The New ICE Age: An Agency Unleashed

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President Trump holding a White House roundtable on sanctuary cities with Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen and ICE’s acting director, Thomas Homan, in Washington, D.C., March 20, 2018

In February, I visited Minerva García, an undocumented immigrant originally from Mexico who has quietly lived and worked in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, for almost twenty years. She is the mother of two young children who are US citizens and an older child who is a recipient of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA). In April 2017, García went for her regular check-in with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), the federal agency charged with enforcing immigration law, as she had been doing for years. Usually it’s been a routine visit, but this time—her first appointment since Donald Trump was elected president—she was told she had thirty days to leave the country and would have to purchase her own bus ticket back to Mexico.

Called “silent raids” by advocates, this use of regularly scheduled immigration check-ins to threaten with detainment and deportation undocumented immigrants who have deep ties to the United States and no criminal records has become a favorite tactic of ICE under the Trump administration. To avoid deportation, García sought sanctuary in a church in Greensboro, where she stayed for ninety-six days. She was there when President Trump rescinded DACA, the federal program that offered some undocumented youth work authorization and protection from deportation. Thankfully, her son Eduardo had renewed his DACA just beforehand. At the time, when asked about the prospect of DACA ending for good, Eduardo said he was “hoping for the best, but preparing for the worst.” (A federal judge recently ruled that DACA must be reinstated, after a ninety-day delay.)

As for García, she was relieved when a federal judge in Texas ruled that her removal order be vacated, allowing her to leave sanctuary and regain a home life. But she faces a very uncertain future. About a month after leaving sanctuary, García was called into ICE’s Charlotte field office again. She feared being detained on the spot; instead, she was fitted with a GPS ankle shackle so that ICE could track her movements. Everything changed, she said, after Trump took office—the tone of ICE agents at the field office was totally different.

“All of a sudden, they talked to me rude,” said García. “Like I’m nobody, like I’m not a human being. They don’t respect [immigrants] and I think they were waiting for a chance to let us know.”

She wanted to remind ICE that this is supposed to be a nation of immigrants, she told me. But she had begun to wonder if the agency recruited “only people with cold hearts.”

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Minerva García with her two younger sons at a protest outside the ICE field office in Charlotte, North Carolina, November 2017

As the American Immigration Council explains, “the enforcement of US immigration laws has historically been guided by policies that emphasize prioritization”: an undocumented immigrant who committed a violent crime or an immigrant believed to be a threat to national security was prioritized for enforcement and, eventually, deportation. Trump’s executive orders—starting on the fifth day of his presidency with 13767, which called for the construction of a wall on the Mexican border and the swift repatriation of those living in the US without authorization—have done away with this system, making enforcement priorities a thing of the past. Now every undocumented immigrant is deportable.

After Trump signed that first order, the labor unions for ICE and Border Patrol, representing some 25,600 agents and staff at the two agencies, released a joint statement: “Morale amongst our agents and officers has increased exponentially since the signing of the orders.” After multiple requests for an interview, I finally received in response to my questions an email statement from ICE’s acting director, Thomas Homan. He told me that he, too, attributed the agency’s boost in morale to Trump’s executive orders: “Having the complete support of the president of the United States goes a long way.”

Despite this support, on April 30, some two weeks after I received his email, Homan announced his intention to stand down from his leadership position—for reasons that, though as yet unstated, are fully apparent. Despite his embrace of Trump’s tough new enforcement regime, Homan never enjoyed the backing of ICE’s field officers. You could even say that ICE iced Homan.

Because, newly empowered, ICE is newly emboldened. Despite the many failings of Trump’s White House, the administration has delivered on one of the president’s primary goals: mass deportations. Trump is giving ICE the tools, financial resources, and presidential backing to go after immigrant communities as never before.

The agency still claims to focus primarily on those with criminal records, which, often, can mean nothing more than an old DUI conviction—and raids have been based on that. Yet the fastest-growing category of arrests under Trump are of people with no criminal charges. Last year, the agency arrested more than 28,000 “non-criminal immigration violators.”

