Former Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo admitted he was surprised when he heard the news that his old colleague Harris County Sheriff Ed Gonzalez had been nominated by President Joe Biden to lead U.S. Customs and Immigration Enforcement.
Not that Gonzalez was chosen for the role, but that he accepted the nomination.
“I chuckled, ‘Man, did he get hit in the head?’ That’s a thankless job, probably one of the toughest jobs in the federal government,” Acevedo said in an interview by phone Thursday from his new office in Miami.
Created in 2002, ICE has been maligned over the years by conservatives for not doing enough to curb illegal immigration and by the left for deporting too many immigrants. During former President Donald Trump’s administration, progressive activists even called for ICE to be disbanded, a request moderate Democrats like Biden have rejected.
Gonzalez, a Democrat and longtime HPD veteran who served three terms on Houston’s City Council, publicly pushed back against harsh immigration policies during his tenure as Harris County Sheriff after he was first elected in 2016. Although his sheriff’s office didn’t cut off all cooperation with ICE, Gonzalez decried Trump’s decision to crack-down on illegal immigration, and instructed his officers not to proactively ask about the immigration status of suspected criminals.
Once he took office in 2017, Gonzalez ordered the county sheriff’s office to quit participating in ICE’s 287(g) program, through which county officers would voluntarily screen the immigration status of inmates at Harris County Jail and then issue detainers for suspected undocumented immigrants to keep them in custody and flag them for deportation by ICE.
Gonzalez was praised by local immigrant rights groups for pulling out of the program at the time, but the county sheriff’s office still honored detainer requests that came from ICE itself under his watch, even before the Texas Legislature passed a law that made it illegal for law enforcement officers to not assist ICE when asked.
A vocal Trump critic, Gonzalez spoke out against the former president’s decision to direct ICE to more aggressively enforce immigration laws against undocumented immigrants who were living in the United States peacefully.
“I do not support ICE raids that threaten to deport millions of undocumented immigrants, the vast majority of whom do not represent a threat to the U.S.,” Gonzalez wrote in a 2019 Facebook post, arguing that ICE’s focus “should always be on clear & immediate safety threats.”
Jokes about head trauma aside, Acevedo thinks Gonzalez is uniquely qualified to be ICE’s new director, and said he was glad Gonzalez was recognized for his work leading the third largest sheriff’s office in the country.
“He’s a relationship builder. He tries to build bridges, tries to bring people together and tries to build consensus,” Acevedo said of Gonzalez, traits that would come in handy leading such a divisive agency in a polarized Washington, D.C.
Acevedo, who admitted he “contemplated a federal position” before accepting the Miami Police Chief job in March, told the Houston Press he hadn’t been offered the ICE Director job himself. But he did reveal he spoke with the Biden administration about leading the U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency or the U.S. Justice Department’s Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.
“We talked about another role, and that was the Customs and Border Protection, Commissioner of Customs and Border Protection. And there was some talk about the ATF Director [role],” Acevedo said. He claimed he turned down the national positions because “the greatest challenge during this time in our nation’s history” is still local policing. “That’s really where my heart’s at.”
Like Acevedo, Texas Democratic Party Chair Gilberto Hinojosa praised Gonzalez’s appointment in a statement Thursday. “Ed’s approach towards immigration enforcement lines up perfectly with the Biden administration’s belief that immigration enforcement should not focus on deporting immigrants who pose little threat to the community,” Hinojosa wrote. “It is this courage and leadership that we need to help make our communities safer and protect the most vulnerable among us.”
State and national Republicans, including Texas’ U.S. Senators John Cornyn and Ted Cruz, have so far stayed mum on Gonzalez’s appointment, which will have to be approved by the U.S. Senate. Even if Republicans decide to oppose Gonzalez, he could still be approved with a simple majority of senators. Although the Senate is split 50-50 between Democrats and Republicans, Democrats have a tie-breaking vote thanks to Vice President Kamala Harris.
Acevedo said that after he called Gonzalez to congratulate him, he told the sheriff “If in fact you do get confirmed as the ICE director, remember that violent crime is up across the country.”
He encouraged Gonzalez to “focus your very limited resources on going after bad actors and dangerous people, instead of day laborers.”