By Jonathan Blitzer
July 24, 2017
In March, two months after President Trump took office, I received a text message from a veteran agent at Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). I had been trying to find field agents willing to describe what life was like at the agency in the Trump era. This agent agreed to talk. Over the past four months, we have texted often and spoken on the phone several times. Some of our discussions have been about the specifics of new federal policies aimed at dramatically increasing the number of deportations. At other times, we’ve talked more broadly about how the culture at ICE has shifted. In April, the agent texted me a screen shot of a page from the minutes of a recent meeting, during which a superior had said that it was “the most exciting time to be part of ICE” in the agency’s history. The photo was sent without commentary—the agent just wanted someone on the outside to see it.
The agent, who has worked in federal immigration enforcement since the Clinton Administration, has been unsettled by the new order at ICE. During the campaign, many rank-and-file agents publicly cheered Trump’s pledge to deport more immigrants, and, since Inauguration Day, the Administration has explicitly encouraged them to pursue the undocumented as aggressively as possible. “We’re going to get sued,” the agent told me at one point. “You have guys who are doing whatever they want in the field, going after whoever they want.” At first, the agent spoke to me on the condition that I not publish anything about our conversations. But that has changed. Increasingly angry about the direction in which ICE is moving, the agent agreed last week to let me publish some of the details of our talks, as long as I didn’t include identifying information.
“We used to look at things through the totality of the circumstances when it came to a removal order—that’s out the window,” the agent told me the other day. “I don’t know that there’s that appreciation of the entire realm of what we’re doing. It’s not just the person we’re removing. It’s their entire family. People say, ‘Well, they put themselves in this position because they came illegally.’ I totally understand that. But you have to remember that our job is not to judge. The problem is that now there are lots of people who feel free to feel contempt.”
Like many ICE employees, the agent was a critic of President Barack Obama, whose push to standardize enforcement practice and micromanage agents, particularly during his second term, was a source of frustration at the agency. Yet with Obama gone, and the era of micromanagement over, the agent sees long-standing standards being discarded and basic protocols questioned. “I have officers who are more likely now to push back,” the agent said. “I’d never have someone say, ‘Why do I have to call an interpreter? Why don’t they speak English?’ Now I get it frequently. I get this from people who are younger. That’s one group. And I also get it from people who are ethnocentric: ‘Our way is the right way—I shouldn’t have to speak in your language. This is America.’ ” It all adds up, the agent said, “to contempt that I’ve never seen so rampant towards the aliens.”
The agent’s decision to allow me to write about our conversations came after learning that ICE was making a push, beginning this week, to arrest young undocumented immigrants who were part of a large wave of unaccompanied minors who crossed the border in recent years and who, until now, had been allowed to live in the U.S. Rather than detaining these young people, the government had placed them in the care of families around the country. Most of them are trying to lead new lives as American transplants, going to school and working. ICE now plans to pursue those who have turned eighteen since crossing the border, and who, as a result, qualify for detention as legal adults. “I don’t see the point in it,” the agent said. “The plan is to take them back into custody, and then figure it out. I don’t understand it. We’re doing it because we can, and it bothers the hell out of me.”
The agent went on, “The whole idea is targeting kids. I know that technically they meet the legal definition of being adults. Fine. But if they were my kids travelling in a foreign country, I wouldn’t be O.K. with this. We’re not doing what we tell people we do. If you look next month, or at the end of this month, at the people in custody, it’s people who’ve been here for years. They’re supposed to be in high school.”
The agent was especially concerned about a new policy that allows ICE to investigate cases of immigrants who may have paid smugglers to bring their children or relatives into the country. ICE considers these family members guilty of placing children “directly in harm’s way,” as one spokeswoman recently put it, and the agency will hold them “accountable for their role in these conspiracies.” According to ICE, these measures will help combat “a constant humanitarian threat,” but the agent said that rationale was just a pretext to increase arrests and eventually deport more people. “We seem to be targeting the most vulnerable people, not the worst.” The agent also believes that the policy will make it harder for the government to handle unaccompanied children who show up at the border. “You’re going to have kids stuck in detention because parents are too scared of being prosecuted to want to pick them up!” the agent said.
U.S. immigration courts are facing a backlog of half a million cases, with only a limited number of judges available to hear them and issue rulings. “We still have to make decisions based on a responsible use of the government’s resources—you can’t lock everybody up,” the agent said. “We’re putting more people into that overburdened system just because we can. There’s just this school of thought that, well, we can do what we want.”
Before this year, the agent had never spoken to the media. “I have a couple of colleagues that I can kind of talk to, but not many,” the agent said. “This has been a difficult year for many of us.” These people, not just at ICE but also at other federal agencies tasked with enforcing the nation’s immigration laws, are “trying to figure out how to minimize the damage.” It isn’t clear what, exactly, they can do under the circumstances. “Immigration is a pendulum—it swings to the left sometimes, or it swings to the right,” the agent told me last week. “But there was a normal range. Now people are bringing their own opinions into work.” In the agent’s view, ICE is a changed agency.
“I like predictability,” the agent said. “I like being able to go into work and have faith in my senior managers and the Administration, and to know that, regardless of their political views, at the end of the day they’re going to do something that’s appropriate. I don’t feel that way anymore.”
For more information, go to: www.beverlyhillsimmigrationlaw.com