Meet the Sheriff and Police Chief Tapped to Lead ICE and Border Patrol

Ed Gonzalez, the sheriff of Harris County, Texas, and Chris Magnus, Tucson’s police chief, would be responsible for delivering on President Biden’s promise to return compassion to the immigration system.,

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WASHINGTON — Ed Gonzalez, the 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, the police chief in Tucson, Ariz., 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 — Sheriff Gonzalez at ICE and Chief Magnus at Customs and Border Protection — they would be responsible for delivering on President Biden’s promise to return compassion to the immigration system after the roundups, zero tolerance, wall-building and family separations of the last administration.

Sheriff Gonzalez’s confirmation hearing, before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, is set for Thursday. A hearing for Chief Magnus has not yet been scheduled. But in a reminder of how charged the immigration issue has already become for Mr. Biden, Senator James Lankford, an Oklahoma Republican, 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 Sheriff Gonzalez and Chief 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 C.B.P. and immigrant communities,” said Shaina Aber, the 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, the president of the Border Patrol union, suggested that Chief Magnus, who loudly criticized the Trump administration’s policies, was sympathetic to people who enter the United States without documentation. “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 Sheriff Gonzalez’s nomination.

The sheriff, whose tenure in Harris County, which includes Houston, began weeks before Donald J. 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, Chief 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 undocumented immigrants brought to the country illegally as children.

Some pro-immigration activists in Tucson are equally skeptical of Chief Magnus. After a 2017 protest against Mr. 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 the police when she reached down to help her. At the time, Chief 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 Chief Magnus and Sheriff Gonzalez to using local law enforcement to enforce federal immigration law is a sharp departure from the past four years, when Mr. Trump often threatened to cut off federal funding to cities that did not assist in his crackdowns.

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Chris Magnus, the police chief in Tucson, Ariz., has taken pride in his city’s boast of “being welcoming to immigrants.”Credit…Mamta Popat/Arizona Daily Star, via Associated Press

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

And the secretary of homeland security, Alejandro N. 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 Y. 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.”

If anything, liberal groups appear ready to impose unrealistic demands on Mr. Biden’s nominees for ICE and Customs and Border Protection, using the loftiest of language to lay down their visions.

“The entire federal immigration system must be reimagined to lead with the concept that migration is a human right, and a commitment to replace the deportation-centric immigration system with one that embraces equity, diversity and fairness,” said Laura Pena, a lawyer with the Texas Civil Rights Project.

Customs and Border Protection and ICE were at the center of some of the most contentious policies under the Trump administration, accused of racial profiling, excessive force and inhumanely handling people in custody. The agencies were among a dozen Mr. Trump turned to last summer in his bid to “dominate” demonstrators protesting police brutality.

Those are also issues Chief Magnus and Sheriff Gonzalez have faced in their own departments.

Last year, Chief Magnus offered to resign after two Latino men died in his department’s custody. One of the men was naked, handcuffed and face down on the ground, and said he could not breathe. When the mayor refused to review the department’s practices, the chief brought in an outside group to do so. Some groups have criticized Chief Magnus’s handling of the situation, saying he took too long to release relevant footage.

Sheriff Gonzalez, in 2018, fired a deputy who shot and killed an unarmed man, which violated the department’s policy on use of force.

“You’ve got two really innovative police executives who have been tested and know what the challenge of changing organizations and culture — they’ve been there,” said Chuck Wexler, the executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum.

Even Mr. Judd, the Border Patrol union chief, said some cultural change was necessary. In 2019, a group of Customs and Border Protection employees, including the chief of Border Patrol, participated in private Facebook groups and other social media platforms with posts that included obscene images of Hispanic lawmakers as well as threats to members of Congress.

Mr. Biden has unveiled an immigration overhaul that Democrats introduced in the House in February. The proposal adds a path to citizenship for most of the 11 million undocumented immigrants living in the United States. But it does not include a significant focus on increasing border security, which is a departure from previous bills. It faces an almost impossible climb in the evenly divided Senate, where at least 10 Republican votes would be needed for passage.

Mr. Trump has largely united his party behind his punitive hard-line approach, and since Mr. Biden took office, congressional Republicans have tirelessly charged that the situation at the border is out of control.

With the parties in Congress in no mood to cooperate on legislation, it will be up to the chiefs of the immigration enforcement agencies to lead any changes. And that will mean navigating very conflicting demands.

According to ICE data, arrests are down about 65 percent. There have been just over 13,000 arrests from February through June, compared with nearly 40,000 over the same period in 2020. The pandemic has had a significant effect on the situation. In April 2020, ICE arrested 5,792, which was a 44 percent decrease from a month earlier.

The decrease this year can also be attributed to Mr. Biden’s guidance requiring ICE to focus on violent offenders. The average daily population in its detention facilities, however, has increased in recent months, as more migrants have arrived at the southwestern border.

Liberals in Congress have also denounced the Biden administration’s enforcement priorities, arguing, for instance, that its definition of a public safety risk — anyone convicted of an aggravated felony — is “a relic of the racist war on drugs.”

“Immigration enforcement is inherently problematic in this country,” Mr. Wexler said. “The work force has heard different messages over the years, and certainly, coming on the heels of the Trump administration, there’s going to have to be finding the right balance.”

Kitty Bennett contributed research.

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