EXCLUSIVE — The acting leader at U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) is preparing to step down after serving for more than two years in the post absent a permanent leader being confirmed, the Washington Examiner has learned.
ICE Deputy Director Tae Johnson, a 28-year federal immigration officer, will retire in the coming weeks after overseeing the federal agency for two years and three months since President Joe Biden took office in January 2021.
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Rep. Tony Gonzales (R-TX) confirmed Johnson’s planned retirement to the Washington Examiner on Tuesday.
ICE issued a statement to the Washington Examiner following publication that addressed Johnson’s employment, but it did not flatly deny that he was planning to retire.
“Rumors surrounding the retirement of Acting ICE Director Tae Johnson are just that. Acting Director Johnson has not announced plans to retire,” ICE spokeswoman Jenny Burke wrote in an email. “He will continue leading the men and women of this agency with the same integrity and commitment that he has demonstrated throughout his entire career.”
The loss of the agency’s head more than halfway into President Joe Biden’s term will continue a five-year period the agency has not had a confirmed leader — all as Congress attempts to overhaul border security and immigration laws that affect ICE’s work.
ICE has not disclosed Johnson’s forthcoming departure or who will succeed him, though it could fall to the next-in-line senior official performing the duties of the deputy director, Patrick J. Lechleitner. Two sources familiar with Johnson’s forthcoming departure told the Washington Examiner late last week that he planned to retire by late April.
Johnson was the ninth consecutive acting director of ICE in the last five years.
Johnson was scheduled to appear before the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Homeland Security Tuesday morning to testify about the agency’s fiscal 2024 budget needs.
Biden had nominated a sheriff from Houston to lead ICE in April 2021. But Harris County Sheriff Ed Gonzalez failed to get a confirmation vote by the Senate and withdrew his name in July 2022 after reports of domestic abuse. Biden has not nominated anyone else since Gonzalez.
Under the Trump administration, more than half a dozen officials led ICE in temporary roles, which has continued under Biden.
Former criminal prosecutor Jonathan Fahey was two weeks into his role temporarily overseeing ICE in early January 2021 but stepped down a week before Trump left office. Fahey’s deputy, Johnson, was made the acting director.
Biden took office amid calls from progressive Democrats to abolish the agency, whose responsibility it is to enforce immigration laws that Congress has enacted. Biden immediately paused deportations, and his administration quickly shifted protocols for which illegal immigrants in the United States would be eligible for arrest and removal.
In fiscal 2021, which began in September 2020, arrests and deportations of illegal immigrants bottomed out under Biden, dropping more than 75% compared to the record-high numbers seen during the Obama administration.
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ICE removed 59,011 noncitizens from October 2020 through September 2021, with most being under the Biden administration’s more rigid criteria for who could be taken into custody. In 2011, nearly 400,000 noncitizens were deported — meaning the numbers were down 85% under Biden.
ICE has also overwhelmingly chosen not to detain illegal immigrants in government facilities through court proceedings. This year, the Biden administration has requested funding for 25,000 beds in detention facilities, while more than 5 million people have been encountered illegally entering the country over the past two years, more than half of whom have been released into the U.S. and either tracked digitally or not at all.
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