The acting director of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Thomas Homan, spoke to The Daily Signal earlier this month about how the Trump administration is cracking down on illegal immigration. An edited transcript of the interview is below.
Kelsey Harkness: Hello, I’m Kelsey Harkness with The Daily Signal, coming to you live from The Heritage Foundation in Washington, D.C. Today, we’re joined by a man who has perhaps the most thankless job in the entire federal government. His name is Thomas Homan and he is the acting director of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, more commonly known as ICE.
Homan’s job, put simply, is to deport people. But before anyone goes writing him off, allow us to note that Homan also served under the Obama administration, which also deported people. Under the Obama administration, in fact, Homan received a Presidential Rank Award as a distinguished executive, which is one of the highest honors awarded to all civil servants. So, Director Homan, thank you so much joining us today to talk about the work that your agency does.
Acting ICE Director Thomas Homan: Thank you for having me.
Harkness: So to kick us off … immigration is a big issue for President Trump, who recently … for ICE agents to carry out. Can you explain those to our viewers right now?
Homan: Well, first I’d like to say that, ya know, read some media content, ya know, these policies or priorities were authored by people at the White House. Actually, that’s not correct. Each law enforcement agency, whether it was [Customs and Border Protection], Border Patrol, myself—the components, the career law enforcement officers came up with these priorities and policies based on our user experience.
I’ve been doing this 33 years, so when I was asked, ‘What more do you need to be successful and to enforce the laws in a meaningful way?’ We came up with a list, Border Patrol came up with the same list … different list but overlapped at many of them. [The Central Index System] came up with their policies. So these policies come from career law enforcement officers, career employees that know the immigration, or illegal immigration game.
Harkness: And what are some of those priorities for those who … ?
Homan: Well, when it comes to interior enforcement, my No. 1 priority is sanctuary cities, we need to hold them accountable. Sanctuary cities, no matter how you spin it, and I see a lot of talking points out there from politicians and the media; bottom line is releasing a public safety threat back out into the public is not smart. It’s an officer safety issue, it’s a community safety issue.
When ICE can not arrest a significant public safety threat in the safety, privacy, and security of a jail, that means we have to go knock on a door, which is a significant officer safety issue. It’s a community safety issue also, if you look, anyone can Google the recitizen rights in this country. These criminals are being released back into the communities, over half of them will reoffend the first year, 75 percent of them will reoffend in five years. So, sanctuary cities, was my first, out of the gate policy ask.
We have other asks as far as decisions that are made in certain courts about who we can detain, how long we can contain them, detain them. Zadvydas is a Supreme Court ruling on Zadvydas, which means we can’t hold somebody past six months, unless there is a significant likelihood of removal. So when you have a recalcitrant country, someone who won’t take their nationals back, and they’re a significant public safety threat, I’m under a Supreme Court decision, I have to release them in six months if we can’t get a travel document. So things like that, that will give us some more meat on the bone of immigration enforcement to keep our communities safer, that’s what I ask for.
Harkness: Well, I do want to get to the issue of the choke point in that immigration courts later on in this interview. But on the issue you were just speaking to, according to the Center for Immigration Studies, 124 criminal aliens have been implicated and 135 deaths after ICE declined to remove them since 2010. Why did this happen and can you give us any insight into what it’s like when your agents hear about some of these deaths?
Homan: Well, part of that statement is inaccurate. ICE didn’t decline to remove anybody, ICE couldn’t remove them. If we have a criminal alien, our main focus, our first attempt is to remove them. But we need two things, we need a final order from immigration court to remove somebody and we need a travel document, a country has to accept that person back into their country. Unfortunate as that is, that’s the two things we need.
So the cases you reference, these are people that were released because we couldn’t get a travel document, and as I said earlier, we’re under a Supreme Court ruling that we can’t detain them past six months, or an immigration judge released them on a bond or on OR. I mean, these illegal aliens have a right to see a judge and sometimes the judge will order their release.
ICE does release some, after careful scrutiny on these cases. We look at public safety threat, and likelihood of scanning. But on average about 400,000 aliens come through our system. During that time we had 34,000 beds, that’s what Congress funded me for.
So you can see, if you do the math, 1 in every 10 or 1 in every 12 aliens actually get detained. So it’s tough, and no one can foresee if someone is going to go out and commit a horrendous act. Again, at least 75 percent of these were not ICE’s decision. But to say that ICE declined to deport them is inaccurate. We want to deport every criminal we can, but we got laws we must work within too.
Harkness: Well, the immigration courts are one issue that I find really interesting when you read into how the immigration system works in our country, where you are taking direction of the president, and you’ve now worked under a Democrat and a Republican. But then your hands are sort of tied because you don’t necessarily have … or the immigration courts don’t have enforcement powers to enforce their decisions, that comes through your agency. So how do these dueling … I don’t know what you would call them, but it kind of seems like you have two bosses in a way. Answering to two different systems.
