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WAMC Interviews Acting ICE Director Matthew Albence

Acting ICE Director Matthew Albence speaks in Troy
Lucas Willard
Acting ICE Director Matthew Albence speaks in Troy

The acting head of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement has been paying close attention to our region of late. Met by protestors, Matthew Albence was in Troy on February 20, where he and several law enforcement officers criticized New York state’s Green Light Law, which permits undocumented immigrants to apply for a driver’s license. WAMC News spoke with Albence Friday morning.

Governor Andrew Cuomo dismissed your visit to Rensselaer County as political theater and he said it's just a shot across the bow because the federal government doesn't like the state's immigration policies. What's your response to that?

Well, I don't do politics. The governor’s a politician. I'm not. I’m a career law enforcement officer. And my overarching concern is the safety and security of my officers and agents that are out there on the streets every day putting their lives on the line, enforcing the laws of this country and keeping us safe, as well as the citizenry that they're trying to protect and try to keep safe and this Green Light Law makes it let's say for our officers makes it less safe for community and it makes it incredibly much more difficult to actually do our jobs.

 Governor Cuomo says that the federal government can already access whatever data it wants from New York's DMV. He says the FBI can get that information. So why does ICE specifically need it? And what is it specifically looking for?

Well, first off he’s incorrect about that. The agencies that even his own state, he made his own agencies that access that DMV data, sign a nondisclosure agreement, stating that they would not share that information with ICE and CBP, meaning that he was willing to turn off that access to his own state agencies in that state, putting those officers that need that information at risk in order to ensure that these illegal aliens could have driver's licenses. So that's simply not accurate. With regard to why we need this information, driver's license information, license plate information, registration information is some of the most basic information that we need to conduct investigations and many times, if we're doing a child exploitation case or human trafficking case, the first piece of information that we have, the first lead that we have is a license plate or sometimes even just a partial license plate. It's that information that we need when we get ready to start looking into a case and working up an investigation that we need that information. For example, we could have an undercover officer out there, getting ready to do an undercover drug buy and buying fentanyl, which as we all know, is killerizing communities around this country with regard to the scourge of that drug. And we could have our officer on an undercover capacity out there getting ready to make a deal with the dangerous drug dealer and we’re expecting a certain individual show up driving a certain vehicle and all of a sudden we get two others car show up, that we don't know who's driving, then we can't run those tags to find out who they are. We don't know if these are some innocent citizens just happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, or is this a rip squad that's coming to take our guys’ money and kill them? So that's a huge officer safety concern.

But isn't that the realm of the FBI? I mean, if the FBI has that information, what's the issue with ICE?

But that's not how it works. We don't get information from the FBI. All federal law force agencies have access to direct real time information through Nlets and let's that's why it was set up. That's why it's there. So just because the FBI has it or DEA has it doesn't do anything for our guys on the street that need immediate information with regard to who was this vehicle that just pulled up belong to, who is this individual in front of us presenting this driver's license. All of those things, is this individual a wanted felon, is he known to use weapons, all of those things that are relevant to our officer safety and to actually doing our job. So if that's the case, why don't we just say why don't we turn off all crime information across the country because FBI has it? That's not how it works. There's hundreds of law enforcement agencies across this country that utilize the same information and need real time access to it.

Let me try to articulate New York State's position on this and get your response to it. So the Green Light Law passed because advocates said, ‘You know, we've got a lot of problems with people living in the shadows. They may be undocumented but they're driving around. They're not insured. If there is an accident, if there's a crash, they're not staying to deal with authorities. And here's a way of sort of bringing people into the fold.’ But not penalizing them over their immigration status, whatever that that may be, which is a civil offense.

So let me just stop you right there. Because it's not a civil offense. Most of the individuals that are here in violation of civil immigration law are also in violation of criminal immigration law. So that is one of those myths that's out there all the time. Most of the people that are here illegally are violating both civil and criminal immigration law. So let's get that straight, please.

So isn't this isn't this a states’ rights issue? I mean, New York State has passed this law, because it's identified this particular need, at least the lawmakers who are there now.

Yeah, we're not saying anything with regard to whether New York State wants to issue driver's licenses illegal aliens, they can do what they want with their own state driver's licenses. What we are saying is the information that they have in their databases that is critical to our officers doing their job safely and to the communities that we're trying to protect is essential. And that that information needs to continue to be shared with the federal government. I mean, look at CBP, when they had to turn off the trusted traveler program and some of the export things that they're doing, because they don't have the most basic of information to vet the individuals that are applying for these programs. Information is the lifeblood I mean, if we learned anything from have we not learned anything from 9/11, especially in the state of New York, there was all sorts of intelligence agencies and law for centuries had various pieces of information with regard to these 9/11 hijackers that wasn't shared. And that was one of the problems that was highlighted by the 9/11 Commission. But this is a pre-9/11 mentality in a post-9/11 world, it's dangerous.

