ICE Uses Cruelty and Fear to Encourage Self-Deportation

I understand the argument being made about the fact that the whole “abolish ICE” movement is bad messaging for Democratic candidates. The problem is that so few voters know much about the department’s history, structure, and activities. For example, a video that is making the rounds demonstrates how the Trump administration’s family separation policy is still operational when it comes to ICE.

For the full story on ICE, it would be helpful if every concerned citizen read Frank Foer’s cover article in the latest issue of the Atlantic.

Foer makes two particularly compelling arguments about how ICE went rogue. The first details its history of being created as part of the Department of Homeland Security following the attacks on 9/11.

Since its official designation, in 2003, as a successor to INS, ICE has grown at a remarkable clip for a peacetime bureaucracy…In 2012, Congress appropriated $18 billion for immigration enforcement. It spent $14 billion for all the other major criminal law-enforcement agencies combined: the FBI; the Drug Enforcement Administration; the Secret Service; the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives; and the U.S. Marshals Service.

ICE quickly built a sprawling, logistically intricate infrastructure comprising detention facilities, an international-transit arm, and monitoring technology. This apparatus relies heavily on private contractors. Created at the height of the federal government’s outsourcing mania, DHS employs more outside contractors than actual federal employees.

Foer goes on to describe how the deportation force created by ICE has operated, until the Trump administration, with a huge chip on their shoulder. Part of that stems from the agency’s recruitment of retired military and border patrol agents who prefer to work in major cities rather remote areas along the southern border. Otherwise, they are the so-called “low man on the totem poll” when it comes to federal law enforcement positions. The result is that among all federal agencies, ICE ranked 288th among 305 last year when it comes to employee satisfaction.

Adding to that were the changes the Obama administration made to priorities following the failure of Congress to pass comprehensive immigration reform.

[Obama] wanted to give the agency a set of explicit and rigid priorities for whom it would detain and deport. Previously, almost any undocumented immigrant had been fair game. Now Obama set about focusing ice’s efforts on serious criminals and recent arrivals. By the middle of his second term, the administration had figured out how to translate its priorities into bureaucratic reality. It supplied ice with clear procedures—with checklists and paperwork—to ensure that the organization hewed closely to the new goals.

In the parlance of certain factions of ice, these Obama-era priorities were the “handcuffs” that prevented officers from doing their job.

Into that mix walked presidential candidate Donald Trump with his promises to deport ’em all. That won him an endorsement from the union representing ICE officers, the first time they had ever done so for a presidential candidate.

Secondly, when it comes to strategies, the Trump administration has decided to base the activities of ICE on the work of one of their favorite politicians: Kris Kobach.

Kobach set out to remake immigration law to conform to a doctrine he called self-deportation or, more clinically, attrition through enforcement—a policy that experienced a vogue in 2012, when Mitt Romney, campaigning for president, briefly claimed the position as his own. The doctrine holds that the government doesn’t have the resources to round up and remove the 11 million undocumented immigrants in the nation, but it can create circumstances unpleasant enough to encourage them to exit on their own. As Kobach once wrote, “Illegal aliens are rational decision makers. If the risks of detention or involuntary removal go up, and the probability of being able to obtain unauthorized employment goes down, then at some point, the only rational decision is to return home.” Through deprivation and fear, the government can essentially drive undocumented immigrants out of the country.

Once you understand that self-deportation is the administration’s guiding theory, you can see why immigration hawks might take satisfaction in supposed policy defeats. Even if putative fiascoes such as the initial Muslim ban and family separations at the border fail in court or are ultimately reversed, they succeed in fomenting an atmosphere of fear and worry among immigrants. The theatrics are, in effect, the policy.

To illustrate how “self-deportation” works, Foer describes what is happening among a group of refugees in Ohio that came to this country in the late 1990s from the West African country of Mauritania. While it is ruled by Arabs, the country has also been home to a substantial black population, who were considered a threat and subjected to arrest, torture, and enslavement. Roughly 3,000 Mauritanian emigrants eventually settled in Columbus, Ohio. As this video demonstrates, they are now being targeted by ICE and many of them are “self-deporting” to Canada.

All of this is precisely how ICE has gone rogue and come to be referred to as Trump’s own private police force. They may not be loading up trains with 11 million undocumented immigrants headed for detention and deportation. But they are institutionalizing cruelty in the hopes that fear will do their dirty work for them.

In the midst of all of that, it is important to keep in mind that the Trump administration’s entire approach to immigration is based on lies. There is no crisis except the one they are creating with their policies. Voters need to know that, as well as the specifics about both the history of ICE and its current activities. Perhaps calling for the abolition of a rogue agency is not the best way to accomplish the goal of a better-informed public. But I’d sure like to know if anyone has got any better ideas.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly. Follow her on Twitter @Smartypants60 .