ICE chief tangles with White House over political appointees

A White House official, meanwhile, said the office “only considers well-qualified candidates who would implement the president’s agenda diligently and effectively.”

POLITICO has reported on a number of instances, however, where the personnel office installed officials who had yet to even graduate from college — leading to complaints from within Cabinet agencies that the White House was hiring neophytes for sensitive posts. Defenders of those efforts, meanwhile, have long argued that career officials throughout the executive branch have stymied Trump’s priorities, and that the president is entitled to fill jobs with the people who win his confidence.

When asked for comment, an ICE spokesperson said in a statement: “ICE has an incredibly complex and difficult mission, critical to the national security and public safety of this country. All individuals hired by the agency, whether into career or political positions, are hired based solely on their qualifications and ability to contribute to this mission.”

Ron Vitiello, a former acting director of ICE under Trump, said that if political appointees at ICE aren’t qualified, “it would be a negative because they’re not adding any value to the mission. If they don’t know what ICE’s core capabilities are, then how are they advisory?”

On the other hand, political hires with the requisite experience could be a “useful tool” to keep tabs on what the White House wants or reach out to allies in other agencies or on Capitol Hill, said Vitiello, now an independent consultant on homeland security and border strategy issues.

Traditionally, political officials’ involvement in law enforcement agencies is limited but not nonexistent. Most of ICE’s top officials are from the career ranks––including in jobs that political appointees have sometimes filled in the past. And while immigrants’ rights activists have lambasted ICE for its work under the Trump administration, supporters of stricter immigration law enforcement argue it should be deporting more people.

Albence’s opposition to the White House’s efforts has heightened frustration in some corners of the Trump administration regarding his leadership of the agency, which currently has four of its eight political positions filled.

“He wants to protect his bureaucratic buddies in ICE, and he doesn’t want politicals telling him to do difficult things,” said one senior administration official.

That view captures a growing hostility toward Albence, a career official who rose through the ranks of various arms of the U.S. immigration apparatus to briefly become acting director in April 2019, and again beginning in July of that year.

Top Trump administration officials were not happy with him in March after the agency announced it would halt most enforcement efforts during the coronavirus pandemic. They didn’t like the optics and potential political consequences of temporarily adopting an immigration posture that could be compared to the Obama administration’s approach. And shortly thereafter, Cuccinelli fired off a tweet thread purporting to clarify the agency’s statement and saying it would keep prioritizing deporting immigrants who threaten public safety or have committed crimes, “just as it always has.”

For groups advocating stricter immigration enforcement, continuity is a bug, not a feature. According to the Pew Research Center, deportations during the Trump administration “remain far lower than during President Barack Obama’s first term in office.” ICE points to so-called sanctuary cities’ resistance to cooperation with federal law enforcement and to its surge of officers to the southern border as contributing to the lower deportation numbers. But for a president who campaigned as the ultimate immigration hardliner, these numbers are bad news.

“ICE under the Trump administration has not managed to boost immigration enforcement in any significant way whatsoever, and there are reasons for that,” said Jessica Vaughan of the Center for Immigration Studies, which pushes for lower levels of immigration. “Some of those reasons are beyond their control, and some are not. And so I think that the agency has been a little bit — under both Albence and [former acting director Tom] Homan –– a little bit hesitant to step up enforcement in certain areas and to implement certain policies that would make them more productive.”

And that, she said, hasn’t endeared Albence to some in the Trump administration. Vaughan praised his efforts and said that she thinks he’s doing a good job overall. But she noted that others would like to see more.

“I’m not saying it’s easy for them to do, but there are people in the administration who’ve gotten impatient,” she said. “And fairly or not, Matt may have become a focus of that impatience — a fall guy. There are people who have come to believe that changing the leadership is going to change the outcome.”