Homan: Well, no, I only got one boss but, you know, illegal aliens have a right to have a hearing in front of an immigration judge. There’s a huge backlog in immigration court, over 600,000, so there’s, if someone wants to play the system, they could play the system for several years, which just holds up the whole immigration court proceedings and getting a final order removal. I get that, but I think the Department of Justice’s president has ordered EOAR to hire more judges, they are hiring very fast. So the more immigration judges we hire, the faster these cases will go through.
You know … over the past several years, and I’ve been doing this for 33 years, going on 34, a lot of aliens used to take a voluntary return. They get caught at the border and they say, ‘Okay, I got caught, I want to go home.” But more and more and more of them want to either claim asylum when they don’t really qualify so that holds up the system, or they want their day in immigration court, ‘cause they know if they play the game right, you know, they claim fear, they can hold up the courts for years.
And … the dynamics have changed in the last decade. But Attorney General [Jeff] Sessions has taken it seriously and he’s ramping up judges and immigration courts. In some of our fixes we’re asking for some of these court rulings to be challenged, as far as what we can and can’t do, as far as detention removal. So we’re asking for help through Congress and I hope Congress gives us that help.
Harkness: So you do have a limited amount of resources to handle the number of deportation requests. Another way to, I guess, address the number of illegal aliens in our country is the idea of self-deportation. Encouraging, using other means other than your own agents, to get some of these people out of the country. What do you think of those efforts, what can be done on that front?
Homan: Well, we got to get rid of the pull factors. We got to get rid of the enticements, why they come to this country. ICE is stepping up our worksite enforcement operations. So we want to deny them employment, illegal employment. We’re gonna investigate employers that knowingly hire them. So, if they can’t get a job, I mean one more reason why they won’t enter the country illegally and put themselves at great harm. I mean, people are dying entering this country because, you know, they think they can get a job, or they think they can get by the Border Patrol hiding in the shadows and some amnesty is going to come in the future.
I’m often asked the question, ‘Why do you remove somebody who’s been here for 10 years and has two United States citizen children. Well, they put themselves in that position.
If the message we send is ‘You can violate the laws of this country, not respect the laws of this country, and either ignore judge’s order to go home or sneak by Border Patrol and have a U.S. citizen child, by the very fact they are born in this country, and you’re off the hook. Everything’s okay.’ Because that’s the message a lot of people want to send: Don’t arrest that person who’s been here for 10 years and has a U.S. citizen child. What if I don’t? Then we’re sending a message to come to this country illegally, have a U.S. citizen child, and you’re off the hook. You are immune to enforcement. ‘Cause that’s the message we’re going to send and have been sending for a decade now, you’re never going to solve the border crisis.
So we got to remove the enticement, we got to remove the talk that it’s okay to enter this country illegally, it’s okay to have a U.S. citizen child and you won’t be removed. You can get a job. We got to end sanctuary cities. Sanctuary cities are enticements for people to enter this country illegally, go to sanctuary cities, where those cities are going to help you, and shield you from immigration enforcement. These are the things we got to address.
Harkness: And I know in a lot of the work your agents carry out you’re actually working to prevent humanitarian crises, which is ironic because in the news you often hear about the humanitarian stories and the sympathetic stories of families getting split apart. But really, correct me if I’m wrong, what your agents are out there doing every day is trying to prevent more illegal immigrants from taking these very dangerous journeys over the border and also preventing more crimes in our cities and states.
Homan: Well, that touches on something that I get very emotional about. I mean, I pick up the newspaper every morning, we get press releases every day. First thing I do when I come to my office is read the press releases, and I’m sick and tired of the vilification of the men and women of ICE, these are law enforcement officers that took a sworn duty to enforce laws. They’re enforcing the laws that Congress enacted.
So, you know, if you want to vilify law enforcement officers for doing their sworn duty, you need to look at Congress and ask Congress to do a fix, right? These are fine men and women who leave their homes, the safety and security of their homes and their families every day, strap a gun to their hip to go enforce the laws of this country, and protect those in their communities that they’ll never have a chance to even met. These are American patriots by the very sense. They chose this profession, they’ve put themselves in harm’s way every day. Shame on those that want to vilify them for simply doing their job.
You know, I noticed a press release this morning from ACLU, ‘the ruthless ICE officers.’ It’s just unfair. I mean, there’s not another law enforcement agency in this country that we ask them not to enforce the laws. There’s not another law enforcement agency in this country that is told to ignore judge’s order from the bench. If you and I received a judge’s order to do something and we refused to do it, what would happen to us? So we’re simply enforcing the law. So we need to support the men and women of ICE, they’re true American patriots. If people don’t like what we do then change the law. If you repeal the law then we’ll stop enforcing it, if you enact a law we’ll enforce it, it’s as simple as that.
Harkness: Well, I guess that’s a perfect wrap to my intro in saying you all have very thankless jobs, yourself and the agents who really do put their lives out on the line for Americans every day trying to enforce the laws that do exist. So, director, thank you so much for joining us, and breaking some of these issues down to our viewers.