ICE: The making of an American Gestapo

July 17, 2018

Justin Akers Chacón, author of Radicals in the Barrio and co-author with Mike Davis of No One Is Illegal, takes an in-depth look at the troubling history and practices of a government agency that more and more people are calling to be abolished.

AN UPSURGE of opposition to the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) is taking shape across the country, catalyzed by the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance policy” of forcibly separating families and detaining children at the U.S.-Mexico border and warehousing migrant children in ICE detention centers.

Hundreds of thousands protested across the country on June 30. Activists in Portland, San Diego, Detroit, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Columbus, McAllen, Atlanta, New York City, Washington, D.C. and other cities temporarily occupied or blockaded strategic entrance and exit points at ICE detention centers in order to effectively disrupt operations.

In the electoral arena, the surprise Democratic primary election victory of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in New York’s 14th congressional district sent shock waves through the party establishment and highlighted the growing number of left Democrats who, like Ocasio-Cortez, are calling for the abolition of ICE.

Cynthia Nixon, a Democratic Party candidate for governor in New York, has gone so far as to call ICE a “terrorist organization.”

ICE agents on a raid
ICE agents on a raid

The depth and breadth of outrage against the brutal treatment of migrant and refugee families by ICE has even extended into the agency itself.

At least 19 ICE investigators involved with human trafficking and transnational crime have publicly called for the reorganization of DHS agencies to effectively push into a separate entity those subdivisions in charge of interior immigration enforcement. They assert that the abuses and mission creep — and the resulting negative public reaction — of ICE’s interior operations are making their work more difficult.

Responding to this tide of opposition, congressional Democrats Mark Pocan, Pramila Jayapal and Adriano Espaillat introduced the Establishing a Humane Immigration Enforcement System Act last week. “President Trump has so misused ICE,” explained Pocan, “that the agency can no longer accomplish its goals effectively.”

Is it possible to abolish ICE? If so, what will it take? To answer those questions, an understanding of the history and function of the agency is needed — one that goes deeper than Trump’s current abuses.

ICE was founded on the basis of a bipartisan political consensus to increase the policing of immigrants at a time of heightened global economic competition, rising domestic inequality and social volatility.

In its relatively short existence, ICE has swelled into a muscular branch of the law enforcement apparatus. It has developed in conjunction with border militarization and increasingly violent inner-city policing.

The phenomenon of intensified domestic policing has further spurred increased military expansion internationally, increased exploitation of immigrant labor through criminalization, and created new markets for accumulation through the privatization of incarceration and other repressive state functions.

In the hands of Trump, ICE has also been more openly revealed to be an instrument in the service of white nationalism.

For a movement to abolish ICE to succeed, it will also have to unmask and challenge the economic roots and inner workings of immigrant repression as a function of U.S. capitalism, and its attendant foreign and domestic policy.


Turning the “War on Terror” Inward — Against Immigrants

Following 9/11, successive U.S. administrations carried out a massive, bipartisan military buildup and aggressive projection of U.S. power across the globe, spending an astonishing $5.6 trillion conducting wars across several continents. Concurrently, there has there been an attendant militarization of domestic law enforcement and its repositioning as if on war footing as well.

In late 2002, the Bush administration carried out a swift reorganization of federal law enforcement agencies. The new and chillingly named Department of Homeland Security (DHS) integrated 22 different federal agencies and a quarter of a million personnel — including ICE and the Border Patrol — under one direct chain of command.

The stated mission of ICE prioritizes anti-terrorism, immigration and border enforcement, customs regulation, cyber-security, and disaster prevention and management. Operationally, the agency quickly shed any pretense of being the frontline force defending national security against internal threats. Instead, it emerged as an overt instrument of repression of working-class immigrants.

This contradiction of mission versus function led researchers at Syracuse University’s Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC), one of the nation’s top immigration enforcement data collection centers, to conclude in 2007:

Despite the repeated statement by the DHS that stopping terrorism and preventing serious crime are its core missions, the record shows that since the DHS was established in the wake of 9/11/2001, most of the agency’s actual work recorded in the Immigration Courts has focused on traditional immigration matters.

