notably his 2017 decision to end the county’s cooperation with the agency to have local deputies serve as immigration officers, a program known as 287(g).
When asked about his previous stance on the 287(g) program, Gonzalez said his decision to terminate the agreement was based on budgetary concerns at the sheriff’s office. He also pointed to the fact that it was a voluntary program.
U.S. Senator Rob Portman, R-Ohio, asked Gonzalez whether he intended to end the program nationwide if confirmed.
“You didn’t want it in your own county, would you want to terminate that program?” Portman asked.
“That would not be my intent,” Gonzalez responded.
Despite ending the program in Harris County, Gonzalez said the federal agency has always maintained a presence in the Harris County jail and added that his department has continued to collaborate with ICE.
Portman also expressed concern about whether it would be appropriate for Gonzalez to lead an agency that he’s been critical of in the past.
Gonzalez was an outspoken critic of former President Donald Trump’s hardline immigration policies. In 2019, Gonzalez tweeted that “diverting valuable law enforcement resources away from public safety threats would drive undocumented families further into the shadows.”
Gonzalez explained that he believed a balance between public safety and immigration enforcement was needed and said his time as Harris County’s sheriff showed him the importance of prioritizing resources.
“It’s important for us to be strategic and be thoughtful in our enforcement,” Gonzalez said. “It’s a matter of looking at the totality of circumstances.”
Some questions focused on border crossings and U.S. Customs and Border Protection — a government agency that is not under the purview of ICE. Gonzalez was grilled by U.S. Senator Ron Johnson, R-Wisconsin, who suggested that unaccompanied Central American minors arriving at the U.S. border, who are often teenage males, are contributing to drug crimes and human trafficking in U.S. cities.
“I’m always mindful of not profiling and developing these stereotypes in my work,” Gonzalez said in response. “At the end of the day, they’re still teens.”
Instead, Gonzalez shifted the blame to international criminal networks that are “manipulating the immigration system to take advantage of these individuals.”
Questions also touched on the low number of deportations conducted by ICE since Biden took office earlier this year. The agency deported 2,962 people in April — the first time the monthly figure dipped below 3,000, according to The Washington Post.
U.S. Senator Josh Hawley, R-Missouri, accused the Biden administration of failing to detain undocumented people who have committed violent crimes.
“I would like to see more data to see what other factors may have played into that,” Gonzalez said. “It is concerning, so I would make sure…that we’re being strategic and we’re prioritizing properly (so) we can go after those individuals that pose the greatest threat to our communities.”
Gonzalez was also asked about the mistreatment of migrants within ICE detention centers run by private contractors. U.S. Senator Jacky Rosen, D-Nevada, pointed to reports of forced medical procedures in a Georgia facility. Additionally, several detainees have spoken out against the lack of COVID-19 precautions inside ICE facilities, and a national report from the ACLU found a pattern of retaliation against hunger strikers within detention centers.
Gonzalez said mistreatment of detainees is not aligned with the vision he had for the agency.
“The health and safety of our facilities is paramount,” Gonzalez said. “I would want to understand what oversight and safeguards are in place to make sure that there are certain standards that are being met.”
The U.S. Senate will likely decide whether to confirm Gonzalez in the coming weeks.