WASHINGTON—President Donald Trump’s pick to lead Immigration and Customs Enforcement is retiring in June after a tumultuous tenure as the agency’s acting director.
Thomas Homan was nominated to the top post by Mr. Trump in November, but the Homeland Security Department hadn’t submitted his required paperwork to the Senate, and he never had a confirmation hearing.
That delay came about at least in part because Mr. Homan was unsure he wanted the post, according to one person familiar with his thinking. He made the decision to leave early this year, but it wasn’t announced until Monday, officials said.
Mr. Homan was a divisive figure as he ramped up arrests of people living in the U.S. illegally, discarding enforcement priorities of the Obama administration that targeted criminals but left alone otherwise law-abiding undocumented immigrants.
His nomination was expected to draw little if any Democratic support in the GOP-controlled Senate.
But his decision to step away was motivated more by a tense relationship with Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, according to three people close to him. He felt sidelined during immigration negotiations with Congress earlier this year, and frustrated she wasn’t acting quickly enough on his recommendations, two of these people said.
Ms. Nielsen personally represented the department during congressional negotiations and didn’t bring with her the heads of the component agencies. Mr. Homan wanted Ms. Nielsen to move ahead his with suggested policies, including the separation of children from their parents when they cross the border together so that the parents can be held in detention and prosecuted, according to the two people.
A spokesman for Ms. Nielsen spokesman said this characterization was false but declined to offer a specific response. Another Nielsen aide said Ms. Nielsen attended the meetings as the representative of the department and brought lower-level aides along to back her up. He said Mr. Homan was too senior to have served in that role.
In a message to DHS employees, Ms. Nielsen praised Mr. Homan’s long service. “Tom is a patriot and a true public servant who has consistently put service before self,” the message said in part.
Mr. Homan first joined the federal workforce in 1984 as a Border Patrol agent, before moving to ICE, where he climbed the ranks. Under the Obama administration, he led the Enforcement and Removal Operations division, responsible for deportations.
Mr. Homan was preparing for retirement when Mr. Trump took office and then-DHS Secretary John Kelly asked him to stay on as acting director of ICE. In a statement, Mr. Homan, 56 years old, attributed his departure to family considerations. “The decision to leave federal service after more than 34 years is bittersweet, but my family has sacrificed a lot in order for me to serve and it’s time for me to focus on them,” he said.
Mr. Homan speaks with reverence for ICE officers and the dangers they face working the streets. The White House has repeatedly asked Mr. Homan to speak publicly against state and local policies that restrict cooperation with ICE and in favor of Mr. Trump’s more aggressive approach to enforcement.
Mr. Homan also claimed victory for his agency’s tougher approach. “We have made significant progress this past year in enforcing our nation’s immigration and customs laws, and in protecting public safety and national security,” he said.
Democrats and immigration advocates have been critical of his tenure, saying he made little distinction between criminals who needed to be removed from the U.S. and law-abiding undocumented immigrants who had in some cases lived in the U.S. for many years.
In fiscal year 2017, 26% of the people ICE arrested had no criminal record, up from 13% in 2016 and 14% in 2015.
Last week, 18 Senate Democrats sent a letter to Ms. Nielsen questioning a number of ICE policies and Homan statements. They also questioned why DHS hadn’t provided requested paperwork associated with his nomination.
“We understand that the Trump administration may be concerned about Mr. Homan answering questions under oath about his leadership of ICE, as well as the possibility that Mr. Homan’s nomination could be defeated in the Senate,” wrote Sen. Dick Durbin (D., Ill.) and 17 other Democrats.
In response to the letter, DHS spokesman Tyler Houlton praised Mr. Homan’s work in “returning the rule of law to our immigration system.” He cited a more than 40% increase in overall arrests, nearly doubled arrests of members of the MS-13 gang, and increased employee morale.
A senior ICE official said the retirement announcement was meant to coincide with Mr. Homan receiving an award Monday evening from the Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association Foundation.
Conservatives praised Mr. Homan’s approach to the job.
“He’s been a tremendous partner in helping to steer ICE back to its core mission of immigration enforcement and public safety,” said Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R., Va.), chairman of the House Judiciary Committee.
But his decision to step down was welcomed by immigrant advocates.
“Homan has proudly presided over the creation of an `unshackled,’ political police force that has trampled on rights, the Constitution and American families for far too long,” said Lynn Tramonte of the advocacy group America’s Voice.