At his confirmation hearing Thursday, Ronald Vitiello, the Trump administration’s nominee to lead Immigration and Customs Enforcement, downplayed the government’s failures in the process that separated more than 2,000 children from their parents at the U.S.-Mexico border.
Vitiello, a former high-level Customs and Border Protection official and ICE’s current acting director, went so far as to deny there was a policy to separate families at all, taking a page from other Trump administration officials.
“It wasn’t a family separation policy,” Vitiello told the Senate Committee on Homeland Security & Governmental Affairs during his confirmation hearing to take on the post of ICE director permanently. “It was an increased level of prosecution.”
Vitiello departed CBP to take on an equally ― or possibly even more ― contentious role at ICE, which has long been criticized for its practices of arresting and deporting immigrants already living in the country. He vowed to defend ICE against calls to abolish it, and to carry out President Donald Trump’s order not to exempt anyone from removal if they are eligible for it. He also left open the possibility for families to be split up in the future so parents can be indefinitely detained without their children.
But much of the hearing was devoted to the family separations that took place while Vitiello was at CBP, where he served as acting deputy commissioner until June.
It’s true that family separations were a result of increased prosecution of illegal border crossings. But there’s ample evidence the administration was well aware that prosecuting parents would separate families ― something it had considered in order to crack down on illegal border crossings ― and that it was not simply an unintended consequence.
Still, Trump and his administration have attempted to cast blame elsewhere for the immigrant families they separated, most of them under a “zero tolerance” policy for illegal border crossings implemented in April. The stories of children being ripped from their parents’ arms led to a public outcry, the suspension of the policy and a federal judge’s order for the government to reunite the families it split up ― something it was not fully prepared to do, according to the government’s own analysis.
Vitiello said that while officials were aware separation “would have been a consequence” of the prosecutions, the government did not contemplate “having the systems work backwards” for reunifications. “Nobody in the discussions that I was involved in were contemplating that these people would be separated forever,” he said.
Vitiello said that “luckily” the president had ended “zero tolerance” for parents. However, when asked about the lessons learned from the fiasco, he pointed largely to the lack of preparation to deal with the onslaught of criticism.
Criticism also came up in the context of calls to abolish ICE, a political cause that has not gained sufficient traction in Congress to move forward. As a career Border Patrol officer in the past, Vitiello stressed his commitment to defend ICE personnel from protests, threats and misunderstandings about its mission.
Vitiello served as a Border Patrol officer and official for most of his career, and during his confirmation hearing he emphasized his desire to defend ICE’s mission and the agents who carry it out. He indicated he would carry out Trump’s efforts to crack down on unauthorized immigration even if it meant detaining people with longstanding ties to the U.S., arguing that ICE can and should remove the people it encounters if they’ve undergone court proceedings.
Vitiello also had to defend heated language of his own. He apologized for a 2015 tweet calling the Democratic Party the “NeoKlanist” party, which he said was a joke he thought he’d sent in a private message.
As head of ICE, Vitiello could now be in charge of another round of family separations, should the government implement a “binary choice” policy in which parents can choose to either waive their children’s legal right to be freed from detention or have them be released without them. The Trump administration is seeking to change the policy by modifying the Flores Settlement agreement that bars indefinite detention of immigrant kids, even with their parents.
Vitiello said he’s aware health professionals have warned that long-term detention is damaging to kids.
But he insisted that a “binary choice” policy would provide due process to parents and speed up legal proceedings so people could be deported more quickly, and would discourage unauthorized immigration. It’s unclear why indefinite detention of families or locking up parents while releasing their children would speed up immigration proceedings, which are largely delayed by backlogs in immigration courts.
“If we can close the loop on proceedings with due process, we’ll get less recidivism at the border, we’ll get less people bringing their children,” Vitiello said. “So it is an option.”