A “quiet and thoughtful” border patrol agent has been tapped to lead ICE

Vitiello in March.
Vitiello in March.
Image: Alex Wong/Getty Images
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A career border patrol agent who has become the de facto spokesman for Donald Trump’s elusive border wall is likely to be named the new head of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE. An announcement could come as soon as Friday.

Ronald D. Vitiello, the acting deputy commissioner of Customs and Border Protection, or CBP, is the top candidate to become director of ICE, several former and current Department of Homeland Security officials told Quartz. (ICE is part of DHS.) A DHS spokesman referred questions to the White House, which did not respond.

ICE has become a lightning rod for anger about the administration’s hardline policies towards immigrants, and particularly its practice of separating children from parents crossing the border or families who have been living in the US for years. It has also become known for an extremely aggressive approach to hunting down people to deport, and several civil rights groups and a Congressman are now calling for the agency to be abolished.

Vitiello started his career as a border patrol agent in 1985 in Laredo, Texas, and was promoted to acting chief of the Border Patrol during the Barack Obama administration. In 2015, he was dispatched to speak about the problem of minors crossing US borders.

Former and current colleagues describe a level-headed leader with a deep law enforcement background. “He’s more quiet and thoughtful than [outgoing director Thomas] Homan, but he’s still a cop,” a former DHS official said approvingly about Vitiello. During a contentious 2014 town hall meeting hosted by Republican Texas senator John Cornyn about building border fence in the Rio Grande area, Vitiello was able to placate irate residents, the official recalled, by explaining what the government wanted and why.

“He’s one of those leaders you want to work for,” said CBP spokesman Daniel Hetlage (who is not one of the sources above) told Quartz.

Vitiello is “good at building relationships internally and externally, and is committed to getting the job done,” said John Torres, a former career ICE executive and agent, who served as acting director in 2008 and 2009. Torres added, “he does it with compassion and respect for due process.” The constitutional guarantee of due process has been a political flashpoint this week, after Trump tweeted that illegal immigrants should be processed without court cases.

During the Trump administration, Vitiello was tasked with introducing prototypes for the border wall in March, and has echoed the president’s argument that the US needs physical barriers at its southern border. “In this society and all of our lives we use walls and fences to protect things,” he said during a December 2017 press conference.

In a June 2016 interview with C-Span, Vitiello was circumspect about the utility of physical obstacles in halting illegal immigration. The fencing that already exist on the US-Mexico border “slows people down, it gives our agents time to respond,” he said then. “In and of itself, it isn’t the end all be all,” he said, but “in certain locations it gives us an advantage.”

Homan, the outgoing head of the agency, is expected to retire before the end of the month. A former New York City police officer and border patrol agent, Homan put off his planned retirement in January of 2017, when he was abruptly named ICE director, days after Trump’s inauguration.

Homan has been discussed inside the White House as a potential replacement for DHS Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, whom president Trump blames for the administration’s inability to get funding for the border wall he promised on the campaign trail. Homan enjoys a close relationship with president Trump, but is eager to finally retire from civil service, former and current colleagues say.