Sen. Kamala D. Harris, Democrats’ new presumptive vice presidential nominee, once compared ICE to the Ku Klux Klan, telling the agency’s chief there was a “perception” that his personnel were using “fear and intimidation” in the same way the KKK did.
The exchange drew fierce condemnation at the time in 2018 and again Tuesday, after Joseph R. Biden said she’ll be his running mate in his bid to unseat President Trump.
Ms. Harris made the comparison during a Senate hearing, asking Ronald Vitiello, the agency chief, to explain what made the KKK so vile. He said the Klan used “fear and force” to achieve their political goals.
Ms. Harris then said there was “a perception” that U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement was using the same tactics as the murderous organization.
“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? Are you aware of that perception?” Ms. Harris said.
Mr. Vitiello replied that he didn’t see a parallel to the KKK at all.
“Sir, how can you be the head of an agency and be unaware of how your agency is perceived by certain communities?” Ms. Harris retorted.
Mr. Vitiello told The Washington Times that Ms. Harris never apologized.
“I thought it was totally unprofessional, unfair,” he said. “She can say whatever she wants about me personally, but she was trying to tar the whole agency. I think it was a disgrace.”
He said should the Biden-Harris ticket win, it will be a major dent to immigration enforcement.
“CBP’s in a world of hurt. ICE is going to be in a world of hurt if these two prevail,” he said.
The Biden campaign didn’t respond to a request for comment.
Mr. Biden and Ms. Harris are slated to deliver remarks together on Wednesday.
The KKK exchange is part of an overall record that has seen Ms. Harris stake out a position as one of the most fervent defenders of undocumented immigrants, including during her aborted presidential bid when she flirted with abolishing ICE as an agency, saying it might make sense to “start from scratch.” She later backed away from that.
She’s also been one of the harshest critics on Capitol Hill of Homeland Security’s immigration agencies, peppering agency leaders with questions about their training and procedures.
Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, said Ms. Harris’s comparison of ICE to the KKK shows where the Democratic Party is headed on immigration policy.
“Someone should ask Vice President Biden whether he agrees with his running mate that federal law enforcement officers are domestic terrorists,” he said.
Ms. Harris is the daughter of immigrants — her father is from Jamaica and her mother from India — and immigrant-rights groups cheered her as a groundbreaking pick.
“She has been with us when we needed her, defending our community against all the noxious policies of President Trump and protesting alongside us outside the detention centers. We know she will work to ensure our families are reunited and our children are liberated,” said Angelica Salas, president of the CHIRLA Action Fund, a major California immigration group.
Ms. Harris served as district attorney in San Francisco then as California’s attorney general before winning in 2016 the Senate seat she currently holds.
Her record as a prosecutor, including notching 1,500 convictions for marijuana charges, has come under strong scrutiny by progressives and libertarians.
While in California, she authored an opinion that provided “legal cover” for sanctuary cities to refuse to cooperate with ICE detainer requests, said Jessica Vaughan, policy studies director at the Center for Immigration Studies.
“She’s the one who really set the stage for the extreme sanctuary policies in California,” Ms. Vaughan said.
But Ms. Harris also defended a policy in San Francisco that saw the city turn over undocumented immigrant juveniles to ICE if they were arrested for crimes.
Mr. Biden, for his part, voted for 700 miles of border wall while a senator in 2006, and while vice president was part of an administration that set the all-time record for deportations in 2012. But that administration also created the DACA program, which helps “Dreamers” stay in the country.
Mr. Biden has since called the deportations a “big mistake.”
His campaign plans show the about-face he’s made since then. He said he’ll impose a moratorium on all deportations for the first 100 days of his tenure, and would halt Mr. Trump’s border wall in its tracks.
Mr. Biden has also said he’d revoke the policies Mr. Trump put in place to solve last year’s migrant border surge.
Mr. Vitiello said canceling those policies would spur a new surge of illegal crossings.
“How are we going to stop the tens of thousands of people?” he said.