The widow of a Houston police officer killed by an illegal immigrant was "shocked" to learn that the city's former police chief has landed a top immigration job with the Obama administration, her lawyer told FoxNews.com on Friday.
That's because Joslyn Johnson, whose husband, Rodney Johnson, was killed in 2006, is suing former Houston Police Chief Harold Hurtt for failing to enforce federal immigration laws. She claims her husband would be alive today if the city had bothered to check up on the gunman's immigration status.
Now that Hurtt is taking a job to oversee partnerships between federal and local officials with Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Johnson -- and other critics -- say they're concerned the official who resisted immigration enforcement in Houston will now be in charge of promoting it.
"She was shocked at the irony," Johnson's attorney, Ben Dominguez, said.
As a police chief, Hurtt was a supporter of "sanctuary city" policies, by which illegal immigrants who don't commit crimes can live without fear of exposure or detainment because police don't check for immigration papers. During his tenure as Houston police chief, he criticized ICE's key program that draws on local law enforcement's support. He said in 2008 that local police "don't want to be immigration officers." He described that as a burden on the force.
Several years after the killing, Hurtt announced he would participate in the federal 287(g) program, which gives local police authority to initiate deportation proceedings against illegal immigrants linked to serious crimes. But then the city backed off the program and linked up with ICE on a separate one that has local officials run immigration checks on suspects once they are in jail.
Johnson could not speak directly to FoxNews.com because she is also a member of the Houston police force and subject to rules prohibiting her from commenting on department policy.
Dominguez, speaking on her behalf, said Johnson believes Hurtt is "competent" but hopes he does not spearhead policies that will put officers in harm's way.
"If (his federal policy is) similar to Houston's policy, then it's going to continue to endanger private citizens and officers," Dominguez said.
The gunman who killed Johnson's husband had already been deported once, returned and then arrested at least three times before he shot the officer. Johnson's original court petition -- naming Hurtt as well as the city and the police department -- claimed that the department's failure to discover the gunman's immigration status and report him to federal authorities enabled him to stay "at large" in the country.
Dominguez said officers at the time were not checking the immigration status of suspects.
Johnson's suit is not seeking monetary damages, aside from attorney fees -- it is seeking a change in policy so that federal immigration databases are widely available to local departments. Hurtt is still a party to the lawsuit but has not been served because he left the force, Dominguez said.
Kelly Nantel, a spokeswoman for ICE, told FoxNews.com that Hurtt has always been a proponent of the jail model of the 287(g) program, but as a police chief, he didn't favor more proactive local enforcement because he didn't believe it was the best utilization of his resources.
"I think the critics are only talking about half of what he said," she said. "He's always been a strong proponent of every law enforcement agency making those decisions on their own."
But the criticism has been strong.
Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, questioned whether Hurtt was the right choice for the job.
"Here he is, he should be standing up for the letter of federal law," King said. "I don't know how he can do that given the record that he has. I think this is another piece in the puzzle to granting some type of de facto amnesty."
Hurtt, a former police chief in Houston and Phoenix, will assume the position of director for the ICE Office of State and Local Coordination. Starting July 6, Hurtt will supervise outreach and communication between ICE, local law enforcement agencies, tribal leaders and representatives from non-governmental organizations.
Aside from the Houston case, Hurtt's policies have been blamed for enabling illegal immigrants to kill two police officers and seriously injure another in Phoenix before he left in 2005.
But Nantel dismissed such allegations.
"The responsibility of those homicides lies on the shoulder of the individuals who committed the crimes," Nantel said.