Rather than fulfill their stated purpose, ICE’s targeted raids, systematic detention and institutionalized practice of selective and ongoing deportation are designed to instill fear in the immigrant community in accordance with the right-wing strategy of “attrition through enforcement.”

The theory behind this doctrine, articulated first by a white nationalist think tank and championed by anti-immigrant ideologue Kris Kobach, is that undocumented people will be encouraged to “self-deport” if their lives are made sufficiently miserable through oppressive measures, selective punishments and being maintained in a state of constant fear of capture, detention, and deportation.

Both parties have continued to pump additional billions into immigration “enforcement,” framing it in the same “war on terror” rhetoric as a means to protect national security.

Between 2003 and 2016, ICE’s budget nearly doubled from $3.3 billion to $6.1 billion under Bush and Obama, and has jumped again under Trump — to $7.3 billion in 2018 and a proposed $8.3 billion in 2019.

By 2013, the U.S. government was already spending more on armed federal immigration enforcement than on the FBI, DEA, Secret Service and all other federal criminal law enforcement agencies combined.

ICE has also gone international, working alongside other federal agencies in more than 70 countries around the world to enforce the anti-Muslim “travel ban,” surveil and investigate people coming into the U.S., and participate in drug enforcement operations.

With this increased funding has come the rapid extension of ICE operations throughout the interior of the country, the expansion of detention facilities and the ramping up of deportations. ICE currently operates out of 24 regional “field offices” staffed with over 20,000 agents, officers, investigators and other field support positions, a sprawling complex with minimal oversight.

As a feature of its rapid incarnation, covert character, and lack of oversight and scrutiny, the agency increasingly operates with a culture of impunity; opening the door to rampant corruption. As a Guardian report noted in 2015: “[T]he systems to monitor [ICE’s] vast network of field directors, detention officers and arresting officers under its purview are either nonexistent or wracked with the same corruption they’re intended to prevent.”


From the Workplace to the Community: ICE’s Reign of Terror

Immigrant workers comprise about 17 percent of the U.S. workforce, with workers from Mexico and Central America making up about half of that total population.

This section of the workforce is disproportionately concentrated in low-wage, manual labor positions, paid about 15 percent less for same work as native-born workers and distributed throughout the economy and nation. This section of the U.S. working class has also been the vital source for union growth and revitalization since the 1980s.

In 2006, at least 3 million immigrant workers, their families and supporters turned out to the streets to protest the passage in the U.S. House of Representatives of the Sensenbrenner-King Bill (HR4437), which would have made it a felony to be undocumented within the territorial boundaries of the U.S.

Hundreds of thousands went on strike or stayed away from work, walked out of school, refused to spend money and participated in other activities under the slogan of “a day without an immigrant” to demonstrate their social and economic significance. The bill was killed in the Senate as a result.

In the face of such a potent display of collective defiance, the Bush administration turned loose ICE agents to target, detain and deport immigrant workers at various points of production.

Under ICE’s jurisdiction of investigating “document fraud” (a division of Homeland Security Investigations), heavily armed agents began raiding workplaces across the country after the passage of the REAL ID Act in 2005. These raids were intensified after May 2006, ostensibly to suppress further protests through selective, punitive targeting. Different workplaces were swarmed by heavily armed ICE teams and workers whisked to detention centers. In 2008 alone, there were hundreds of raids, culminating with the arrest and detention of over 6,000 people.

As part of its “enforcement and removal operations” ICE raids have fanned out through immigrant communities across the country. Despite the rhetoric of suppressing “criminal aliens,” these highly staged and advertised raids largely scoop up “non-criminal immigration violators,” who can be more simply described as undocumented men, women and children who step outside their door into public spaces.

Take ICE’s “Fugitive Operations Program,” which established 24 regional field offices whose operational directive is to locate and apprehend “dangerous individuals” with existing “removal orders.” A Migration Policy Institute study found that, from 2003 to 2008, 73 percent of the nearly 100,000 people arrested in “fugitive recovery operations” had no criminal record or pending charges.

This pattern continued into the Obama administration. ICE removal operations in Obama’s first year led to the deportation of 389,834 people, of which 253,491 — or 65 percent — were “non-criminal immigration violators.”

