In an interview with ABC News, the nation’s top immigration enforcement official scolded lawmakers for heated political rhetoric that he said put his agents’ safety at risk and declared that “everyone” should “take a deep breath,” an admonition that could apply to President Donald Trump as well as critics of his policies.
“We’re not Nazis,” he said in a wide-ranging interview this week, referencing comparisons from Democrats who've described migrant detention centers as “concentration camps.”
The plea by acting U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Director Matthew Albence is likely to solicit pushback. Critics say his agency’s tactics have grown increasingly aggressive, including one incident in which ICE officers smashed the window of a car with a man sitting inside with his young children. He was dragged out and arrested, then deported. Agency officials said the force was justified because the man had previously been deported and had reentered the U.S. – a felony.
But Albence insists that not enough is being done to tell the side of the agents who are responsible for enforcing President Donald Trump's most controversial immigration policies.
The comments drew a contrast with Trump’s approach to the immigration debate. Trump has declared a “war” on illegal migration and in June said ICE would start targeting “millions” of undocumented immigrants.
Despite the threats, ICE has not hit the record number of annual removals made during the Obama administration. Those numbers hit a peak in 2011 when the agency removed more than 400,000 people from the country. Under Trump, fewer than 260,000 were removed in the first full budget year of his presidency.
To explain these results, Albence pointed to the changing demographics of more recent border crossers, noting that the Central American families crossing in record numbers over the past year are more difficult to deport than single adult men from Mexico.
He also said a lack of cooperation from state and local law enforcement was to blame.
“Unfortunately the politics of this have gotten so bad that they would rather put these politics over public safety,” Albence said.
When Trump announced earlier this year he would take a “tougher” approach in immigration enforcement, some local police chiefs spoke out against the move. They argued that Trump’s public shows of force to create deterrent effects for border crossers can make immigrant communities fearful, putting obstacles in the way of fighting local crime.
Albence rejected the idea that his agency was responsible for instilling fear in any way.
“No I don’t think I have to address the fear,” Albence told ABC News. “If you are here in this country illegally you are subject to arrest and, if ordered removed by an immigration judge, removal from this country. That hasn't changed.”
Albence also blamed those stagnant laws and congressional inaction for the dilemma his agency faces in attempting to detain more families and children long-term. Currently the agency has a capacity to hold a maximum 3,000 family members with two detention centers in Texas and Pennsylvania.
Border Patrol has been forced to release tens of thousands of family members since the migration influx started putting major strains on holding cells back in March.
And while the Trump administration continues to litigate its recent move to lift detention limits on families and children, Albence insisted that indefinite detention is not on the table.
“There is no such thing as indefinite detention,” Albence argued. “When individuals are in our custody just as if they're arrested for a criminal violation. There is a process that they are going through.”
As the administration continues to take aggressive action, the enforcement push has been complicated by a thorough shake-up of Trump’s Homeland Security agency earlier this year. Albence took over the top job at ICE in June. His predecessor, Mark Morgan, had the job less than two months before transitioning to acting chief of U.S. Customs and Border Protection.
The heads of all three domestic immigration agencies - ICE, CBP, and U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services - agencies currently work in an “acting” capacity.
Albence, who has made a career in immigration enforcement, said he’s not interested in becoming the agency’s permanent director.