Wall Street Journal
By Laura Meckler
March 14, 2017
WASHINGTON—When former President Barack Obama wanted to scale back deportations of illegal immigrants, it was Tom Homan who got officers to ease up. Now, as President Donald Trump wants to ramp up deportations, the task again falls to Mr. Homan, this time to enforce tougher new rules.
Mr. Homan is acting director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, an agency under growing scrutiny as it works to implement Mr. Trump’s controversial deportation policies.
“The pendulum swings left and right all the time,” Mr. Homan said in an interview. “So, yeah, it’s a change in what we do, but once I get the policies, the law, I say: ‘OK, here’s your mission, here’s what you need to execute,’ and we execute it.”
Critics said ICE officers are implementing a policy that amounts to mass deportation, pouncing on people at churches, arresting those with no criminal records, breaking up families and sowing fear throughout immigrant communities.
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Backers of Mr. Trump’s policy said the administration is simply allowing officers to enforce the law as it was intended, rather than targeting only a narrow group, mostly serious criminals, as Mr. Obama directed.
In the center of the storm sits Mr. Homan, 55 years old, who grew up idolizing his father, a small-town policeman and village judge He said he always saw officers as the good guys and defends the ICE force against all critics.
“They are law enforcement officers that are enforcing the law that Congress enacted,” he said of his personnel. “If people do not like the immigration laws of this country there’s a place to go. Talk to your senator, talk to your congressman.”
A 33-year veteran of federal immigration enforcement, Mr. Homan, a big, burly man who speaks in the blunt language of street-patrol officers, has earned the respect of some people on both sides of an angry debate.
“He’s a really good man, above all,” said John Amaya, who was ICE deputy chief of staff during Mr. Obama’s administration when it ratcheted back enforcement. “Once he’s clear on the direction [of a policy], he will salute and execute.”
A descendant of French Canadian and German immigrants four generations back, Mr. Homan’s interest in law enforcement can be traced to childhood. He recalls officers coming to his house at night for off-hours arraignments with his father, when he was the judge in their small village in upstate New York. He admired police who would run toward danger when others were fleeing.
“I always looked up to these guys as helping people,” said Mr. Homan. “You always felt safe around law enforcement. I grew up knowing you go to them for help.”
Mr. Homan’s hometown, West Carthage, N.Y., is about 30 miles south of the Canadian border, and he remembers being fascinated by the border patrol agents. After graduating from college, he followed his father and grandfather into police work there.
In 1984, he joined the Border Patrol, and rose through the ranks at ICE, working as an immigration-enforcement officer and an investigator before moving to Washington, D.C., in 2009 to become an administrator.
In Mr. Obama’s administration, he ran ICE’s Enforcement and Removal Operations division, responsible for deportations, and last summer won a Presidential Rank Award, the government’s highest civil service award. In January, Mr. Homan put off plans to retire after Mr. Trump appointed him acting director of the entire agency.
During Mr. Obama’s administration, he agreed with the general philosophy of targeting criminals versus using scarce agency resources to apprehend ordinary illegal immigrants. But he and others who worked with him said he wanted more latitude for arrests and didn’t shy from making his case internally.
As new enforcement guidelines were crafted in 2014, Mr. Homan pushed to include people with old court orders directing them to leave the country, an argument he lost. But he won an argument for firmer rules defining who was a “recent arrival,” which made more people subject to deportation.
During this period, Mr. Homan also won friends on the political right, such as Jessica Vaughan of the Center for Immigration Studies, a think tank that supports tough immigration enforcement. “He worked hard to preserve as much enforcement as possible,” she said.
During one Obama-era shift in policy, Mr. Homan spoke emotionally about not wanting to take children from their homes or their parents, according to two people who were present. He invoked the imagery of putting car seats in squad cars, and worried about the toll on both children and the officers who would remove them, people involved in the discussions said.
Mr. Homan said he doesn’t recall that comment, but said: “When you go arrest a criminal alien, that’s black and white. When you go after a family group, that’s a harder decision to make.”
Under Mr. Trump’s administration, his officers have greater power to decide who is deported. Critics said they are becoming a rogue force.
They point to arrests in Virginia of men leaving a cold-weather shelter at a church; the deportation of an otherwise law-abiding father who lost legal status because of a paperwork error; and the arrest of a young woman whose participation the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program expired.
Mr. Homan said ICE continues to prioritize arrests of people with criminal convictions and to run targeted enforcement operations. He resents that his officers are criticized when they arrest someone who has broken the law, such as failing to appear for a court hearing.
He said that nobody would think twice if an American were arrested after failing to follow a judge’s order, although the stakes are much higher for an illegal immigrant in such cases.
The criticism stems from the wide targets the agency has been given. ICE officers have been empowered to arrest people convicted, charged or even simply suspected of minor as well as major crimes, based on an executive order signed by Mr. Trump. It also includes people with immigration-related violations, such as using false documents, and people who have been ordered to leave the country even if the order is many years old.
Unlike under Mr. Obama, officers now have free rein to arrest other undocumented immigrants they encounter doing their work, even if they don’t meet any of those criteria.
Avideh Moussavian, a policy attorney at the National Immigration Law Center, said Mr. Homan’s reputation is irrelevant given the policy he is implementing. “Despite all this rhetoric around ‘we’re going after bad hombres,’ the overreaching and overly broad priorities could potentially target anyone who is here unlawfully,” she said.
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