House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Bennie G. Thompson flatly ruled out any efforts to abolish U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, saying that while the agency may need a “tweak,” he supports its mission.
The Mississippi Democrat’s declaration, made in an interview taped Friday for C-SPAN’s “Newsmakers” program, puts the nail in already faint hopes of immigrant-rights activists who had said the agency had gone overboard and needed to be nixed.
“I’ve been a supporter of ICE. They do a job, but just like any operation, we can review what they do and if we need to tweak it I’m committed to doing that. There’s been some question about ICE’s interior enforcement — we need to look at that,” Mr. Thompson said.
Asked if he would allow a bill to abolish ICE to come through his committee, he flatly rejected the idea: “No.”
On the border wall and shutdown fight, Mr. Thompson said he’s not opposed to spending money on border barriers, and acknowledged voting for such money in the past.
He said the trouble with President Trump’s current demand is that there’s not enough detail on how the $5.7 billion request would be spent.
“In the past, projects that I have supported, I’ll support again, if the plans are there. But we don’t have the plans,” he said. “In the absence of a plan, I’ll join my Democratic colleagues and oppose a so-called wall.”
Mr. Thompson is returning to the chairman’s post, which he also held the last time Democrats were in power, with an expansive agenda.
His most immediate committee priority is demanding an appearance by Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, who he said only testified once to the panel last year.
He said he had questions about her competence.
“Some of us have some concerns about whether or not she’s been up to the task, but we’ll give her a chance to defend her position,” the congressman said.
Also in the plans are hearings with the chiefs of Customs and Border Protection and the Transportation Security Administration.
Mr. Thompson seemed to be bracing for battles with the Trump administration over information and access, saying he expects things to improve compared to the last two years when information was often late or over-redacted.
In other business, he said his committee is working on pipeline and port security and will work with other panels who share jurisdiction on election security to craft more help for states dealing with potential breaches and foreign meddling.
He said the move back toward a paper trail for votes has been surprising.
He said the 2018 election went smoother than some had feared because states were on the lookout and bad actors were aware the U.S. was alert.
“I think because people knew we were watching that many of those things did not occur,” he said. “We did not have as much mischief in 2018 as we did in 2016, and some of it was probably associated with the training of officials was better.”
Mr. Thompson said his committee has had a tradition of working in a bipartisan fashion, and he hoped to continue that and extend it to working with the administration.
But the politics of immigration could sour those hopes, with Mr. Trump demanding a crackdown on what he sees as a security emergency, while Democrats dismiss that as hyperbole.
During the campaign some Democrats even announced their support for eliminating ICE, the agency that detains and deports illegal immigrants. Some liberal Democrats announced legislation to create a commission to abolish the agency and shift its duties elsewhere.
The frenzy peaked in the summer, as the president was backing away from his controversial zero tolerance border policy and the family separations that resulted.
Mr. Thompson’s stance derails plans to eliminate the agency — though he said Congress will examine detention policies under the Trump administration.
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