Compassion isn’t the first word on the tip of anyone’s tongue when discussing U.S. immigration policy. But in tapping Harris County Sheriff Ed Gonzalez to head U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, President Biden has wisely selected a veteran lawman who knows when to be tough and when to be humane.
After years of controversy under President Trump, ICE needs serious, pragmatic reform from a solutions-minded leader. And that’s Gonzalez’s record as sheriff here in Harris County, one of the largest, most diverse counties in America where for decades immigration has been central to its success.
As sheriff, Gonzalez has taken responsibility for those in his care inside the largest jail in Texas, which bodes well for oversight of ICE detention centers that have been found to hold immigrants in substandard conditions and that have been hotbeds for infection during the pandemic.
First elected in 2016, Gonzalez was immediately tasked with improving conditions at the overcrowded Harris County Jail. He met that challenge.
Then, as the jail struggled with suicides, five in a two-year period, he implemented protocols that curtailed the problem. Last year, as COVID-19 ran rampant behind bars, he was at the forefront of efforts to reduce the jail population to improve safety.
Gonzalez has also led the way with initiatives such as “cite and release,” which seeks to reduce bookings by treating some misdemeanor charges, such as graffiti and driving with an invalid license, like court citations for speeding tickets. He was also one of the first local officials to back misdemeanor bail reform to ensure that people didn’t remain in jail simply because they couldn’t afford to post bond. The sheriff also made the Harris County jail the first in Texas to offer Vivitrol, a drug that helps curb opioid cravings and prevent relapses, as well as give departing inmates naloxone, which can reverse overdoses and save lives.
Gonzalez, who co-chairs the Law Enforcement Immigration Task Force, is no stranger to ICE or to being outspoken on immigration issues. He has been a strong proponent of “dreamers” and has often blasted the wrong-headed use of local law enforcement in detention and deportation of migrants, which undermines investigative work and makes immigrant communities fearful of authorities.
One of his first actions as sheriff was to end the county’s participation in the 287(g) program, which trained deputies to screen detainees for immigration status and hold them for deportation. The program is still in operation in more than 20 Texas counties.
If confirmed by the Senate, Gonzalez should consider ending it across the country.
Gonzalez would be a stark contrast to his predecessors under the previous administration — seven men, none of them confirmed by Congress — who were either placeholders or seemed to be in a race to the bottom to placate Trump’s hard-line approach to immigration.
While liberal calls to “abolish ICE” were always overblown, the agency’s credibility was damaged by having directors who publicly called for leaders in “sanctuary cities” to be charged with crimes, executed massive workplace raids that upended communities and targeted immigrant families for deportation.
Regardless of the best intentions, change will not be easy. Gonzalez will inherit an agency where much of its workforce is dedicated to arresting and deporting immigrants and which has been emboldened during the Trump years.
Still, he must show the kind of resolve that has served him well and work to reform and refocus the agency to target those immigrants who pose the largest risks to America, such as those whose felony convictions, connections to cartels or other factors make them higher priorities than immigrants who are only here looking for a better life.
“As law enforcement leaders, Sheriff Gonzalez’s track record is an encouraging indication of how he would run ICE — with a balance of security and compassion that makes everyone safer,” said his fellow Law Enforcement Immigration Task Force members. “We encourage the Senate to quickly confirm him.”