President Biden has picked Harris County Sheriff Ed González to lead the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency. As head of one of the largest law enforcement agencies in the United States, Sheriff González has extensive experience running a large police force and jail network, two key features of ICE’s operations.
At times, though, González has butted heads with the immigration agency and its rightwing allies in the Texas government. Most notably, in March 2017 González pulled the sheriff’s office out of a 287(g) agreement with ICE claiming that the agreement cost his department $675,000 per year that was better spent elsewhere. The previous month Sheriff González criticized a proposal making its way through the state’s Republican-controlled legislature. At the time, González said he was worried that the legislators were “creating a climate of fear and suspicion” that impeded law enforcement goals.
Despite the Harris County Sheriff’s Office ending its 287(g) agreement with ICE, federal immigration officers didn’t stop their efforts to investigate people in the sheriff’s custody for potential immigration imprisonment and deportation. Data obtained by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University indicates that ICE sent hundreds of thousands of detainer requests to the Harris County Jail, which the HCSO runs, from January 2017 until March 2020 when the pandemic hit the United States. The bill, most commonly described as Senate Bill 4, was signed into law by Governor Greg Abbott on May 7, 2017, but it did not go into effect until September 1, 2017. From September 2017 until February 2020, ICE submitted a consistently large number of detainers to the agency that Sheriff González oversees. During that stretch, ICE sent more than 10,000 requests to the Harris County Jail every month.
Neither the HCSO nor any other local law enforcement agency controls how many detainers it receives from ICE. That’s entirely in the control of federal officials. A far better indicator of a local law enforcement agency’s willingness to cooperate with ICE is how frequently it rejects ICE’s detainer requests. TRAC’s data suggests that Harris County refused very few detainer requests. In October 2017, for example, the jail refused 851 of 14,429 detainers. One year later it refused 1,407 of 14,272. Importantly, TRAC cautions against giving too much weight to data about refused detainers because ICE’s record-keeping is limited. The database field that indicates refusals is not required and are sometimes used inconsistently.
Even if ICE’s data was reliable, any assessment of Sheriff González’s views of immigration detainers would be complicated by the fact that, in Texas, S.B. 4 requires that law enforcement agencies comply with ICE detainer requests. Article 2.251 of the Texas Code of Criminal Procedure explicitly provides: “A law enforcement agency that has custody of a person subject to an immigration detainer request issued by United States Immigration and Customs Enforcement shall: (1) comply with, honor, and fulfill any request made in the detainer request provided by the federal government.” After litigation, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit left most of S.B. 4 intact, including the detainer compliance mandate. For most of his tenure as sheriff, then, González has had little choice but to comply with ICE detainer requests.
Unlike his current post, which he initially took up in January 2017 after being elected the previous November, González won’t be the top decision-maker if confirmed to head ICE. Instead, he will take direction from President Biden, key White House policy staff, and Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas. During his confirmation hearings, I’ll be curious to hear how he thinks his experience as a local law enforcement officer in one of the most diverse communities in the country will help him inform the administration’s immigration law enforcement policy priorities.