The irony of Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s acronym—ICE—has never been lost on anyone, including the agency itself. Shortly after its formation, posters appeared in government offices of an iceberg as big as the one that sunk the Titanic with the motto: ICE—What you see is just the tip of the iceberg. The idea was to emphasize just how much ICE did and how much of it went on quietly and behind the scenes.
Quietly and behind the scenes came back to haunt ICE with a vengeance this week. It began with last Friday’s Washington Post story of a leaked memo requiring ICE officers to boost deportations of non-criminal immigrants in order to fulfill quotas. Although ICE quickly backed away from the memo, the damage—in terms of broken families and broken promises—had already been done.
Next up, the New York Times broke the story that 30 Haitians evacuated to the United States by the government were languishing in detention because they had no authorization to come to the U.S.:
Almost at random, it seems, immigration jail was the ad hoc solution for these 30 survivors and for others still hidden in pockets of the nation’s sprawling detention network. Some of the 30 have already been transferred to more remote immigration jails without explanation.
Finally, the DHS Office of Inspector General issued a long-awaited report that offers a damning critique of the 287(g) program, confirming many of the criticisms levied against the program by community leaders, law enforcement officials, and immigration groups, including the Immigration Policy Center.
The report, The Performance of 287(g) Agreements, identifies numerous shortcomings that lead to abuse and mismanagement and raises serious questions about the wisdom of state and local immigration enforcement partnerships with ICE. The OIG found that the program was poorly managed and supervised, has no consistent guidelines for implementation, doesn’t track data necessary for evaluating the program, doesn’t have adequate outreach, and offers misleading and inaccurate information, among other things. Most importantly, the Inspector General determined that ICE fails to take action against law enforcement agencies that violate the terms of the agreement. Can you say Joe Arpaio, anyone?
In short, with ICE we really are only seeing the tip of the iceberg—and the more we see, the more disturbing it becomes. Law enforcement agencies create trust and safer communities through clear rules and transparency—items that ICE continues to lack, despite numerous political promises to improve performance.
There are already calls to scrap the 287(g) program, but it is unlikely that DHS will eliminate a program that has been a darling of conservative members of Congress. According to the OIG report, ICE has concurred in 32 of the 33 recommendations issued by the Inspector General. This means that the institutional emphasis will be on reform, not elimination of the program.
That’s a shame, as there is no evidence that 287(g) makes communities safer or improves our broken immigration system. In the rush to engage state and local law enforcement on federal immigration matters, ICE has created a program that lacks oversight, undermines community relations, and breeds mistrust. As proven time and time again, a deportation-driven strategy exacts a high toll on individuals and communities with little real impact in stopping illegal immigration
But this week demonstrates that the problems at ICE are not just tied to one particular program. The lack of oversight, the lack of transparency and openness, and the ability to hide behind “law enforcement sensitive” designations, are emblematic of an agency that can quietly go about its business of deporting people because no one is watching over them. Enacting comprehensive immigration reform will change that dynamic in many ways, but it won’t necessarily stop ICE from making the same mistakes. We all have to do that.
Among the many recommendations a group of immigration experts made to the Obama Transition Team was the creation of an ICE Ombudsman’s office. This would be a place where the public had a role and a say in how ICE conducts its business. Acting on that recommendation now would be a first step towards rebuilding trust in an agency that has lost its way.