Barely a few months ago, the concept of "abolishing" U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and handing its duties off to other government agencies seemed like a far-left pipe dream.
In a stunningly short amount of time, though, multiple elected officials have endorsed the idea. Candidates are running on abolishing ICE. And now, 19 special agents in charge of major-city Homeland Security offices have kinda-sorta gotten onboard.
Those 19 agents signed a letter asking Homeland Security Secretary Kristjen Nielsen to dissolve their own agency and instead create two new ones, because they believe the Trump administration's focus on arresting, imprisoning, and deporting noncriminal immigrants is detracting from the agency's ability to, say, investigate things such as human trafficking or child pornography. The agents want ICE's Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) unit separated from the agency's Enforcement and Removal Operations (ERO) wing, which employs the agents seen on the news arresting random undocumented people selling flowers, for example.
According to the text of the letter, which the Texas Observer first published, the special agent in charge of HSI in Miami, Mark Selby, signed the document. The letter says the Trump administration's detention and deportation policies have become so toxic that people are now refusing to cooperate with Homeland Security investigators.
"HSI's investigations have been perceived as targeting undocumented aliens, instead of the transnational criminal organizations that facilitate cross-border crimes impacting our communities and national security,” the 19 agents wrote.
Among signers is head of Miami office Mark Selby https://t.co/sC5h4nYWo9— Nicholas Nehamas (@NickNehamas) June 29, 2018
There are a couple of important caveats here: For one, the agents aren't asking the government to stop arresting or detaining immigrants. They simply don't want to be associated with those detentions. The letter says splitting ICE into two agencies would help unlock "each agency's potential."
And second, HSI itself — founded in 2003 as ICE's investigative arm — is not exactly a shining beacon of moral clarity and rectitude. Despite being relatively unknown by the public, HSI is obscenely powerful: According to documents first posted by MuckRock, HSI has a gigantic, snaking web of offices on every continent in the world. In 2017, the New York Times reported that HSI had more than 2,000 employees in more than 70 nations.
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Though the agency spends a ton of time cracking down on illegal money laundering and human trafficking, for example, HSI has also been accused of both acting as an arm of American imperial power around the world and needlessly expanding the failed U.S. War on Drugs into other countries. In February, the Intercept and the independent media outlet Unicorn Riot published internal HSI handbooks that showed agency investigators very explicitly instructing their agents on how to skirt the Constitution's Fourth Amendment protections regarding illegal searches and seizures.
For what it's worth, longtime ICE and HSI observers also noted today that HSI has been trying to break away from ICE's deportation force for quite a while:
This is less surprising than it may seem, a product of long-running culture clash between old Customs agents and old INS agents.... https://t.co/J5LCERJAD4— Garrett M. Graff (@vermontgmg) June 29, 2018
Still, the idea that Trump's deportation force has become too toxic for many of ICE's own employees is a jarring new development. In their letter — which was also signed by HSI heads in New York City, Los Angeles, Houston, Phoenix, and many other major U.S. cities, as well as Washington, D.C. — the HSI leaders noted that Trump's hardline deportation rhetoric has discouraged informants from reporting major crimes to HSI or working with Homeland Security investigators.
"Furthermore, the perception of HSI’s investigative independence is unnecessarily impacted by the political nature of ERO's civil immigration enforcement," the letter adds. “Many jurisdictions continue to refuse to work with HSI because of a perceived linkage to the politics of civil immigration. Other jurisdictions agree to partner with HSI as long as the 'ICE' name is excluded from any public facing information."