In the middle of a U.S. Supreme Court fight to get millions of undocumented immigrants years of reprieve from deportation, the administration gave the highest civil service award to an immigration agent for his work in arresting those here illegally and kicking them out of the country.
Thomas Homan, the executive associate director of the division within U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) focused on deportations, received the 2015 Presidential Rank Award for Distinguished Service.
“The first thing I do when I get into the office every day is I read the media stories about immigration,” Homan said in an interview with the Washington Post. “I sit here in the morning, and I get frustrated. People don’t understand what we do or how we do it. They just make assumptions.”
ICE lauded him on its website, saying: “Homan’s leadership was tried and proven exemplary during unanticipated and severe challenges in immigration enforcement.”
The agency noted that Homan, a former New York patrolman, “marshaled efforts to handle the surge of unaccompanied children and family units from Central America who illegally entered the United States from across the Texas Rio Grande Valley.”
Of the 316,000 people who were deported between October 2014 and September 2015, some 56 percent were convicted criminals, ICE stated.
The agency added, “To put these numbers in perspective, the amount of criminal aliens removed from U.S. communities … would fill the Dallas Cowboys’ stadium to capacity more than two times over.”
Homan led the expansion of immigrant detention space to house the increased number of families trying to enter the United States from Central America, ICE said.
His success has taken place against a background that is sharply divided over immigration – specifically, what to do about the estimated 12 million undocumented immigrants already here.
The topic is on the front burner of the presidential race, with Republican front-runner Donald Trump saying he wants to deport millions and build a huge wall on the U.S.-Mexico border, and Senator Ted Cruz also expressing support for cracking down on illegal immigration.
Meanwhile President Barack Obama's administration is asking the Supreme Court to allow it to put in place two programs that could shield roughly 4 million people from deportation and make them eligible to work in the United States.
Texas is leading 26 states challenging the programs that Obama announced in 2014, but which have been put on hold by lower courts. Those states say the president, in issuing the programs via executive action, usurped power that belongs to Congress. Justice Anthony Kennedy has indicated some support for that view.
The programs would apply to parents of children who are citizens or are living in the country legally. Eligibility also would be expanded for the 2012 program to provide deportation protection to people who were brought here without documentation as children. More than 700,000 people have taken advantage of that program, which is known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals or DACA.
The extension for parents, known as Deferred Action for Parents of Americans or DAPA, and the expanded program for children could affect as many as 4 million people, according to the nonpartisan Migration Policy Institute.
Homan, 54, knows many resent ICE’s deportation efforts, saying they target people who come here to work and contribute. Deportations, they say, upend families and communities.
He told the Post that many of the people who get deported “already had their day in court.”
“It’s not my favorite part of the job,” Homan said of deportations. “But their due process is over. That final order of removal needs to mean something.”
He won't publicly give his opinion of the debate over immigration, the Post observed, but Homan does think the public view of immigration agents is distorted.
“They’re beaten down, frankly,” he said. “But the laws were enacted by Congress. We don’t do schoolhouse raids or neighborhood raids. We don’t show up with bulletproof vests. I’m not ashamed of what I do.”
He added, “We arrest a lot of bad guys. We prevent crimes.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.