I think the concern from critics of your organization is that it's not necessarily terrorists and the most dangerous of the dangerous, it's that ICE is going to use that DMV information to deport people who have not committed any crimes except for being in the country illegally, and maybe they came here 15,20 years ago.

Well, first off, we don't need that information from the state of New York to make determinations as to whether or not somebody's here illegally or not. And if you look at what we actually do if you're talking to straight from a civil immigration enforcement perspective, in the state of New York, we made almost 3,800 arrests last year, over 3,100 of those are individuals with criminal convictions or criminal charges that included 130 homicides, 600 sex offenses, 450, weapons offenses, 280 robberies, and over 1,200 assaults. So those are the individuals that we're going after and utilizing our limited resources to go after, those individuals that are preying upon the communities. And oftentimes, these individuals are preying upon the exact same number of communities that these politicians are purporting to support.

Let me ask you about a story that's in the New York Times today. It's a big story. It says ICE has begun around the clock surveillance of undocumented immigrants and so-called sanctuary cities. This follows the court ruling just a few days ago that found that the federal government does not have to provide these ongoing grants to cities that have established sanctuary policies and won't cooperate with you. And this report says it's supposed to run, you know, the rest of the year and that 500 special agents are being sent to the cities. In the story, the mayor of Chicago is quoted as saying it's just a scare tactic. What's your response to that?

It's not a scare tactic. What's scary is the fact that these jurisdictions continue to turn out criminal aliens back out into the street where they go out to reoffend. I mean, just look at what we saw in New York City just a few months ago with that individual who was arrested by NYPD for stabbing his father in the chest with a broken coffee mug and is released and months later and goes on to kill an innocent 92- and kill and rape an innocent 92-year-old woman. That's what should be scaring the community, the fact that these jurisdictions through these misguided policies and through their goal to put politics over public safety is preventing us from doing our job to get these criminals out of these communities. Our stats are consistent you go look at our stats on website over the past decade, and you will see that largely nine out of 10 people that we arrest is a convicted criminal, has a pending criminal charge, is an illegal reentrant, meaning they were deported previously and already reentered the country illegally, which is a felony, or they're an immigration fugitive, which means they've had their day in immigration court. They've been ordered removed by an immigration judge and we are required to execute those removal orders. No other federal law enforcement agency or any law enforcement agency in this country, for that matter, is being asked to ignore a lawfully issued order from a federal judge, which these jurisdictions are asking us to do by ignoring our duties.

You mentioned 9/11 while you were in Troy, and you just brought it up again in our interview here. And Governor Cuomo, I think, particularly didn't love that comparison. So what's the correlation there? I mean, a lot of the people in that particular case but also in terror events around the country since then, have been here legally.

Again, but there's information that helps us do these investigations. Just because somebody here illegally does not mean or hasn't been charged or arrested for a crime doesn't mean they're not involved in criminal activity. That's why we're here. That's why we investigate. You know, we have the second largest component on the Joint Terrorism Task Force. 70% of all the disruptions last year that came out of the Joint Terrorism Task Force were for immigration violations. So this is a national security issue. This is a public safety issue. We're talking about, you know, human trafficking, we're talking about child exploitation. We're talking about narcotics trafficking, all these crimes that we investigate, ICE is responsible investigating more than 400 federal crimes. And if you look at what's happening in the state of New York and a little girl, look, what was that was talking about articles just came out. I saw yesterday that in the city of New York, crime rate is up 22.5% of major crimes as a result of the bail reform act. Well, ICE actually been out there arresting these individuals that the city and the state has had to release as a result of bail reform act. We've arrested 112 people in the past three weeks that were required to be arrested by the bail reform act. These are individuals that have been arrested for criminal violations in the most times, multiple criminal violations that we have now taken off the street before they can reoffend.

And just in fairness, the governor and the Senate Majority Leader have said they want to take another look at that law this month.

Well, that's great. And we're here to, you know, we'll show them what we've found in going out after these individuals. But it's the same argument to sit there and say in in one hand, on one hand that, well, you know, the ball reform format is bad because it's hurting these criminals back out in the street where these criminals go out and reoffend, it's the exact same thing we've been saying all along with these sanctuary jurisdictions. Before the bail reform act came into play, these jurisdictions were turning out criminals back out into the street, that ICE wanted to get off the streets, and they went out committed more crimes. It's the exact same situation, just one happens to be a state law and one happens to be these policies by these misguided politicians.

