By Iona Volynets
The Biden administration has brought a flurry of changes to American immigration policy in the past year. These changes have been broad, but some of the most significant ones will come as President Biden appoints the leaders of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and Customs and Border Patrol (CBP). His nominees for these positions point to many future changes within these institutions.
Ed Gonzalez, former sheriff of Harris County, Texas, is President Biden’s nominee to lead Immigration and Customs Enforcement. His confirmation hearing was held July 15, but he has yet to take the position. Gonzalez’s record indicates that his leadership could set ICE on a new path.
Gonzalez earned a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice from the University of Houston. His law enforcement history includes 18 years with the Houston Police department, where he started as a civilian employee and eventually rose to sergeant. He served three terms on the Houston City Council and was appointed Mayor Pro-Tem in 2012.
While on the city council, Gonzalez served as the chair of the Public Safety & Homeland Security Committee, introducing initiatives to protect seniors from elder abuse, to fight human trafficking, reduce public safety risks of stray animals, protect cyclists and pedestrians, and protect online buyers and sellers from predators.
He was elected to his first term as sheriff of Harris County in 2016. During this time, he supported bail reform, created new rules to protect the constitutional rights of people who were arrested but not convicted, and emphasized care for the mentally ill.
Notably, he ended Harris County’s participation in the 287(g) program, which allows local law enforcement to collaborate with the federal government to enforce immigration law. However, he said he would not terminate the program on the national level, explaining that he withdrew from the program because it was costly to the local sheriff’s office.
Gonzalez engaged in several other reforms, including ending a system in which the county charged incarcerated people exorbitant rates for everyday items, pushing his office to arrest fewer people and hold them for less time, and launching a “cite and release” program. This led The Appeal to call him “one of the most reform-minded sheriffs in America” in 2020.
During his Senate confirmation hearing, Gonzalez made several statements of note. He repeatedly called public safety his “North Star” and emphasized that he would take whatever measures best protected communities. He also emphasized that he would prioritize finding and apprehending undocumented migrants who had histories of violent crime or who otherwise posed a threat to communities, but would not consider targeting all undocumented immigrants a priority. He believes ICE has limited resources, and so it is important to not treat every immigration case as equally important.
During his hearing, Gonzalez was asked if he was concerned that many of the children crossing the border are teenage boys which, according to the questioning senator, meets the description of a gang member. In response, Gonzalez said he is always mindful not to profile, and that it is important to remember these individuals are still teenagers. He said he would focus on criminal networks, not children.
In 2017, Texas passed SB4, an anti-sanctuary city law. Gonzalez and a fellow Texas sheriff, Lupe Valdez, wrote an op-ed speaking out against the bill. They wrote that locally elected leaders know the needs of their communities better than state and national leaders, and that having this statewide bill could undermine local law enforcement needs.
They also stated that it would make localities pay for a federal program, his same concern with the 287(g) system. Gonzalez and Valdez emphasized that immigrants who have already entered the United States are significantly less likely to commit crimes and pointed to FBI statistics that show that “sanctuary” cities have lower rates of crime.
In Gonzalez’s own words to Ballotpedia, his top three priorities as Harris County sheriff were “1. Working every day to keep Harris County seniors, families, and children safe, 2…. Advancing reforms to our criminal justice system to ensure that everyone is treated equally under the law, and 3… Reforming the office to make it more efficient by controlling costs and eliminating waste.”
Many were not happy with Gonzalez’ confirmation. Tom Homan, former director of ICE, said he was the wrong pick. Homan claimed Gonzalez’s running the agency would render it inert without disbanding it. On the other end of the spectrum, the ACLU criticized his unwillingness to end the 287(g) program on the national level, that he was not interested in laying out a vision for reform and did not have a plan for addressing ICE’s systemic abuses of power.
Another important Biden nominee is Chris Magnus, who may lead Customs and Border Enforcement. Magnus began his career as a paramedic in Michigan. In 1985, he became a police officer at the Livingston County Sheriff’s Department, where he spent the next 15 years. After becoming a deputy sheriff in the Livingston Sheriff’s Department he went on to be police chief in Fargo, North Dakota, Richmond, California, and Tucson, Arizona.
During his tenures in these positions, Magnus introduced several reforms. In Fargo, he implemented the first two-state regional dispatch system in the nation, a forensic children’s interview center, and a refugee liaison program. In Richmond, he strengthened community ties with the police department and lowered both violent and property crime.
In his current position in Tuscon, Magnus is continuing to improve services for victims of domestic and sexual violence, addressing community correction issues, focusing on mental illness, and supporting youth programs and activities. He also created de-escalation training, sentinel event review processes, and programs to promote police officers’ health and wellness.
Magnus has spoken out about immigration policy before, writing an op-ed critical of Trump-era immigration policies. He stated that he was “deeply troubled” by the Trump administration’s campaign against “sanctuary cities”, explaining that crackdowns on immigrants make them less likely to cooperate with police or report crimes. He also spoke out against then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions dictating how local police agencies interacted with their undocumented immigrant populations.
On the Tucson PD page, Magnus stated that “entangling local policing with additional immigration enforcement responsibilities would seriously compromise [the police force’s] ability to maintain the trust and support of [their] diverse community.” In response to SB4, he assured residents of Tucson that the Police Department’s policies would not change.
Magnus also has a history of interactions with CBP. His opposition to cooperating with federal immigration authorities has placed him at odds with the Border Patrol Union, some of whom would potentially be under his command as head of CBP.
According to three current and former CBP officials, relations between Magnus and Border Control have been frosty. In a 2018 Facebook post, the Border Patrol’s union officials called him “an ultraliberal social engineer who was given a badge and a gun” by the city of Tucson. In contrast, Gil Kerlikowske, CBP commissioner during Obama’s second term, praised Magnus’ selection.
Gonzalez and Magnus have much in common — both think most decisions about immigration policy should be left to local law enforcement and worry about the expenditure of local funds on the federal government’s behalf. They also share a belief in prioritizing finding undocumented immigrants who pose a threat to local communities, and worry that intense crackdowns could lead undocumented victims or witnesses of crime to distrust their police departments.
Because of this, their appointments could lead to a federal immigration system that leaves more flexibility to localities, does not emphasize programs (like the 287(g)) that spend local resources on federal goals, and targets undocumented immigrants who commit violent crimes rather than actively seeking to deport all undocumented immigrants.
Both Gonzalez and Magnus appear to value creating trusting relationships between communities and local law enforcement, a belief which could heavily influence their decisions at the federal level. And if their policies reflect their rhetoric, they could be highly influential in American foreign policy as well as in immigration policy.
Their decisions might transform relations between the US and countries where many of the US’s undocumented immigrants tend to come from. For those interested in immigration and American foreign politics, Chris Magnus and Ed Gonzalez are men to keep an eye on.
Iona Volynets is a writer for the Review. She studies International Relations and History at Syracuse University.