“Under the executive orders, ICE no longer exempts any class, or group, of aliens from possible enforcement action,” Homan told me. “Anyone in the country illegally may be subject to arrest and removal.” In the first year of the Trump administration, the number of ICE arrests was the highest they had been in three years. According to Homan, “Contrary to misreporting, ICE does not conduct indiscriminate raids or sweeps. Our operations are targeted and based on intelligence-driven leads.” But many of those 28,000 were “collateral arrests,” as ICE calls them, of undocumented immigrants who found themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time by encountering ICE agents during an enforcement operation. The raid may have had a specific target, but from the point of view of a collateral arrestee, it was, of course, indiscriminate.

“They can’t acquire the resources to expel every undocumented immigrant in the US, but for ICE and the Trump administration, that appears to be the goal,” said a former senior Department of Homeland Security (DHS) official, who spoke to me on condition of anonymity. And behind ICE’s empowerment is seemingly bottomless funding—with little oversight of how the agency uses it.

In May 2017, for example, Congress passed a supplemental appropriations bill providing ICE with $2.6 billion to increase its detention capacity. A bipartisan report accompanying the bill criticized ICE for its “lack of fiscal discipline and cavalier management of funding for detention operations,” but the appropriation went through regardless. Congress did issue a warning to ICE that the agency was not “funded by an indefinite appropriation,” and it must “manage-to-budget and [not] operate under the false perception that Congress will provide a bail out if financial controls fail or are simply ignored.” But less than three months later, ICE returned to Congress to request an additional $91 million for detention beds. The request was granted.

According to Mary Small, policy director of Detention Watch Network, an immigrant rights organization that has reported extensively on the abuses of ICE and at detention centers, this is a pattern: Congress keeps giving ICE exorbitant amounts of money based on “misrepresentations of so-called operational needs,” despite periodic public chidings for the agency’s “chronic fiscal mismanagement.”

For the fiscal year 2018, DHS requested an overall increase in funding for ICE of about 30 percent. This included an additional $1.2 billion for detention operations, and an extra $186 million to create 1,600 new jobs at the agency. The justification for these requests is based only on estimated or projected needs to accommodate greater numbers of detainees. But as Small points out, “The actual language of the executive order actually doesn’t direct ICE to detain more people… it’s not appropriate for ICE to go beyond the bounds of what they’ve actually been given the funds to do by Congress.”

Her point is echoed by the former senior DHS official: “Congress loves to throw money at ICE, and the funds don’t get used properly, but it keeps happening. The funds are misused because there’s too much of them and what’s purchased isn’t really needed or used.”

With these funds comes more power, more ICE agents, and more potential for abuse and violation of immigrants’ due process rights. “People are so fearful right now,” said the official, who worked for DHS during the Obama administration. “They have more reason to fear ICE now than during the last three years of the Obama administration. If you know your history and remember what that was like for undocumented communities, you know that’s saying a lot.”

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ICE officers arresting a suspected undocumented immigrant during a raid in Brooklyn, April 11, 2018

When he first announced DACA in 2012, President Obama boasted of “putting more boots on the southern border than at any time in our history.” Obama sought to “centralize border security” on the pretext of deporting violent criminals and gang members—now Trump’s cause. Obama deported more people than any previous president, and also brought back the prison-like conditions in family detention centers in response to the number of asylum seekers fleeing gang violence in El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala. The people Trump has vilified in tweets about “caravans” left these countries for the same reason.

At a recent conference in Winston-Salem about the lives of girls and women of color, Emilia Gonzalez Avalos, the executive director of the immigrant-rights group NAVIGATE, discussed that complicated legacy. Advocates like Gonzalez Avalos acknowledge Obama’s contributions to the United States, but his mass deportations, expansion of the detention system, and militarization of the border gave immigrant communities a different experience of his presidency.

“Obama built this machine,” she said, “and then he handed the keys to a lunatic.”