These numbers dipped later in the Obama administration, as “prioritization memos” issued by his office de-emphasized the detention and removal of non-criminal offenders. But more recent data shows a continuation and intensification under Trump, who has rescinded the Obama-era prioritizations and replaced them with his own.

In 2017, ICE Enforcement and Removal Operations carried out a total of 226,119 deportations, a 30 percent rise from fiscal 2016. While ICE makes the incredible claim that 92 percent of those arrested and deported had criminal convictions or pending charges, the agency report blatantly omits how it arrived at such a high number by lumping together those charged with civil (non-criminal) and “criminal offenses.”

But this only begins to tell the story of how ICE stretches the definition of “criminal” beyond all recognition.

Under Trump, ICE has established a new priority of targeting immigrants in the country with “final orders of removal.”

This status refers to a population of over a million people who have standing deportation orders or pending removal proceedings that have resulted from non-criminal “civil” circumstances, such as collateral arrests, rejected green card or refugee applications, and dozens of other scenarios.

As much as 10 percent of this population participates in annual “check-ins” at ICE offices, with the hope of achieving normalized status, making them a soft target for the administration to find and arrest. Without this duplicity, it is estimated that the number of “criminal fugitives” would drop from 92 percent to 58 percent.

Furthermore, many of the convictions or pending charges against other undocumented immigrants are for various categories of infraction, misdemeanors and otherwise nonviolent, victimless crimes.

During its second term, the Obama administration was pressured to reduce the percentage of people being deported for nonviolent, minor crimes through the implementation of a deportation priority system. A three-tiered schematic ranked deportable crimes from serious to minor, with DHS agents and officials instructed to decrease the numbers deported for low-level crime.

Trump has removed the schematic altogether and rescinded the prioritizations in order to manufacture numbers to match his rhetoric, using ICE as his propaganda weapon.

Trump has since further widened the purview of ICE and given it more license with his so-called “zero tolerance policy,” which began with a series of DHS memos and directives that removed other Obama-era protocols that established a meager set of ground rules for ICE policing.

Trump's new rule is that there are no rules, at least when it comes to the direct policing of undocumented people. Federal agents can now deport undocumented people who were convicted of any crime, no matter how minor, including things people “could be charged for” — i.e., things determined solely by the agents themselves.

This includes the Orwellian logic that an agent could detain anyone they encounter who is undocumented as someone who “potentially crossed the border without authorization.” These guidelines make every undocumented person deportable, regardless of circumstances.

Trump has also attempted to strip all protections from the 700,000 recipients of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, and used ICE as an instrument of political repression that targets immigrant rights activists across the country.

Trump and his fellow white nationalists further aim to revamp and expand partnership and information-sharing programs between ICE and local police departments such as 287(g) and “Secure Communities,” expand the eligible period for “expedited removal” within 100 miles of the border from two weeks to two years, and pare down acceptance and resources for the refugee process, which is at its lowest rate since 1980.

To accomplish these plans, Trump has mandated the DHS to hire an additional 10,000 new ICE and 5,000 Border Patrol agents. In order to expand as quickly as possible, DHS plans to outsource the hiring process to private contractors.

ICE plans to hire 6,597 support personnel positions, who will in turn handle the hiring of 10,000 new agents. DHS has already inked a $297 million contract with the consulting firm Accenture to help them hire the Border Patrol agents, 2,000 customs officers, and 500 other agents for its Air and Marine Operations.


The Corruption and Profitability of the ICE-Fueled Detention Industry

Another facet of ICE operations, immigrant detention, further illustrates the abysmal record of the agency and the depth of corruption that has penetrated into its very core.

In 2018, ICE will spend more than $3.6 billion — about half its budget — on immigrant detention through contracting private, for-profit and “non-profit” jails and prisons. This is a billion-dollar increase from 2017, reflecting the speculative boom in immigrant incarceration anticipated for Trump’s second year in office.

In the war on immigrants, the detention industry has sprouted in the role of camp follower, swelling through generous ICE contracts and guaranteed revenue arrangements, and protected by deregulation.

Currently, ICE operates or licenses an estimated 51,000 detention beds spread out over a vast and subterranean network of hundreds of detention facilities (estimated to be as many as 637 in 2015), almost three-quarters of which are currently contracted out to private companies.

