Earlier this month, President Biden nominated Ed Gonzalez, a progressive sheriff with a track record of resisting ICE raids in Harris County, Texas. If confirmed, Ed Gonzalez is seen by many Democrats as a chance to reform the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency, which came under flack during the Trump administration when news broke that the agency was taking children from their families and locking them up in detention camps. But is a progressive head of ICE enough to end the inhumane practices of the agency?
Who Is Ed Gonzalez?
Ed Gonzalez’s career achievements and approach to policing have certainly warranted the widespread belief that the Texas sheriff would run a more compassionate version of ICE if confirmed as its new director.
After serving 18 years in the Houston Police Department, Gonzalez turned to public office in 2009 when he ran for city council. He won and served three consecutive terms as a council member.
As a council member, he spearheaded an initiative to create public sobering centers—where Houstonians are given a clean, safe place to sober up under medical observation while connecting with addiction support and recovery resources—as an alternative to jailing those who are arrested for nonviolent drug or alcohol-related offenses.
The initiative was one of many that reflect Gonzalez’s understanding that, when it comes to addiction, mental health, and poverty, “we’re not going to incarcerate our way out of those issues.” In the same interview with National Partnership for Pretrial Justice, he went on to argue, “We’re trying to create more capacity so law enforcement and others can really focus on serious crime and that we’re basically not dealing with individuals simply that have an addiction or mental illness.”
When he became Harris County’s sheriff in 2016, he began quietly but diligently reforming the third largest sheriff department in the country with that vision as his driving principle.
To that end, he’s made sweeping and meaningful changes including instituting a cite and release program for most misdemeanor offenses so that people are ticketed rather than jailed for low-level, nonviolent crimes.
He also added “pre-book diversion desks” to police stations. These first-of-their-kind desks serve one purpose: to check the medical and criminal records of any person brought into the station to see if there’s a better way to help that person beyond just sticking them in a jail cell. Those brought in on, say, public intoxication, DUI charges or low-level drug offenses might be diverted to a sobering center or recovery center, for example.
What gained national attention, however, was his 2017 decision to end Harris County’s partnership with ICE. In effect, this meant that his officers would no longer enforce immigration laws on ICE’s behalf and would no longer investigate the immigration status of suspects they arrested or jailed.
Since that decision, he’s been vocal about his criticism of ICE raids as well as the practice of detaining children.
How Would ICE Change Under Ed Gonzalez?
During his confirmation hearing, Gonzalez came up against harsh lines of questioning from Republican senators as well as pressure from Democratic senators to commit to certain reforms. His answers remained largely diplomatic, likely reflecting his decades of experience being a comparatively progressive Democrat in a sea of hardline conservative sheriffs and police officers.
Due to his decision to remain diplomatic by avoiding definitive claims or promises, it was hard to get a read on any specific reforms we might expect under his leadership. Even so, we can glean some hints of what an Ed Gonzalez-led ICE might look like from some of his comments during the hearing.
For example, when confronted by Wisconsin Senator Johnson’s rambling and bigoted suggestion that many of the children coming across the border were actually teens and mostly boys—and therefore, must be gang members or drug mules, Gonzalez responded, “I’m always mindful of not profiling and stereotyping in my work.”
When Senator Johnson continued to press the issue, Gonzalez added, “At the end of the day, they’re still teenagers.”
While far from a firm commitment, these comments along with previous tweets condemning ICE raids and the detainment of children suggest that Gonzalez could end the practice of detaining people who have committed no crime other than being undocumented.
When Nevadan Senator Rosen asked about his views on private contracts to build and run detention centers, Gonzalez admitted that while he had temporarily relied on outsourcing to private contractors in Harris County, “It’s a practice I’m generally not in favor of.”
This suggests that we might at least see a reduction in the number of private contractors making a profit off of ICE’s aggressive immigrant detention policies. However, he fell short of giving any concrete measures he would take to either end or reform ICE’s contracting process.
Ultimately, we can’t say for sure what Ed Gonzalez would do but the root of this issue is not how much reform would Gonzalez bring to ICE but whether or not ICE can be reformed at all. The agency’s dubious origins and dark legacy call to question whether it’s even possible to reshape it into something compassionate and effective.
The Origins and History of ICE
The U.S Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency was formed in 2003, under the Bush administration as part of the larger formation of the Department of Homeland Security. Before that, the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) handled the bulk of immigration enforcement.
Almost immediately after its formation, agencies and officials across the government have questioned its existence and found little reason for ICE to have been created at all. The conservative think tank, Heritage Foundation, for example, recommended merging ICE into the already-existing agencies it overlapped with because the redundant agency was an unnecessary added expense that only worked to confuse the chain of command or jurisdiction of particular cases.
Even the Department of Homeland Security, which ICE is a part of, released a report from its inspector general two years after ICE was formed stating that it could find no justification for ICE’s existence.
Too Big to Control
More concerning, the same report found, was the agency’s size. In early proposals for creating ICE, the functions of the INS were to be separated into two distinct agencies: the Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agency and ICE. CBP would apprehend people while ICE would detain and deport them.