The anti-immigrant zeal that Trump used to get elected is in many ways closely aligned with the history of America’s immigration system, which gave priority to white immigrants and sought to limit entry by other groups. Every administration, Republican or Democrat, has maintained this system’s injustices. To a significant degree, Trump is simply wielding with a new fanaticism the instrument that President Obama left behind. But through his executive orders and ICE’s expanded capacities, the Trump administration is changing how the United States treats immigrants of all kinds—the undocumented, asylum-seeking refugees, beneficiaries of humanitarian programs, and lawful permanent residents—as well as suppressing legal immigration from what the president has referred to as “shithole countries.”

To achieve his program, Trump has promoted individuals to top positions in the administration who share his anti-immigrant views such as John Kelly and Stephen Miller. In his first position as secretary of DHS, Kelly had became “a true star” of his administration, Trump tweeted, presumably by completely endorsing the president’s anti-immigrant executive orders. Kelly underlined his intent to “faithfully execute the immigration laws of the United States against all removable aliens… to the greatest extent practicable.” This was a stark shift from Kelly’s statements during his confirmation hearing, in which he said that law-abiding individuals “would not be at the top of the list” for deportation.

After he became Trump’s chief of staff, Kelly retained his influence as a hardliner on immigration. He has said some immigrants were simply “too lazy” to apply for DACA, overlooking the hefty cost of applying and the challenge of proving—with documentation—that an applicant has continuously resided in the US since June 15, 2007, among other barriers. According to CNN, Kelly has played a central part in scuppering efforts by congressional leaders to capitalize on signals from the president that he might support bipartisan immigration reform, particularly to protect DACA recipients, who have been targeted for deportation under the Trump administration, even before the program was rescinded. And it appears that Kelly has continued to wield considerable power over DHS.

In November, as acting DHS secretary Elaine Duke was preparing to extend Temporary Protected Status (TPS) to the 57,000 Honduran recipients of the humanitarian program, she was reportedly bullied by Kelly to end TPS for refugees from that country. Instead, Duke failed to make a determination, which gave Honduras a six-month extension by default. Soon after, she announced her retirement from government service.

The current DHS secretary, Kirstjen Nielsen, is a Kelly protégé. Nielsen served as Kelly’s senior aide during his tenure at DHS and moved with him to the West Wing as his principal deputy chief of staff when he was appointed in July. Kelly lobbied for Nielsen’s appointment at DHS, though Trump was likely unaware she had served in the department under the George W. Bush administration, which meant some conservatives saw her as too soft on immigration.

Former officials have said Nielsen is one of Trump’s fiercest loyalists and is someone who has “zero independent political power” in Washington and who is “a hundred percent this White House and John Kelly.” Nielsen, it seems, is simply implementing the president’s anti-immigrant agenda, including a new policy of separating children from their parents at the border and what appears to be a plan to end TPS entirely. To Trump, though, Nielsen is “Ms. No” because, according to Axios, she has to reject many of his unvetted immigration enforcement ideas picked up from Fox News personalities and other people outside the White House—causing friction between Kelly and the president.

Fox News is not Trump’s only or most important source for immigration-enforcement proposals. Stephen Miller, a former speechwriter and now a senior White House adviser, is widely regarded as the principal author of the White House’s approach to immigration policy. Nothing in Miller’s background suggests he had any expertise in the field—but he is an ideologue.

One of Miller’s mentors is David Horowitz, whose radical right-wing think tank, the Freedom Center, sees its purpose as countering “the efforts of the radical left and its Islamist allies to destroy American values.” Horowitz and Miller’s relationship goes back to Miller’s high-school days in Southern California, where he repeatedly spoke out against Latino immigrants and reportedly made fun of the children of immigrants who did not know English well. Miller invited Horowitz to speak at both his high school and college, Duke University, where Miller also befriended the white-nationalist leader Richard Spencer.

