Thomas Homan, who has served under six Presidents and whom former colleagues describe as “thoughtful and nuanced,” has adopted a hard-line stance under Trump.
Last summer, Thomas Homan, the acting director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the federal agency responsible for arresting and deporting undocumented immigrants, received high praise from the President. “Somebody said the other day, they saw him on television . . . ‘He looks very nasty, he looks very mean,’ ” Donald Trump said while delivering a speech on immigration in Suffolk County, New York. “That’s what I’m looking for!”
This week, Homan made headlines by summoning that nastiness on national television, going further than any other Administration official to date in escalating the dispute between the federal government and so-called sanctuary jurisdictions. Appearing on Fox News on Tuesday, Homan attacked Jerry Brown, the governor of California, who recently signed legislation declaring his state a sanctuary for undocumented immigrants. “For these sanctuary cities that knowingly shield and harbor an illegal alien, that is, in my opinion, a violation of 8 U.S.C. 1324, an alien-smuggling statute,” Homan said. “We’ve got to take [sanctuary cities] to court, and we’ve got to start charging some of these politicians with crimes.”
Sanctuary jurisdictions—cities, counties, and, now in California’s case, even entire states—are places where law-enforcement agencies minimize their coöperation with federal immigration enforcement. (Many do not honor icerequests to “hold” arrested people in jails without charges while immigration checks can be performed.) Despite the fact that there’s no demonstrable connection between sanctuary policies and increased crime, sanctuary cities have been a favorite Trump talking point since his Presidential campaign. He has repeatedly invoked the tragic death of Kate Steinle, a thirty-two-year-old American citizen who, in 2015, was killed in San Francisco—a sanctuary city—by a stray bullet fired by an undocumented immigrant. The shooter, a forty-five-year-old Mexican man, had been deported from the country five times, and had been arrested and released from a county jail not long before the shooting. Last month, after a jury found that the shooting had been an accident and acquitted the man of murder and manslaughter, Trump called the verdict “disgraceful” and cited it as further reason for the U.S. to build a wall along the southern border.
The Trump Administration has tried, from the start, to punish sanctuary cities by withholding federal funding and increasing ice activity in them. Yet even Jeff Sessions, the Attorney General and the Administration’s most vocal opponent of sanctuary policies, has stopped well short of calling for the prosecution of elected officials. Homan is now eagerly advocating that step. “This isn’t the America I grew up in,” he said during his Fox News interview. “More citizens are going to die because of these policies. . . . And these politicians can’t make these decisions and be held unaccountable for people dying.”
Even though he leads the federal agency that’s arguably been the most receptive to Trump’s agenda, Homan wasn’t seen as an extremist by those who worked with him. A career immigration-enforcement official who has served under six Presidents, he didn’t have the profile of a Trump supporter, either—in fact, he was expected to retire at the start of last year, and had a job lined up at PricewaterhouseCoopers, the international consulting firm. ice colleagues even held a goodbye party for him one Friday last January, only to be surprised the following Monday when he returned to work. (He became ice’s acting director that very night, when Trump unexpectedly demoted Homan’s former boss.) “He was thoughtful and nuanced,” a former Obama Administration official who worked closely with Homan in 2014, while implementing new enforcement priorities at ice, said. “None of us recognize this guy.”
A small but influential group of ice hard-liners—led by Chris Crane, the head of the ice employee union—viewed Homan’s continued presence at the agency as a problem. Last summer, Crane dismissed Homan as an “Obama holdover,” telling Breitbart News that in the previous Administration, he had “blindly followed Obama’s orders even though he knew it posed dangers to Americans.” Crane and his allies vilified Homan for his role in instituting the Obama Administration’s enforcement priorities, which directed ice agents to arrest only those undocumented immigrants who committed crimes and were considered a threat to public safety. The move was extremely controversial among the agency rank and file, and Homan had helped sell the policy to agency skeptics.
Around the time Crane began publicly attacking him, Homan made a series of aggressive public pronouncements in an apparent attempt to portray himself as tough and unyielding. In June, in testimony before the House, he said, “If you’re in this country illegally and you committed a crime by being in this country, you should be uncomfortable, you should look over your shoulder. You need to be worried.” He stressed that “no population is off the table”—Trump, in one of his first executive orders, had gutted the Obama-era enforcement priorities. When asked about his remarks afterward, Homan told CNN, “It needed to be said . . . we will now enforce the laws on the books, which we haven’t been allowed to do.” He also vocally defended field agents against criticism, insisting that they were “patriots” who enforced the law “without apology.” One retired ice agent told the Washington Examiner, “This may be the rank-and-file agents’ one and only opportunity to serve under a fellow officer who knows intimately and personally what it’s like to work the streets.”
Homan has since been steadily consolidating his support on the Hill and among anti-immigrant policy wonks at influential think tanks like the Center for Immigration Studies. In November, Trump nominated him to be the official head of ice, which would allow him to shed the “acting” qualifier in his current title. A few weeks later, the President contacted Crane to urge him to draw down his attacks.
This week, the former Obama Administration official who had worked with Homan reflected on his transformation. “There are two ices—one was ascendant in the Obama Administration, and the other is ascendant now,” the official said. “Homan seems to have a bit of both in him.”