Let me ask you this. There's estimated to be anywhere between, you know, 12 and 15 million undocumented people living in the country. Should all of them go?

Look, we have about 6,000 or so officers that are charged with doing primarily civil immigration enforcement. Just like any law enforcement agency, none of us have the amount of resources we do to go after every individual that we're charged with doing so. So we prioritize our resources, going after those individuals that pose the greatest risk and harm and threat to our community, we did it. That's the exact same way we operated in this administration, the exact same way we operate in the prior administration. So there's a bunch of myths out there, that ICE is out there rounding up people at schools and hospitals and all that, all those things, and it's simply not true. Look at our stats, go to our webpage, listen to look, go look at our year-end report for the past decade and see what we do with our resources. We take criminals, public safety threats, national security threats off the street. Does that mean we're going to do so at the exclusion of other individuals that are here illegally that have had their day in court and in order removed by an immigration judge? Absolutely not.

But in your mind, is crossing the border illegally and then maybe staying here for 20 years, is that itself grounds to be deported from the country?

Well, first of all, it's not my mind. OK. Our officers are charged with enforcing federal laws. So Congress has made that a federal violent criminal violation. It's been a federal criminal violation for seven, eight decades. So if we don't get to pick and choose, as law enforcement officers, sworn federal officers, what laws we enforce and watch walls, we don't we enforce the laws that Congress has passed. We do it professionally. We do it humanely. And then we do it effectively. But that's — we don't get to pick and choose and no one in this country should want their law enforcement officers picking and choosing which laws to enforce and against which people that's what the rule of law means. It means that the law is enforced fairly and equitably against all individuals who violated said law.

But the administration does to a certain degree get to pick and choose what it will focus on. I mean, you know, President Trump has had a different point of view about DACA over the over the years. And that might be an example where someone who was covered a few years ago, came to the country as a child, now might be a target for deportation.

Well, first off DACA hasn't been decided by the Supreme Court. So that's an issue that's out there. You know, again, we don't get to pick and choose which laws and force, we don't get to pick and choose which judge's orders we choose enforce. That's not what federal law enforcement officers do. It's not what any law enforcement officer does. You don't have an individual in, you know, in New York City that gets ordered, you know, put in jail by a judge and the cop that is supposed to execute that warrant says, ‘Yeah, you know what, this guy's a good guy. He's got a job, I'm not gonna go put him in jail, even though the judge says you have to.’ That's not how it works.

I just have a couple more questions for you. Some advocates in the state of Massachusetts filed a lawsuit claiming that you're not able to serve in your role because you've been in an acting role since 2019 and haven’t been confirmed by the Senate. Do you have any response to that?

Well, I'm-25 year career law enforcement officer, my permanent position is the deputy director of ICE. I'm acting as a senior official performing the duties of the acting director. But as the deputy director of ICE, as I've been in this, and as for going close to two years now, I have operational responsibility for the entire organization. So my role and my responsibilities and my authorities stem from that position, which includes the authority to issue any policy or operational directive that's required.

Does your agency have any role in the coronavirus response?

Very limited role in that. Most of our concerns with that is if we have individuals that come into our custody, that have been exposed or are showing signs of symptoms, but luckily, luckily or unluckily, we're very used to dealing with individuals with communicable diseases in our detention facilities. At the high point of the crisis last year, for example, we had 6,000 or 7,000 individuals that were quarantined because they had either chickenpox or mumps or some other communicable disease. So in our detention facilities, we have the immigration health services corps, we have licensed medical professionals on site that deal with the situation. So we have plenty of experience in dealing with these individuals, should they come into our custody.

Last question, just because it's very interesting to people in our neck of the woods. Have you been in touch with the Cuomo administration at all since your visit here on February 20?

I'm not but I know the administration has been in contact, the Cuomo administration have been in contact with both DHS proper as well the White House.

OK, that's the acting head of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Matthew Albence, thank you so much for your time, and we appreciate it.

Thanks for having me.

And you're listening to WAMC.

A lifelong resident of the Capital Region, Ian joined WAMC in late 2008 and became news director in 2013. He began working on Morning Edition and has produced The Capitol Connection, Congressional Corner, and several other WAMC programs. Ian can also be heard as the host of the WAMC News Podcast and on The Roundtable and various newscasts. Ian holds a BA in English and journalism and an MA in English, both from the University at Albany, where he has taught journalism since 2013.
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