Miller worked on one of Horowitz’s early endeavors, the Terrorism Awareness Project (TAP). As president of TAP, Miller discussed the “war against the Islamic jihad and its religion of terror.” An archive of TAP’s home page is a case study in fear mongering, with headlines like “Islamic Honor Killing Coming To America” and advertisements for books such as The Islamic Mein Kampf. It should come as no surprise that Miller was the architect of Trump’s Muslim ban. Rewire.News has reported that in Trump’s White House, Miller, who has Jewish ancestry, often toys with white nationalist tropes when speaking to the media, in particular anti-Semitic dog-whistles like “globalist” and “cosmopolitan.”

Miller serves as a bridge between the Trump White House and hate groups such as the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR) and the Center for Immigration Studies (CIS). Both FAIR and CIS were founded by John Tanton. Tanton, a supporter of eugenics, is considered the father of the modern anti-immigrant movement; he once infamously warned of a “Latin onslaught.” Too often accepted by the media as credible authorities, FAIR and CIS have dictated immigration policy for years and former leaders of these anti-immigrant groups now hold influential immigration positions in the Trump administration. (In 2015, Miller was the keynote speaker at CIS’s awards ceremony.) As the executive director of CIS, Mark Krikorian, told The New York Times, he can hardly believe his luck: “This is inconceivable a year ago.”

Miller regularly cites debunked CIS reports, which also featured prominently in Trump’s immigration proposals during the campaign, and Krikorian has proven to be an influential voice in the Trump administration. When, last October, Trump released a series of “immigration principles and policies” calling for a dramatic increase in border militarization and the implementation of a “merit-based immigration system,” news outlets largely credited Miller with the framework. But Miller was simply carrying out plans developed by these anti-immigrant groups.

According to a McClatchy report, FAIR and CIS communicate directly with the White House, presumably through Miller. In April 2016, CIS drafted a detailed immigration policy wish list, almost all of whose measures have, The Daily Beast found, either been proposed or put into effect under Trump. In my own research, I found FAIR immigration proposals dating back to 2005 that have become part of Trump’s anti-immigrant program—sometimes mirroring the original documents’ exact wording.

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Thomas Homan, acting director of ICE, speaking at a press conference to announce end-of-year numbers on immigration enforcement, Washington, D.C., December 5, 2017

Kelly and Miller may be the main architects of Trump’s nativist anti-immigration policy, but arguably they are not its most important and powerful supporters. For that, look to the union that represents ICE’s agents.

In June 2017, ICE’s acting director Thomas Homan made headlines when he said that undocumented immigrants “should be afraid” under the Trump administration, though he also said that immigrant communities in general should not fear ICE. Besides enforcing the law, Homan told me that his primary consideration was the well-being of his staff. “My number one concern, every day, is ensuring that every one of my officers makes it home to his or her family at the end of the day.”

None of this impressed ICE’s rank and file. Last November, Chris Crane, president of the National ICE Council (the agency’s main union), sent a scathing letter to the White House, telling President Trump that what has happened to ICE under Homan’s leadership “is an embarrassment to the American people, and a stab in the back to the men and women of law enforcement.”

Crane made several startling allegations, including that high-ranking ICE officials have instructed ICE officers not to wear bulletproof vests in the field because “illegal aliens might find it offensive.” He portrayed Homan as an “anti-enforcement government bureaucrat” who “hates” ICE’s Enforcement and Removal Operations (ERO), the arm that carries out the actual enforcement actions of ICE. He also claimed that ICE’s management takes a “guilty until proven innocent” approach when members of the public file complaints against officers. (An April 2017 complaint filed with DHS by the advocacy organization Freedom for Immigrants found that of 33,126 complaints of sexual and physical abuse across all DHS agencies made between January 2010 and July 2016, ICE had the most complaints of all agencies, but only 1.7 percent of the complaints were ever investigated.)

Crane argued that the bureaucratic and managerial constraints placed on rank-and-file officers were a sign that ICE has become “so politicized that it no longer operates as an effective law enforcement agency.” By “politicized,” he meant, in effect, that agents in the field are hamstrung in their enforcement efforts by interference from “politically-correct” bureaucrats in Washington.