An independent agency just for detaining and deporting undocumented migrants was unjustifiable, though. The added cost of staffing an independent agency combined with the middle management required to coordinate ICE’s detention and deportation efforts with CBP’s apprehension efforts was expensive and, really, not at all necessary.
In a decision that many interviewed for the inspector general’s report saw as a move to justify the creation of the agency, ICE was bulked up. Operations from other government agencies were repackaged into ICE until it was a big enough organization to justify its existence as a distinct agency.
This “sizing up,” as the report calls it, effectively created a single border security agency that handled everything from criminal investigations to health inspections. Department officials worried that this gave the agency a “span of control too large” and would make it too autonomous and unwieldy.
Despite these concerns, Congress continued to increase ICE’s funding and to support the construction of more and more detention centers. Today, ICE runs 200 detention centers, jails, and prisons across the United States. Most are privately run by for-profit companies.
American Taxpayers Are Paying Private Contractors With Little Oversight
Over 81% of detainees are held in privately-run immigration prisons. Two of ICE’s largest private contracts are with GEO Group and CoreCivic who were paid $541 million and $444 million in taxpayer dollars respectively in 2017 alone.
Not only do these private contractors make millions on detaining human beings, they are subject to little oversight as ICE has no unified, legally codified standards for how these facilities should be maintained and how detainees should be treated.
The agency has not created any unified standards because it does not care about the wellbeing of the thousands of people it detains. Its proved time and again that it does not take inspections seriously.
In 2009, when Congress demanded ICE end contracts with any facility that failed two inspections in a row, ICE responded by giving facilities 100% pass rates on all inspections. To date, not one detention center has been closed due to failed inspections since Congress implemented the new rule.
ICE’s lack of oversight and lack of concern for improving oversight has led to reports of medical neglect, substandard quality of food, poor hygiene standards, and abuse from guards and management at the facilities.
In one horrific case, a whistleblower at Irwin County Detention Center in Georgia filed a complaint against the center for allowing the doctor to perform sterilization procedures on detained women without their knowledge or consent. This was in addition to a general neglect of the detainees’ medical needs including shredding medical requests, fabricating medical records, unsanitary conditions, requiring employees with symptoms of COVID-19 to continue working with patients, and responding to detainees who complained about any of these issues by putting them in solitary confinement.
In 2017, CIVIC, an immigration advocacy and support initiative, filed a complaint with the Department of Homeland Security citing widespread sexual abuse across ICE detention centers and an inexcusable lack of concern from ICE investigators responsible for handling sexual abuse complaints.
Through FOIA requests, CIVIC found that between 2010 and 2016, over 33,000 complaints of sexual assault or physical abuse in immigration detention were received. The top five facilities with the most complaints were all privately-run.
This constant flood of complaints has created a backlog of cases, slowing down response times and leading to long waits for victims. Rather than address that backlog, however, ICE simply closes requests arbitrarily every September to clear them out.
Blatant Disregard for Congressional Orders
Each time Congress has attempted to reign in the agency, ICE has been uncooperative and unresponsive. It ignores congressional requests for reports, fails to complete regular reviews of its budget or operations, ignores public disclosure requirements and other basic transparency requirements, and ignores basic standards.
Among the requirements the agency regularly ignores is an immigrant’s right to counsel. While a legal loophole has removed their right to have counsel provided for them, immigrants in detention lack even the option to pay for their own legal counsel. A study found that just 37% of immigrants were able to get legal representation for their removal cases. For immigrants held in detention, that rate was just 14%.
Another investigation found that ICE regularly inflates the cost of operational needs by providing falsified financial reports, inflating the costs, or even conducting massive immigrant round-ups at the end of the year in order to inflate the number of people it detains in time to submit its year-end budget request.
In addition to wildly inaccurate budget records and cost estimates, ICE regularly overspends its budget for the year, takes money from other agencies, and requests mid-year bailouts from Congress to cover the budget shortfall.
Despite its blatant disregard for accountability and oversight and despite a track record of falsifying its budgets and artificially inflating its cost, Congress continues to approve both the ever-increasing annual budget requests and the mid-year bailouts or fund transfers from other agencies.
Don’t Reform ICE, Abolish It
It would be easy to pin the horrific abuses of human rights perpetrated or permitted by ICE on the Trump administration and say that the agency became this monstrous because that administration shaped it that way. If that were the case, reform might be a realistic path to take.
However, these issues date back to the earliest days of ICE. From the moment the agency was formed, it was given almost free reign to do whatever it wanted and to operate with little accountability to any other department.
Can you reform an agency that, from its beginning, has expressed so little regard not only for the human beings it detains and deports but for the very rule of law it purports to protect? Can you reform an agency that, so far, has subverted every effort to make it more accountable?
Gonzalez may take the helm with the best of intentions but there is little reason to believe that any reformer could fix an agency that is broken at these most fundamental levels.