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Texas Sheriff Ed Gonzalez, Picked To Lead ICE, Likely In For 'Cultural Clash'

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

It's an issue that's been a political and emotional challenge for this country through multiple administrations and remains one, so we're going to start there. We're talking about immigration. President Biden called it our exhausting war over immigration in his first joint address to Congress earlier this week and urged Congress to act. That political fight has actually grown more intense in recent weeks as a record number of migrants has been arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border. This past March, the number of migrants encountered at the U.S.-Mexico border was actually the most in at least 15 years.

Amid all this, President Biden has nominated Ed Gonzalez, sheriff of Harris County, Texas, which is home to Houston, to lead Immigration and Customs Enforcement. That agency, better known as ICE, hasn't had a permanent leader since 2017. So here to talk about what this nomination says about Biden's approach to immigration is Adam Isacson from the Washington Office on Latin America. That's an advocacy organization that seeks to advance human rights in the Americas. And he has spent years focusing on immigration and security.

Adam Isacson, welcome. Thanks for joining us.

ADAM ISACSON: No, thank you for having me, Michel.

MARTIN: As we mentioned, President Biden has nominated Harris County Sheriff Ed Gonzalez to lead ICE. Just your initial reaction to this.

ISACSON: I think it's a remarkably good choice, actually, in both the case of Customs and Border Protection, CBP, as well as ICE. Just in the past couple of weeks, Biden has chosen two progressive sheriffs from border cities, you know? You've got people with law enforcement experience but also who have worked to - at times to confront CBP and ICE, the agencies they're leading but not in an openly confrontational camera-grabbing way.

MARTIN: So let me just help people catch up if they're not sure exactly what you're talking about because the president announced another key nomination on border security. He's tapped the Tucson, Ariz., Police Chief Chris Magnus to head Customs and Border Patrol. And I just think it's important to note that ICE and Customs and Border Patrol do have different leadership, but they're both housed within the Department of Homeland Security. So - just sort of set the table for people who aren't as familiar with this as you are.

How does their - how do their profiles compare to past ICE leadership, for example, the sheriff, a former sheriff as head of ICE? What's been the previous leadership profile?

ISACSON: For the most part, people who have run ICE before are people who came up in the agency or have more experience with immigration enforcement, specifically. And of course, during the Trump administration, those were some very hard-line people who opposed efforts at immigration reform. So to bring in somebody with a bit of outsider credentials, it could mean some cultural clash if he does indeed become the director of ICE.

MARTIN: Well, I do want to point that out, that it's worth mentioning that the former president, President Trump, has had the backing of major Border Patrol unions, which suggests that there may be people in the ranks who are aligned with the former president's views on immigration. And one of the things that you've written about quite a bit is the culture of these agencies. And I'm wondering whether you think these new nominees will face a confrontation with the culture of these agencies or perhaps that once they become leaders, if they are confirmed, then the rank-and-file will follow their lead.

ISACSON: This is going to be a huge issue. I mean, as Police Chief Gonzalez didn't - I wouldn't say run-ins but he had strong disagreements with ICE under Trump over the policy of turning over people whom they've arrested to ICE if they turned out to be undocumented. Like a lot of police chiefs, Gonzalez's posture was that this makes his job harder. In a city with more than 400,000 undocumented people, you don't get the collaboration of the population that you need. So there already was some bad blood.

MARTIN: If Sheriff Gonzalez and former Chief Magnus have different missions now, why wouldn't they then bring themselves more in alignment with the agencies that they've now been asked to lead as opposed to taking that sort of critical perspective?

ISACSON: The agencies that both have been asked to lead are agencies that are in need of some reform. They have terrible relationships with the communities they police. They have a reputation for just sort of everyday mistreatment of the populations they detain or interrogate. They both have low morale. So clearly, the Biden administration does think it has a mandate or at least a duty to reform these agencies. So they didn't nominate somebody from within the existing culture to lead them; they nominated police chiefs who have some reputation for, again, not being crusaders but for being reformists, people who did support more of a human rights and community relations approach as sheriffs.

So unless these chiefs suddenly decide either to completely just blend in and stand down, which would be, you know, a break with their past career pattern, or unless they feel that any of their reform efforts are thwarted and they're not getting supported from the top, which also seems unlikely, then what we're probably going to see is chiefs who are probably carefully but still steadily and constantly finding themselves in conflict with some key midlevel leadership and maybe even the rank and file.

MARTIN: So before we let you go, President Biden has said that he wants to address the root causes of migration. Is this approach, in your view, the right one?

ISACSON: The way they're talking about it in the administration I think is correct. They're talking about acute causes, which are the immediate things - that people don't have enough to eat, they're - suffered the impact of storms. And then they talk about root causes like climate change, poverty, and, of course, just violence, gang violence that drives people out. And then underlying that is, you know, why has Central America been so susceptible to poverty and violence over these years? And you get back to corruption and inequality and lack of accountability. So those three layers is what they plan to combat. Obviously, in four years, you're only going to be able to get to the surface, most acute causes. But perhaps they can set in motion at least the foundations of an approach to make Central America a place that people are less likely to want to flee.

MARTIN: That was Adam Isacson. He is the director for defense oversight at the Washington Office on Latin America. Adam Isacson, thanks so much for your time.

ISACSON: Hey, thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.