Amidst the Trump Administration’s polemic immigration policies, a new movement to “Abolish ICE” is getting national attention.
ICE, also known as the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, is one of the government agencies responsible for carrying out immigration policies. Before condemning it, however, it's important to understand why that agency was created and what it’s meant to do. For ICE, those answers are complicated.
ICE is an agency within the Department of Homeland Security. It's one of the three agencies that assumed some of the functions of the Immigration and Naturalization Service and the United States Customs Service when they became defunct (which were part of the Justice Department and the Treasury Department, respectfully).
The other two agencies that took some of those responsibilities are Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS).
ICE itself is made up of three major offices, one of which has overshadowed the others.
The Enforcement and Removal Operations is the best-known division of ICE - the one that's responsible for arresting, detaining and deporting unauthorized immigrants who are already in the U.S. Neither the Enforcement and Removal Operations nor any other branch of ICE is responsible for patrolling or securing the border - that's the job of the Customs and Border Protection Agency (CBP).
It's the CBP agents who have been made to enforce the "zero tolerance" family separation policy at the southern border, not ICE. ICE only works to detain and deport undocumented immigrants already in the United States.
Under President Barack Obama, ICE’s priority was removing undocumented immigrants with serious criminal records. The Trump Administration, however, has mandated that ICE target anyone who is in the US illegally, whether they pose a threat or not.
ICE doesn't just deal with undocumented immigrants, however. The two other branches of ICE deal with international crime. One is the Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) unit, which works to stop major crimes at the border - such as drug, weapon or human trafficking. The third branch of ICE leads counter-proliferation investigations, such as going after individuals who are trying to smuggle military and other high-tech equipment out of the United States.
That makes ICE responsible for detaining and deporting unauthorized immigrants inside of the US, stopping major border-related crimes and leading the task force against smuggling military and high tech equipment.
According to some special agents with Homeland Security Investigations, this multipart structure is having a negative impact on them doing their jobs.
In a letter to Kirstjen Nielsen, the Secretary of U.S. Department of Homeland Security, the agents said the perception of ICE’s focus on deportations has hurt their ability to conduct investigations in the other areas. They also said local law enforcement officials have refused to cooperate with their office’s investigations because of the politics of immigration. The agents themselves recommended breaking up ICE - retaining its current functions, but just reorganizing it into separate offices.
It's possible that the current organization of ICE has reached the end of its shelf life. The agency was created in 2003 under the Bush Administration in response to the September 11th terrorist attacks. ICE was placed under the brand new U.S. Department of Homeland Security, and that change has made a difference in the way immigration is viewed.
“Immigration matters were once handled by the U.S. Department of Commerce, then the U.S. Department of Labor,” María Cristina García, a professor of history at Cornell University, said in an interview with TIME. “Today it’s the Department of Homeland Security.”
As García explains, knowing which department handles the matter “reveals a great deal about how a society views immigration.”
"If immigration is an economic or work-force issue, it would make sense to place it under the oversight of departments that deal with those issues. Placing immigration in the national security sector, however, reveals a changed focus on the idea of potential safety threats represented by immigrants, asylum seekers and refugees."
Those in favor of more inclusive immigration policies see ICE as a representation of the Trump Administration's xenophobic policies, and have, thus, begun to call for its disbanding.
Trump’s response has been predictable. Upon catching wind of the #abolishICE campaign, the President tweeted that Democrats want “open borders," although Democrats say abolishing ICE would hardly open American borders, as ICE doesn’t operate there.
“I don’t support open borders. I don’t know any Democrat who supports open borders,” said Representative Mark Pocan said in a June 30 Twitter video. “In fact, ICE doesn’t operate at the borders. The Customs and Border Protection operates at the borders. So anyone who says that is either ill-informed or outright lying.”
To be fair, the Democrats’ problem with their ICE campaign is more one of messaging than one of substance. While the campaign has multiple strands and considerable ambiguities, it does not appear to support ending border enforcement altogether.
New York’s Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, much like the special agents with ICE’s Homeland Security Investigations, argued there’s a need to “reimagine” ICE, not shut it down. She advocates for returning to something more like what existed before 2003, the old Immigration and Naturalization Service.
Whatever will happen from here, it's clear that the controversy has grown big enough to detract from getting work done. Williamson County, Texas, Commissioner Terry Cook, whose county abolished its contracts with ICE to house detainees, told the New York Times that the controversy over the ethics of working with the agency had become too big a distraction from day-to-day county business. “We did not need,” she said, “to be in the middle of this.”