ICE detentions are a cash cow for the private detention industry, which profits off the super-exploitation of detainee labor.

Kevin Landy, a former ICE official in the Obama administration, told NPR last year that “contractors save a lot of money by using detainee labor because they’re performing work that would otherwise have to be performed by paid employees.” That work can include cooking and cleaning for as little as a dollar a day — or less.

GEO Group, the largest immigrant detention center contractor in the nation, earned over $2.26 billion in revenue in 2017 from housing over 600,000 detainees in detention centers and prisons. The company proudly proclaims in its financial report that 64 percent of revenue came from detention and correctional facilities operations, and 22 percent from providing privatized health and educational services to detainees within their facilities. ICE is their single largest customer.

In anticipation of a big payoff, GEO Group donated $475,000 to a Trump-supporting Super PAC and for Trump’s inauguration festivities in early 2018. CoreCivic, the other major private prison contractor in the U.S., gave $250,000 to support Trump’s campaign and inauguration.

Since Election Day, GEO Group’s stock price has gone up 63 percent, and CoreCivic’s has risen 81 percent.

The dismantling of government regulation and incestuous relations between high-ranking ICE officials and the corporate investors they are supposed to regulate has created an industry rife with corruption.

GEO’s deals with ICE, for example, have steadily grown since 2012, when it hired David Venturella, ICE’s former head of deportation and detention operations under the Obama administration. In July 2017, the company hired Daniel Ragsdale, ICE’s senior executive operating officer.

Southwest Key Programs, a Texas “nonprofit” contracted by ICE, operates a series of facilities housing up to 11,900 detained migrant children, including a converted Walmart in Texas that has become the focus of national attention.

The company has made nearly a billion dollars in government contracts since 2016, and the CEO of this “nonprofit” has seen his annual pay increase to $1.5 million.

The rapid growth of ICE has been accompanied by diminishing oversight. The surge in hiring of agents, staff and support personnel has led to an influx of abusive and corrupt elements into the agency, while an inefficient inspection regime has contributed to the degradation of conditions and oversight. According to the New York Times:

Over the past decade, dozens of Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents and contract guards responsible for the detention and removal of undocumented immigrants have been arrested and charged with beating people, smuggling drugs into detention centers, having sex with detainees, and accepting bribes to delay or stop deportations, agency documents and court records show.

Between January 2010 and July 2016 (i.e. during the Obama years), the Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties (an oversight agency within DHS) received over 33,000 complaints of sexual assault or physical abuse against children, women, men and LGBTQ people in detention by DHS agents — mostly from ICE. The inspector general, the office in charge of looking into complaints, investigated less than 1 percent of these cases.

Public outcry against this ongoing neglect led the current inspector general to acknowledge the problem with publication this year of an internal report outlining ICE’s continued failures to provide basic oversight.

There are multiple examples of how the matrix of repression and profitability creates the conditions for violence, corruption and abuse to thrive.

In 2014, the DHS’s Inspector General, Charles K. Edwards, was forced to resign after it was revealed that he changed or delayed multiple reports — including audits focused on misconduct within ICE such as numerous cases of abuse within the “Secure Communities” program.

A review by advocacy groups of five years of ICE inspections of detention centers between 2007 and 2012 found that ICE failed to properly inspect facilities under its jurisdiction and shrouded their operational methods in secrecy.

The human toll of this corruption and impunity is enormous. At least 172 detainees have died in ICE custody between 2003 and 2017. Most recently, Efrain De La Rosa killed himself at a privately run ICE detention center in Lumpkin, Georgia.

In July of 2017, ICE requested authority to begin destroying records of its operations — including those of the detainees in their custody.

There is seemingly no end to the stories of corruption and abuse — and corruption to cover up for abuse — inside ICE.

A former special agent in charge of DHS’s Office of Inspector General was sentenced to prison in 2014 for conspiring with three other special agents to falsify documents and tampering with criminal investigations of corruption by Border Patrol and ICE personnel.

In 2015, a for-profit “tent city” prison in Willacy County, Texas was forced to close after inmates organized a labor strike and uprising against abusive conditions there — including the lack of access to basic health care services. The company that ran the prison, Utah-based Management & Training Corp., recently won a contract from ICE to reopen the facility as an immigrant detention center.

The Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR), which partners with ICE and the CBP, is currently housing 11,000 children. As a result of the ballooning numbers created by Trump’s “zero tolerance” policy, the Texas Health and Human Services Commission has permitted 15 of the for-profit institutions contracting with ORR to cram in more kids than their child-care licenses allow.

“Nonprofit” detention centers are also guilty. Texas regulators found over 150 violations at more than a dozen shelters run by Southwest Key in the last two years.

The agency recently came under the national spotlight when Oregon Sen. Jeff Merkley was barred from entering its Brownsville facility, a converted Walmart holding almost 1,500 immigrant children between the ages of 10 and 17.

The blocking of public oversight has been linked to how ICE officials are interpreting Trump’s 2017 executive order calling on ICE to “take all appropriate actions to ensure the detention of aliens apprehended for violations of immigration law pending the outcome of their removal proceedings or their removal from the country to the extent permitted by law.”

There are fears that there may be multiple detention centers in operation that are not publicly known or have no public oversight whatsoever — so-called “black sites.” Last March, over 400 organizations and immigrant rights advocates issued a statement calling on ICE to provide public access to all of its facilities.


What will it take to abolish ICE?

In all facets of its supposed mission, ICE has failed to resolve more problems than it has produced.

At best, it has evolved into a thoroughly corrupted moneymaking scheme that serves to enrich a segment of the capitalist class that has shifted its investments into the booming markets of the repression industry. At worst, it’s a quasi-fascist arm of the repressive state apparatus that operates as little more than a heavily armed, aggressive and unchecked overseer of the immigrant working-class population.

ICE may act like a rogue agency, but it serves neoliberal capitalism well by subjugating a sizeable section of the working population into a precarious state ripe for hyper-exploitation, while also creating secondary markets for investors eager to exploit new profit-making opportunities.

That means that despite the sudden and inspiring growth of calls to abolish ICE, this agency won’t be done away with very easily, and not without a coordinated pushback from both political parties as well as the repressive apparatus of the U.S. state.

One early tactic of the fledgling “Abolish ICE” movement has been a series of occupations of ICE facilities to gum up operations in and around regional ICE detention centers. Unlike at the high point of the Occupy movement, most of these Occupy ICE blockades have not attracted sufficient numbers to avoid being repressed and dismantled by police.

The growing calls from politicians to defund and dissolve ICE have pushed the conversation forward. But there are limitations to the electoral path, which shifts the initiative to elected officials working inside parties largely financed and controlled by the same corporate interests they seek to confront.

The lack of "political will" for the Democrats to get behind "Abolish ICE" became apparent when the same Democrats who introduced the bill to abolish ICE quickly collapsed their efforts.

They introduced the bill only to score points with the immigrant rights movement, knowing full well it would never pass a Republican-controlled Congress. When Republicans called their bluff, threatening to bring the bill to a vote on the House floor, these same Democrats announced they would not vote for their own bill.

Some of the most promising initial steps in the movement have come from workers at Amazon, Microsoft and other companies where employees are refusing to collaborate with ICE’s ongoing atrocities.

These efforts are modest but important steps towards the source of our greatest potential power as workers. It will also be important to build on existing efforts, such as pushing local and state governments to pass sanctuary resolutions or to strengthen them where they exist.

ICE is precisely designed to repress that labor power among immigrant workers — and to foster racism and divisions among their non-immigrant co-workers and neighbors. Ultimately, it will likely take the re-emergence of a fighting immigrant worker movement on a scale last seen in 2006 to lead to the dismantling of ICE.

We’re not there yet, but the initial burst of actions — from occupations to campaign slogans to worker petitions — are crucial steps towards drawing in larger numbers into organized and coordinated campaigns, and laying the foundation of a movement that delegitimizes ICE in popular opinion and brings the agency one step closer to its much deserved demise.

Recent articles

Wednesday, August 15th

Tuesday, August 14th

Monday, August 13th

Friday, August 10th

Thursday, August 9th

Wednesday, August 8th

E-mail alerts

Further Reading

Today's Stories

From the archives