Sen. Kamala Harris compared ICE, the federal deportation agency, to the Ku Klux Klan Thursday, drawing a fierce retort from the agency’s acting director who said there is no equivalence between patriotic officers enforcing the law, and a racist mob bent on violence and intimidation.
The exchange came as Ronald D. Vitiello, the acting director at U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, appeared before the Senate Homeland Security Committee, which is considering his nomination to become permanent ICE director.
Mr. Vitiello chided sanctuary cities for refusing to cooperate on deportations, promised to work on pay issues for ICE officers, and demanded respect for his employees who he said deserve not to be pilloried by politicians, the press or activists looking to score political points.
Minutes later Ms. Harris, a California Democrat who’s eyeing a 2020 presidential bid, said there are “many” people who perceive ICE officers as similar to KKK thugs in using violence and intimidation.
“I’m very specific about what I’m asking,” she said. “Are you aware that there’s a perception that ICE is administering its power in a way that is causing fear and intimidation particularly among immigrants and specifically among immigrants coming from Mexico and Central America?”
“I see no perception that puts ICE in the same category as the KKK,” Mr. Vitiello retorted.
The exchange was spurred by a series of questions Ms. Harris asked related to a social media post Mr. Vitiello made early this decade referring to the Democratic Party as “neo-Klanist.” He apologized for the post, calling it an attempt at a joke that he now realizes was hurtful and inappropriate.
“It was wrong to do,” he said.
Mr. Harris, though, asked him why the words were wrong, and he said it was because of the history of the KKK using violence and intimidation to achieve its social aims. That’s when the senator said the same perception exists of ICE.
She said it’s up to Mr. Vitiello to dispel the perception.
A day earlier, Ms. Harris announced she has written legislation that would siphon money from ICE’s deportation operations and direct it to social services programs for illegal immigrant children.
Mr. Vitiello, a long-time Border Patrol agent and leader who was moved over to ICE this summer, has been tapped to replace former acting Director Tom Homan, who retired from ICE in June.
The nominee said he will defend his agency and its employees against “misleading rhetoric and misinformation” denigrating the job they do.
He didn’t name names, but some of ICE’s fiercest critics are on Capitol Hill, where the “Abolish ICE” movement gained steam over the summer.
Much of that anger is directed at ICE’s mission of detaining and deporting illegal immigrants, which is performed by the agency’s Enforcement and Removal Operations (ERO) division. But ICE also leads on counterfeiting, drug-trafficking, combatting criminal gangs and nabbing terrorists — duties run out of the Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) division.
Sen. Maggie Hassan, New Hampshire Democrat, suggested it might be time to split the agency apart and leave HSI off on its own, so it’s not dragged down by perceptions of the detention and deportation mission.
Mr. Vitiello said splitting was a bad idea.
During his testimony he also said outcry over the zero-tolerance border policy that led to family separations took the administration by surprise.
He said the goal, which was laudable, was to use impose criminal penalties on people illegally jumping the border.
“We would like to be in a place where no one got separated,” he said. “We would like to be in a place where lots of people didn’t bring their kids to the border and try to cross illegally. That’s the situation we’re faced with now.”
He declined to say whether there’s a maximum time illegal immigrant children should be kept in detention, nor would he rule out a policy that would give parents the choice of being detained with their children or being separated.
Mr. Vitiello also brushed aside criticism from Sen. Maggie Hassan, New Hampshire Democrat, who complained that ICE is aiming to deport Indonesian illegal immigrants who’ve been in the U.S. for years and who, she said, had been given assurances by past administrations — even if not accurate — that they would be able to stay.
She said if they are sent back to Indonesia they could face persecution.
Mr. Vitiello, though, said they have all gone through the immigration process, don’t have an avenue for asylum and have been ordered deported — and his agency has a duty under the law to carry that out.
Mr. Vitiello also pushed back on criticism from leaders of local chapters of the National ICE Council, the labor union for ICE officers, who in a letter this week questioned his decision-making after Abolish ICE protesters staged violent demonstrations outside the agency’s building in Portland, Oregon.
Mr. Vitiello said he wasn’t at ICE until the middle of that situation, but said blame lay with Portland officials who refused to deploy their police to help out.