Meet the man ready to battle Congress in support of Trump’s immigration strategy

Acting director of US Immigration and Customs Enforcement Tom Homan is a top candidate for secretary of the Department of Homeland Security.
Acting director of US Immigration and Customs Enforcement Tom Homan is a top candidate for secretary of the Department of Homeland Security.
Image: Reuters
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Tom Homan officially retired after 34 years of government service last June, but it’s pretty hard to tell. He has been an upstate New York beat cop, a Border Patrol officer and, these days, he’s the acting head of US Immigration and Customs Enforcement. 

Homan, 57, is also now one of the most vocal defenders of US president Donald Trump’s controversial immigration policies as a Fox News talking head and fiery op-ed contributor. His unyielding support was on full display at a bruising Congressional hearing in July, when Democrats attacked the administration’s continuing policy of family separation.

“I am thankful that we have a president that not only talks the talk about securing our border, but he walks the walk,” Homan said at the hearing. “No president has done more to try to secure our border, especially in a time of crisis, than president Trump.” He cited Trump’s executive orders, emergency declaration, and an agreement with Mexico that many immigration experts said was underwhelming.  

In return, Homan is perpetually floated as a top candidate for any big Department of Homeland Security (DHS) job that comes up, including most recently the big one: Secretary. Trump even named Homan his “immigration czar” during a rambling Fox & Friends phone interview in June. He neglected to tell Homan, who has not formally been offered the job.

The Trump White House has not served as a smart career move for people of Homan’s age and experience. Well-established experts often leave with a worse reputation than when they arrived. There was Gary Cohn, the former economic advisor, whose reason for leaving earned him his own scathing Onion article. Rex Tillerson’s many years in the oil industry may forever be overshadowed by his firing as secretary of state while on the toilet.

Nonetheless, Homan is eager to serve, he told Quartz in a recent interview. He said he expects the president to nominate someone soon to be the permanent secretary of DHS. He’s not sure if it will be him, but whoever it is, he said, “has to be ready for a fight” with Congress.

Homan says democrats want “open borders” and to make “illegal immigration legal.” So whoever Trump nominates will need to withstand the likely political backlash.

“If your feelings are easily hurt, it’s not a job for you,” he said. He noted the time that the former secretary, Kirstjen Nielsen, was booed in a Mexican restaurant in Washington after the administration launched its family separation policy.

As far as potential nominees go, Homan makes sense for Trump. He epitomizes the all-or-nothing approach of the president’s anti-immigration effort. 

The White House’s current demands, as Homan stated in his Congressional testimony, include rewriting some of the current foundations of US immigration policy. The president wants Congress to eliminate the “Flores Settlement,” for instance, which limits the amount of time the government can detain families and provides immigrant children human rights protections. He also wants to alter the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPRA), which forces US officials to carefully screen children from Central America before deporting them, and tighten the standards by which asylum-seekers can claim they face a “credible fear” at home.

Back in 2016, when Trump was running for president, Homan was reluctant to share his thoughts on the candidate’s immigration policies. “I can’t say what I think,” he said at the time. Now, however, he is open about his support. “I don’t agree with everything he’s ever said, but he’s the first president who has ever tried to secure this border,” Homan told Quartz. 

Homan says he fully supports the president’s efforts to make asylum laws more strict, for example. About 90% of asylum seekers pass the initial “credible fear” test that allows them to remain in the US and go through the process of applying for protections. The percentage of those who are actually granted asylum, however, has plummeted under the Trump administration. The process can take years, and the Trump administration wants to hold people in detention until they appear in court, resulting in overcrowded and unsanitary detention centers.

Immigration activists say there’s no reason to detain asylum-seekers in this way, and that offering immigrants a more humane option than detention, like assigning a case worker who shepherds them through the system, is a cheaper and more effective option.

“I understand the [credible fear] threshold is low on purpose because we don’t want to send people back to persecution and death. I get that,” Homan said. But it is  “ridiculously low.”

On the controversial topic of “removals”—deporting people who have lived in the US for years and may not have committed any crime—Homan similarly has a cut-and-dry take.

“Everyone is having a fit right now,” he said, referring to public reaction to ICE raids. But, he explained, ICE sent out notices to thousands of people informing them they had been ordered to leave the country. He said these people were told to “turn themselves in” so immigration agencies could work with them to get them home. “They refused to show up,” Homan said. “So ICE has to go out and find them.”

“If they don’t do that there is no integrity in the entire system. We might as well take everyone off the border and get rid of all the judges, because there are no consequences.”

Supporting policies that aren’t working

Homan’s apparent allegiance to the Trump administration’s current immigration policy is a problem for the simple reason that the policies are so far not effective, experts say.

The nature of US immigration changed long before Trump became president. In the last two decades, the number of single men coming from Mexico for economic opportunity plummeted. In the same period, more and more families began traveling from Central America to find protection from violence back home.

It was only when Trump entered office, however, that the crisis reached its current level of urgency.

“The administration has repeatedly stated that the Congress is to blame for this situation at the border. But the legal framework in place today is the same that was in place, three, five, and 10 years ago,” said John Cohen, a veteran law enforcement officer and former acting under-secretary at DHS.

The problems at the border are “a direct result of the approach and programs put in place by this administration as it relates to border security,” he added.

Those policies and programs range from diverting funds to build a wall to reducing aid to Central America. The Trump administration also began a “metering” program, which limits the number of people who can apply for asylum. It has forced some asylum-seekers to stay in Mexico during their application process, and is putting more border-crossers in detention facilities. Overworked courts means those migrants could be in detention for months or even years.

“Everything they have done to restrict immigration has been misguided,” Cohen said. Instead of targeting Congress, Trump should be frustrated with the people at the White House who have “sold him an approach to border security and immigration that simply won’t work,” he added.

So Cohen doesn’t see how appointing Homan as secretary would have any positive result.

“My concern is that Homan is a one-trick pony,” Cohen said. “His career has been in a very narrow area of law enforcement…He believes the number one focus of the department and state and federal law enforcement should be immigration enforcement, and that is not a view shared by the overwhelming number of people in law enforcement.”

The DHS has a number of other responsibilities beyond immigration, including emergency response, aviation security and cybersecurity. 

Cohen and other former officials argue that DHS needs someone who can simply right the ship, filling the numerous vacancies left by an administration that has removed anyone not on board with its vision. This will become especially important as the department soon faces the potential emergencies of another hurricane season, and tries to balance Trump’s demands to clamp down on legal immigration with the reality of US law, it’s own budget, and its many other responsibilities to the country.

Fighting for Trump

Trump has said he likes a fighter, however. And Homan showcased that kind of pugnaciousness at the House Oversight Committee hearing in July. House Democrats grilled him about the hundreds of kids separated from their parents at the border and the “subhuman” treatment that they faced.

“Do you have no shame about the fact that it’s all done in the shadow of the American flag?” asked a distraught Gerry Connolly, the Virginia Democrat.

Rep. Gerry Connolly to Tom Homan: “You’re not at the border right now! You’re in a hearing room! It’s my time!”

— The Hill (@thehill) July 13, 2019

Homan became furious after Jesus Garcia, the Illinois Democrat, accused him of ignoring the mistreatment of immigrant children because they were a different race:

In tense exchange, Rep. Jesús García spars with acting ICE Dir. Thomas Homan over child separation: “Is it because these children don’t look like children that are around you?”

“Your comments are disgusting!” Homan responds. “This is out of control.”

— ABC News (@ABC) July 12, 2019

Later, Homan told Fox he was so upset, he considered assaulting Garcia. So it seems he might be exactly what Trump is looking for in a new DHS head.