Why Sheriff Clarke will be a disaster in his new job, according to his predecessor

‘Just plain awful’

Sheriff David Clarke Jr. CREDIT: AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin
Sheriff David Clarke Jr. CREDIT: AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin

Sheriff David Clarke Jr.— a controversial law enforcement official known for his outlandish remarks and fatal detention practices — announced Wednesday that he would be appointed as an Assistant Secretary within the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) in June.

According to various media outlets, former DHS personnel, and Clarke himself, Clarke will oversee the Office of Partnership and Engagement, which functions as a liaison between the Department of Homeland Secretary and state and local officials. The official DHS Twitter handle, however, tweeted out that no official decisions have been announced.

After news broke of Clarke’s new role, former DHS officials — who held the position he will soon take — strongly condemned the decision.

Phil McNamara, who was appointed to the position between April 2013 until President Donald Trump took office on January 20, 2017, called Clarke’s potential appointment “just plain awful.”

As the former assistant secretary of the Office of Partnership and Engagement, McNamara, an Obama-era appointee, told ThinkProgress that the position serves as “an outward facing focal point for a whole range of critical Homeland Security sector partners,” such as partnering with officials on cybersecurity; doing private sector outreach with chambers of commerce and tourism offices; preparing higher education communities; and making a policy footprint in the well-known issue of immigration enforcement.

“Homeland Security requires a whole community approach — it’s not just the federal government that’s responsible for protecting communities, it’s states and local governments,” McNamara said in a phone interview on Wednesday. “As I like to say, my job when I was there both for Secretaries [Janet] Napolitano and [Jeh] Johnson, was essentially to be the Secretary’s eyes and ears with governors and mayors, principally. Those were who I took as my main stakeholders.”

As examples, McNamara cited working with officials “regardless of political ideology” including Chicago Mayor Rahm Emmanuel (D), Michigan Governor Rick Snyder (R) who wanted to partner with DHS on cybersecurity, and Governors Doug Ducey (R-AZ), Greg Abbott (R-TX), Martin O’Malley (D-MD), and Andrew Cuomo (D-NY).

McNamara feared Clarke’s “polarizing” personality in the nonpartisan role would damage relationships between the federal government and local officials, particularly with Democratic governors and mayors. Clarke told a crowd at “DeploraBall” that he would only ever reach across the aisle towards a Democrat “to grab one of them by the throat.”

I just don’t know if Sheriff Clarke — as polarizing as he is — is going to be able to build those relationships.

“I just don’t know if Sheriff Clarke — as polarizing as he is — is going to be able to build those relationships,” McNamara said. “I certainly never made as inflammatory comments about Republican elected officials that I have to work with as he has about Democrats.”

“I don’t know that there will be that level of trust among Democratic governors and mayors,” he added. Pointing to the largest U.S. cities — New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Houston, and Philadelphia— which have Democratic mayors and friendly immigration policies, McNamara was concerned that the mayors wouldn’t want to meet with Secretary Kelly because Clarke would be present.

Under Clarke’s leadership, McNamara believes immigration enforcement could be troubling, expansive, and exactly as Trump ordered when he signed executive orders to ramp up mass detention and deportation. In the past, Clarke strongly supported deputizing local and state authorities as federal officials to arrest and detain undocumented immigrants.

“He will definitely have a pretty big voice in immigration writ large — he’ll have the proverbial seat at the table along with other leadership,” McNamara said.

He will definitely have a pretty big voice in immigration writ large.

“I think this is part of what we’ve seen from the Trump administration and from DHS since January — is sort of an ‘all-out, no-holds’ bar approach to immigration enforcement,” McNamara said, fearing that Clarke’s priority would be to “round up everyone they can, regardless of criminal history.”

During the Obama administration, McNamara helped shape policies that generally adhered to a “felons, not families” enforcement approach, by setting guidelines for federal agents to go after immigrants with serious criminal offenses rather than immigrants with U.S.-based families. He also sat in on meetings where he provided insight on what city officials told him about best practices in immigration enforcement out in the field, a concern that McNamara believes Clarke would take to the anti-immigrant extreme.

“I think putting a sheriff in charge demonstrates to me that they’re really going to try and rely on state and local enforcement — city cops, county sheriffs — to help them do immigration enforcement,” McNamara said. “That’s really unfortunate. If anything, we’ve seen large and small police departments across the country say, ‘we’re not in the business of immigration enforcement. We’re here to protect and serve everyone.’”

McNamara wasn’t the only former appointee to feel pity for the career staff that will soon work for Clarke.

“I am floored. And feel for my career staff,” Juliette Kayyem, who held the position between 2009 and 2010, tweeted on Wednesday. (At the time, the position was called the DHS Assistant Secretary for Intergovernmental Affairs.)