A Former ICE Chief Melts Down

Thomas Homan, like the agency he led, rejects any limits on his power.

Thomas Homan at a microphone in a hearing room.
Thomas Homan, former acting director at Immigration and Customs Enforcement, testifying before Congress back in July. Yehyun Kim/USA Today via Reuters

Thomas Homan, the Trump administration’s acting director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement from January 2017 to June 2018, helped to transform the agency into an arm of Donald Trump’s nativist agenda. During his 17 months, ICE escalated its terror tactics against immigrant communities, tormented thousands of individuals in ICE custody, and lied to federal courts. On Thursday, asked to answer for his agency’s conduct and policies in a congressional hearing, he responded with a meltdown that perfectly captured a lawless organization’s rejection of any rules or authority that might limit its power.

Thursday’s hearing before the House Subcommittee on Immigration and Citizenship focused on ICE detention centers, a hotbed of human rights abuses. More than 50,000 immigrants are currently being held in ICE custody, with private, for-profit prisons housing nearly three-fourths of them. Reports issued by the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Inspector General in June 2019 and September 2018 found that ICE facilities are filthy, brutal, and dangerous. Immigrants, including children, are routinely denied access to medical care. They are forced to live in filthy conditions, given food that is expired and unsafe, denied hygiene items like toothbrushes and soap, and denied recreation and visitation. Detainees are illegally placed in solitary confinement and strip-searched. At one facility, inspectors found nooses in 15 different cells. At least 24 immigrants have died in ICE detention under Trump.

Democratic Rep. Pramila Jayapal, who chaired the subcommittee on Thursday, is the sponsor of a bill, the Dignity for Detained Immigrants Act of 2019, that seeks to address these problems. The measure would heighten standards for ICE facilities, increase inspections, grant more robust rights to detainees, and phase out ICE’s use of private prisons. It has 130 co-sponsors in the House of Representatives, all Democrats. Jayapal sought to use the hearing to explore the cruelty inflicted on ICE’s victims. Witnesses included Selene Saavedra Roman, a Dreamer wrongfully detained by ICE for six weeks; Denis Davydov, a gay HIV-positive immigrant wrongfully detained by ICE while seeking asylum from Russia; and Blanche Engochan, a Cameroon refugee subjected to horrific mistreatment in ICE detention.

These survivors had important and heartbreaking stories to tell about the trauma they suffered at the hand of ICE officers. Yet Homan repeatedly hijacked the hearing to express his outrage about the real victims of all this, himself and the agency he used to lead. He shrieked at congressional Democrats, accusing them of making “inaccurate and disgusting” attacks on his agency. He praised ICE detention facilities, insisting that they “have the highest standards in the industry” and the “best facilities in the world.” In fact, Homan suggested that the U.S. spends too much money taking care of ICE detainees, declaring: “I think a lot of taxpayers would be insulted on the amount of money we spend on such a high standards.” And he charged Democrats with “grandstanding political theater to attack our president and this administration and the men and women who serve in this administration.”

The most indelible moment arrived when Homan’s time expired—and he refused to stop speaking. Jayapal attempted to gavel him down, but he continued to insult her. His rant ended with a moment of rage as he lectured Jayapal: “I’m a taxpayer, you work for me!”

This was not his first blowup at the prospect of having to answer to criticism. Earlier this month, Homan engaged in a similar performance, attempting to shout down Democratic Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez after his time expired. Like Jayapal, Ocasio-Cortez had to gavel him down.

It was hard to miss the symbolism of Homan training his rage and condescension on two women of color. When he took over ICE, he instilled a culture that emboldened agents to disregard the rights of minority populations. Multiple ICE officers infamously lied repeatedly to a federal court in an effort to deport a Dreamer, falsely accusing him of gang affiliation. A federal judge also ruled that ICE officials had made “demonstrably false statements to the Court” and concealed key facts in its quest to deport 100 Iraqi immigrants. ICE agents arrested a victim of domestic violence at a courthouse where she had sought a protective order, allegedly acting on a tip from her abuser. The agents then appear to have lied about the incident on an affidavit, claiming they approached her after she exited when surveillance footage showed them accosting her inside the courthouse.

These incidents demonstrate how ICE operated under Homan’s watch. Agents felt free to illegally detain immigrants, then deceive courts to secure their deportation. They treated their targets as legal nonpersons, in a crusade to detain and deport as many as possible. ICE has gone after lawful immigrants, too, attempting to revoke their green cards for no good reason. Homan claimed he simply sought to enforce the laws on the books. But when state legislators began to limit local law enforcement’s ability to cooperate with ICE, Homan announced on Fox News that those lawmakers should be charged with crimes.

The first wave of coverage of Homan’s outburst Thursday came from right-wing media, praising his defiance. It was pure Trumpism, the elevation of culture war over the basic constitutional order. Thomas Homan does not recognize the authority of Pramila Jayapal or Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. He does not think he has to follow their rules. He does not believe that two women of color have any right to hold power over him. “You work for me!” the former government employee screamed at an elected member of the government. He is a man who is used to wielding power against people who look like Jayapal and Ocasio-Cortez. He is the embodiment of ICE under Trump, certain—as so many ICE officers are—that he answers to no one.