When you ask Houstonians about Harris County sheriff Ed Gonzalez, President Joe Biden’s nominee to head the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, you hear a lot about what he isn’t. “He’s not flashy, and he doesn’t showboat,” said former Houston mayor Annise Parker. “You don’t see him too much on TV—he’s not a camera person,” Houston immigration attorney Mana Yegani noted. 

The contrast insiders implicitly draw is to the city’s former police chief Art Acevedo, a voluble self-promoter who loved to hold forth in front of a camera. Of the two Houston lawmen, Acevedo seemed the likelier candidate for a position in the Biden administration. The police chief spoke at last year’s Democratic convention and is widely viewed as having political ambitions; Gonzalez, who declined an interview request for this story, wasn’t on many Texas politicos’ radars. But while both men have cultivated reputations as reformers, Acevedo seemed to view reform mainly through the lens of public relations, while Gonzalez quietly went about the business of changing how the sheriff’s office did business. 

Take the issue of bail reform. When indigent misdemeanor defendants sued Harris County in 2016, contending they were being kept in jail simply because they couldn’t afford to pay their bond, Gonzalez testified in federal court against his county. “When most of the people in my jail are there because they can’t afford to bond out, and when those people are disproportionately Black and Hispanic, that’s not a rational system,” Gonzalez told the court. Acevedo also publicly called for bail reform, but he ended up opposing the reform measures that the county agreed to in a 2019 settlement of the lawsuit. Then, at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, when Gonzales proposed waiving bail for many of the eight thousand inmates in the Harris County jail, Acevedo said doing so would endanger public safety

While Gonzalez has won a reputation in Houston as a reformer, he didn’t garner much national attention until his surprise nomination by Biden. If the U.S. Senate confirms him, and he moves to Washington, D.C., it will be his first time living outside Houston. After earning degrees in criminal justice from the University of Houston-Downtown and the University of St. Thomas in the city’s Montrose neighborhood, Gonzalez joined the Houston Police Department in 1991. He worked his way up from patrol officer to homicide investigator before retiring in 2009 and running for city council, where he served three terms. In 2016, Gonzalez was elected Harris County sheriff, becoming only the second Hispanic to hold the office. 

Gonzalez has spent much of his time in the role fighting the Trump administration’s immigration policies. One month after taking office, he stopped participating in ICE’s 287(g) program, under which ten of his deputies had been tasked with determining the immigration status of jailed suspects. (Harris County had participated in the program since 2008.) Later that year he spoke out forcefully against SB 4, the controversial bill that became a state law banning “sanctuary cities” for undocumented immigrants and requiring local Texas officials to cooperate with federal immigration authorities. In 2019, Gonzalez barred his deputies from participating in large-scale immigration raids in Houston. His stance against the Trump administration’s immigration policies likely endeared him to Biden, who campaigned on making sure that ICE personnel “abide by professional standards and are held accountable for inhumane treatment.” 

Gonzalez’s attempts at reform were frequently stymied by federal and state officials, however. Harris County, which is home to an estimated 466,000 undocumented immigrants, was a top ICE target during the Trump administration. Even after Gonzalez stopped cooperating with the agency, it maintained office space in the county jail and processing center. Agents used county arrest records to round up and detain thousands of undocumented immigrants, many of whom were never charged with a crime. In 2018 alone, immigration courts ordered the deportations of 10,608 Harris County residents, according to a report from the Houston Immigration Legal Service Collaborative. 

During the Biden era, the Texas GOP has become one of the main challengers to federal immigration policy. State attorney general Ken Paxton has filed no fewer than five lawsuits against the Biden administration’s immigration policies, and staged a press conference with three Texas sheriffs at the border on Wednesday to highlight what he called “the tremendous harm being done to this state” by undocumented immigrants. Jessica Pishko, a left-leaning Dallas journalist who is writing a book about the history of American sheriffs, said Biden’s choice of a Texan to lead ICE is “ a very savvy pick.” She regards Gonzalez as the most progressive sheriff in Texas and among the most progressive in the country. “Gonzalez can speak with authority when he contradicts [conservative groups].”  

Many anti-immigration organizations, including Protect America Now, a national coalition of conservative sheriffs, oppose Gonzalez’s nomination. “We’ve seen the results of Gonzalez’s failure to protect victims from clear and immediate safety threats including drug cartels, human trafficking, gangs, and MS-13,” said Harris County GOP chair Cindy Siegel in a written statement to Texas Monthly. (The crime rate has risen in Houston over the last year, as it has in many cities across the country, but there’s no evidence tying the increase to undocumented immigrants.) Ken Oliver, senior director of engagement and “Right on Immigration” with the conservative Texas Public Policy Foundation, accused Gonzalez of trying to “nullify federal law” during his time as sheriff, and expressed worry about his potential leadership of ICE. “He’s going to be under a lot of pressure from the left to not do the deportations that need to be done,” Oliver said. “With illegal immigration surging, there’s going to have to be law enforcement, and he’ll be the one in the hot seat.” 

Texas liberals, by contrast, have largely welcomed Gonzalez’s nomination. “He’s got the police background, he’s got the political chops from being a council member, and he has the experience of running a big agency,” said former mayor Parker. Yegani, the immigration attorney, said she’s been impressed by the way Gonzalez ran the sheriff’s office. “He’s fair, and he follows the rules,” she said. “He genuinely does care.” Once, when one of her clients was held in jail longer than the 48 hours allowed by the county, Yegani reached out to Gonzalez on Twitter. He immediately responded, dispatching a deputy to make sure the man was released. “He got out literally within hours,” Yegani recalled. 

As ICE director, Gonzalez will have the power to make systemic changes to America’s immigration enforcement. Yegani said she would like to see him abolish the 287(g) program, grant pretrial release to more detainees, and treat undocumented immigrants with greater humanity than did his predecessors. Parker said ICE needs to refocus its enforcement efforts on undocumented immigrants who pose a public safety risk, rather than those abiding by the country’s immigration process. “In the last few years, ICE has targeted the most law-abiding undocumented residents,” she said, referencing agents staking out courtrooms to arrest immigrants before or after their immigration hearings. 

Those who want reform believe Gonzalez will finally have broad authority to implement it if he’s confirmed. “At the Harris County jail, Gonzalez had judges and the governor telling him he what he could do,” Pishko said. “At ICE he’ll really be in charge.”