Wednesday, 17 Jul 2024

ICE Nominee Seeks Approval Against Democrats’ Demands to Abolish Agency

WASHINGTON — Ronald D. Vitiello’s overarching concern on Thursday at his Senate confirmation hearing may not be whether he becomes the next director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement — but whether the agency remains intact.

Mr. Vitiello is expected to face stiff opposition from at least some Democrats who have demanded that ICE be abolished for enforcing the Trump administration’s hard-line immigration policies.

The agency has become a political flash point for its role, which has included arresting, detaining and deporting thousands of undocumented migrants — many of whom have no criminal records. Photographs and videos of raids at worksites or of ICE agents arresting undocumented immigrants have incited a backlash.

Those who have worked with Mr. Vitiello, who has been the acting director of the agency since June, said he was a quiet and thoughtful leader willing to engage with people who have opposing opinions. If confirmed, he would be the Trump administration’s first permanent director of ICE.

Mr. Vitiello declined to comment for this article.

“His success will be that he has established a record as a nonpolitical law enforcement officer,” said R. Gil Kerlikowske, who was the commissioner of Customs and Border Protection during the Obama administration. “His decisions will be guided by what’s best from the law enforcement perspective, not politics.”

Among the persistent critics of ICE, Senator Kamala Harris, Democrat of California, who has frequently clashed with President Trump’s immigration officials, is likely to be one of the toughest questioners. Ms. Harris has voted against all of the administration’s nominees for positions at the Department of Homeland Security, the parent agency for ICE.

As part of her bid for Congress, Representative-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a self-described democratic socialist from New York, called for ICE to be abolished. The Democratic senators Kirsten Gillibrand of New York and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, considered potential 2020 presidential candidates, have joined Ms. Ocasio-Cortez and other Democrats in demanding that the agency be eliminated.

Legislation is also pending in the House to abolish ICE in a plan pushed by Democratic representatives including Mark Pocan of Wisconsin and Pramila Jayapal of Washington State.

ICE officials said Mr. Vitiello met with senators of both parties in recent months and, according to one congressional staff member, impressed some of them. As the acting director, Mr. Vitiello has taken a low-key approach to running ICE and carrying out the Trump administration’s immigration enforcement policies.

That contrasts with his predecessor, Thomas D. Homan, who became a Fox News contributor after retiring.

Mr. Homan was known for his enthusiastic public support of the Trump administration’s immigration enforcement policies, including telling members of the House Appropriations Committee during a June 2017 hearing that undocumented migrants “need to be worried.” He also issued a public challenge to the transnational MS-13 gang, warning: “My gang is bigger than theirs, and we are going to take them out.”

Internal problems also persist at ICE.

In a June letter to Kirstjen Nielsen, the homeland security secretary, 19 senior ICE investigators demanded that the agency be split up. The investigators are among the more than 6,000 special agents from a division of ICE, Homeland Security Investigations, which focuses on money laundering, drug trafficking, human smuggling, child exploitation and cybercrimes. In the letter, senior investigators said the Trump administration’s crackdown on undocumented migrants had limited their ability to pursue national security threats, child pornography and transnational crime.

Enforcement Removal Operations, another division of ICE, is responsible for arresting and deporting individuals who are in the United States illegally.

Mr. Vitiello has met with the investigators to address their concerns.

Mr. Vitiello has worked in law enforcement for more than 30 years, starting in 1985 as a Border Patrol agent in Laredo, Tex. He has also served as acting deputy commissioner of Customs and Border Protection, where he was the public face of the agency’s efforts to build a border wall.

Peter S. Vincent, the former top lawyer at ICE during the Obama administration, said Mr. Vitiello had a daunting task in leading an agency that is a key part of the Trump administration’s efforts to stem immigration.

“Ron is measured, careful, thoughtful and not in any way prone to hyperbole or insensitive racially charged statements,” Mr. Vincent said. “All of which makes him a bad fit for this administration.”

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