This was not the first time Crane had attacked Homan publicly. The union leader is a frequent source for interviews at the white-nationalist site Breitbart, which was run by Trump’s former chief strategist, Stephen Bannon. (Breitbart provides members of federal immigration agencies with a prominent platform; the Leaders of Border Patrol union records its podcast in Breitbart’s studios.) Back in July 2017, Crane told the site that he regarded it a “disgrace” that Homan was acting director. Much of Crane’s ire is tied to the fact that Homan was director of ICE ERO under Obama, an administration Crane was openly critical and disdainful of. “Thomas Homan should be held accountable for every criminal illegal alien released during his ERO leadership during the Obama Administration,” Crane told Breitbart.

Crane has long maintained that President Obama didn’t allow ICE agents to do their jobs, pushing the “catch and release” myth that is a popular talking point for Trump. As Vox reported, catch and release has become “a catchall term for any law or policy that prevents the federal government from keeping every single immigrant apprehended without papers at the US-Mexico border from being processed (and, they’d prefer, deported) as quickly as possible, and being kept in immigration detention in the meantime.” Then Trump campaign surrogate Jeff Sessions called Crane “an American hero” for speaking out against the Obama administration’s immigration policies. It is hard not to see Homan’s announcement of his departure from ICE this week as another big win for the enforcement hardliners in the agency and for the immigration hawks in the White House.

Bill Hing, a professor at the University of San Francisco School of Law and the director of the Immigration and Deportation Defense Clinic, said that ICE’s union made it very clear it had little respect for the Obama administration. Crane attempted to sue the Obama administration twice over the former president’s executive actions on immigration, which included providing temporary relief to some undocumented youth under DACA. Both cases were thrown out of court.

Under Obama’s memos concerning prosecutorial discretion, ICE was encouraged not to deport essentially harmless people who were simply in the US without authorization. They were put under supervision orders, and as long as they checked in with ICE for regular meetings, they were allowed to stay. These are the people Trump essentially “freed ICE to target,” according to Hing: millions like Minerva García, whose compliance with the former administration’s policy has now left them vulnerable.

This perspective was endorsed by the former DHS official. “There is no question that Homan is an enforcement guy, 100 percent, but it will never be enough,” the former official said—before Homan even announced that he was quitting. “No matter who is leading ICE, the level of enforcement wouldn’t be enough. ICE’s union is very hard-edged and nasty; they take a mean-spirited approach and use indiscriminate force. Now they have a great deal of sympathy in the White House… They now have an open invitation from the president telling them they can enforce immigration however they see fit.”

ICE union members, referring to themselves as “whistleblowers,” have even created their own website “to communicate directly with the American people in an effort to create public awareness, provide oversight and transparency, and seek an end to corruption and mismanagement within ICE and DHS.” The JIC Report—the site’s name may be a play on an internal complaint process for ICE and Customs and Border Protection called the Joint Intake Center (JIC)—contends that it is working to end ICE’s “corruption and mismanagement.”

No one from ICE’s union or the JIC Report responded to any of my requests for an interview, so I could not confirm the site’s authorship, but it seems safe to assume that Crane oversees it. Almost every one of the main headlines on the site is an attack on Homan: “Official Who Released Criminal Aliens into US for Obama Now Directing ICE”; “Immigration and Border Agency Execs Used Security Details Without Legal Authority”; “Immigration Whistleblower: US Taxpayers Spending Millions on Personal Cars For ICE Managers.” Much of the site’s main page includes information that Crane sent to Trump in his November letter (which is also covered on the site).

“ICE has been unleashed. They no longer feel constrained because they won’t be admonished for conducting a raid or racially profiling people,” Professor Hing said. “Trump pardoned [Arizona’s former Maricopa County sheriff] Joe Arpaio, who perpetually racially profiled people. That sends ICE a message that what they’re doing is OK.”

Along with the so-called silent raids, another emerging trend under the Trump administration is the apparent targeting of outspoken immigrant rights advocates. Among the first such activists to be detained were New Sanctuary Coalition of New York City cofounders Jean Montrevil and Ravi Ragbir, both apprehended in January. Montrevil was almost immediately deported to Haiti; Ragbir’s deportation has been stayed because of continuing legal proceedings.

Jani Cauthen, Montrevil’s former partner and the mother of his children, told me she is certain that Montrevil was being surveilled and that he was targeted for being an immigrant rights activist. “They took him on his lunch break. His job required him to transport people all morning and all afternoon, but they got him during his one-hour window off,” Cauthen said. “They deported him less than two weeks after they detained him, even though he had a pending case with the [Board of Immigration Appeals]. They had no intention of letting him follow through with his case… He didn’t even get to say goodbye to his children; they just snatched him away.”

Other leading figures who have been detained include Alejandra Pablos, a Virginia-based activist involved in immigrant rights and reproductive justice, and the Memphis-based journalist Manuel Duran.

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Immigrants waiting in custody at ICE’s Adelanto Detention Facility, California, 2013

Between ICE’s arrests and deportation lies detention. As ICE’s budget requests show, managing detention facilities is a very large, and growing, part of the agency’s operations. ICE has contracts with private prison companies like CoreCivic (formerly Corrections Corporation of America) and the GEO Group. Both companies contributed large sums of money to pro-Trump Super PACs and have experienced tremendous booms in business since Trump took office. Both companies are also notorious for their human rights abuses and startling lack of medical care for detained people and training for staff, resulting in a dire and worsening record of in-custody deaths. “There are horrible and egregious things happening in detention,” Mary Small said. “This isn’t just about the budget or medical care or the abuse of solitary confinement, it’s the way abuse is handled, including sexual assault.”

In November, the Salvadoran asylum-seeker Laura Monterrosa released an open letter detailing the abuse she said she had experienced from a CoreCivic guard at the T. Don Hutto detention center in Taylor, Texas. The letter alleged repeated sexual assaults by a female guard over a four-month period. Shortly after Monterrosa went public, more women came forward with allegations of abuse by guards. Speaking through an interpreter, Monterrosa told Rewire.News that sexual abuse was “very widespread” at the detention center.

Hutto has a long history of such problems. In 2007, a CoreCivic guard was accused of sexually assaulting a woman “while her son was sleeping in his crib inside the cell,” according to Courthouse News. In 2010, another CoreCivic guard was charged with sexually assaulting eight women whom he was transporting. The problem goes far beyond Hutto; it can be found wherever ICE is. A recent report by The Intercept found that of the 1,224 complaints filed with DHS’s Office of Inspector General between 2010 and 2017, half of those accused worked for ICE and most of the complaints related to sexual abuse and harassment.

When Monterrosa made it clear to ICE officials that she wanted to press charges against her abuser, ICE and the Williamson County Sheriff’s Office, which has jurisdiction over Hutto, failed to act. After an internal investigation, ICE reported on November 22 that it found Monterrosa’s allegations to be “unsubstantiated,” and the agency continued employing the guard accused of assault. (Monterrosa only learned of this when I spoke to her; ICE itself neglected to inform her of its ruling in her case.)

In December, the FBI took over the investigation, but Monterrosa’s ordeal in detention continued. Her mental health declined, as she still regularly encountered her accused abuser in the detention center. She requested to speak to a psychologist multiple times, she told me. When she eventually got an appointment, she shared with the clinician that she was hearing voices and felt as though there was someone always next to her, talking to her. The psychologist, Monterrosa said, advised her not to share this information with ICE or other officials because if they knew, they would send her to a “mental hospital,” which would “damage” her immigration case. Monterrosa also told me a Hutto guard had said to her that unless she recanted her sexual assault allegations, she would be placed in solitary confinement “indefinitely,” which was one of her greatest fears. In January, after being placed in solitary, Monterrosa attempted suicide.

Monterrosa’s attorney fought to get her a psychological evaluation from an outside doctor. Finally, two months later, Monterrosa was released from Hutto. She might have been another ICE casualty if not for her courage, the work of Grassroots Leadership organizer Claudia Muñoz, who led Monterrosa’s deportation defense campaign, and a letter to DHS signed by more than forty-five congressional representatives calling for an investigation into sexual abuse allegations at detention centers in Texas.

Muñoz told me that under the Trump administration, fewer and fewer advocacy groups are organizing defense campaigns for individuals facing deportation. Many smaller, grassroots organizations, overwhelmed and lacking resources, have increasingly found such efforts fruitless. Nationwide, there have been a few instances in which community pressure resulted in an undocumented immigrant being released on bond or because she had a legal remedy. Even in such cases, those people leave detention with “no paperwork,” Muñoz said. This means that once they leave ICE custody, there is no relief for them; they’re simply left waiting for their next court date.

Monterrosa, at least, received a one-page document that granted her deferred action for one year. Muñoz doesn’t see Monterrosa as an extraordinary case, but rather a reminder of what can be done when a community is organized and is willing to adjust its strategy. “Laura’s case proves that this is still work worth doing. This was a big lesson for us and it can be a lesson for others,” Muñoz said. “As community, we have to organize and move the right pieces, putting pressure on elected officials to use the power they have to look into deportation cases.”

“Everything that happened to me was happening to other women, too,” Monterrosa said, “and they don’t want to accept what is happening inside because if they do, it will ruin their business. But Immigration is trying to cover the sun with one finger. The truth will come out.”

*

For undocumented immigrants, resistance in the time of Trump can simply mean waking each day and continuing to reside in the US despite the administration’s efforts to make the country as inhospitable as possible for people like them. Often under duress, immigrant communities are necessarily resilient—and that is only truer than ever under the Trump administration. The people affected by ICE’s new zealotry, together with their advocates and allies, are fighting back against the anti-immigrant policies and rhetoric, both on the streets and in courtrooms. Often, they have achieved important wins that helped stop Trump’s mass deportations. But the targeting of women like Laura Monterrosa and Minerva García have a chilling effect in immigrant communities.

When there are large enforcement operations or new threats from the Trump administration, the children of undocumented parents stop going to school. Undocumented domestic violence victims stop reporting their abuse. Undocumented parents become afraid to access nutritional programs to feed their children. When members of undocumented families are disappeared into the detention system, those on the outside, fearing they are next, may be forced to live in the shadows. Undocumented immigrants who experience or witness a crime also stop going to the police. (The cooperation that local police forces get from immigrant communities is one of the main reasons municipal leaders have championed the idea of sanctuary cities, though many sanctuary cities offer little more than statements of solidarity.)

More stories of ICE’s growing powers and abuses continue to emerge. This includes ICE’s push to become an intelligence agency, which would grant the agency unprecedented access to vastly more information, and it request to destroy records of in-custody deaths and sexual assaults—both of which measures have received support from the Trump administration. There are growing signs that the agency is not just flexing its new muscles, but has gone rogue. In Philadelphia alone, according to reporting by ProPublica, there have been numerous allegations of ICE agents’ engaging in racial profiling, conducting warrantless searches, detaining people without probable cause, fabricating evidence, and, in one instance, soliciting a bribe.

The former senior DHS official I spoke with said his “overarching fear” is that, with Trump’s help, ICE is laying the groundwork for institutionalizing its independence, making it immune from Washington oversight: in essence, each ICE field office would operate as its own district with its own rules. If ICE acquires that sort of autonomy and power, it will be incredibly difficult to restore oversight, control, and accountability to the elected federal government in Washington, D.C.

“The American public needs to begin wrapping its head around the disproportionate political power that ICE wields,” said the former DHS official. “The most extreme environment isn’t extreme enough for them. Under Trump, ICE can do more damage than we’ve ever seen.”


This essay is published in partnership with Rewire.News.

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