United States: Is ICE on the Chopping Block?

By Brandon Hunter-Pazzara*

Enforcement and Removal Operations (ERO) in Chicago, IL/ Flickr/ Public Domain

Even if the Biden Administration does not heed the rallying slogan of hashtag #AbolishICE, the United States Immigration Customs and Enforcement (ICE) could be put on a course that guts the agency’s mission and renders it a non-player in U.S. policy. The new administration’s push for immigration reform and reversal of many of its predecessor’s policies, including overhauling family processing procedures on the U.S.-Mexico border last weekend, signal significant change ahead for ICE – if not elimination of the agency itself.

The agency’s mixed performance on its two principal missions – enforcing immigration laws by removing unlawful migrants and combating transnational crime – has fueled pressure for reform.

Enforcement and Removal Operations (ERO), which account for $5 billion of the agency’s roughly $8.3 billion budget and 8,000 of its 22,000 employees, regularly fall short of ICE’s stated goals even as the mission has gotten easier. 2019 was the only year to date that it reported meeting removal targets. In 2021, the number of undocumented migrants in the United States is 10 million-11 million – the same as in 2003 – despite dramatic declines in new arrivals. According to a 2017 report by U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), unauthorized border crossings were about 1 million in 2003 but had fallen below 500,000 by the time Donald Trump took office in 2017.

  • Significant changes to immigration law such as those contemplated by the Biden Administration could make ICE’s immigrant removal mission obsolete. For instance, its immigration bill creates several paths to legal status for the 11 million undocumented migrants, which if passed would shift the responsibility to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS). ICE’s interior operations could very well be moved to CBP or eliminated altogether. 

Homeland Security Investigations (HSI), with a budget of $2 billion and some 10,300 employees, is one of dozens of federal and state agencies tasked with combating transnational crime. Observers have long noted that it remains unclear why these tasks are not handled by more effective law enforcement agencies. 

  • ICE each year reports its arrests, convictions, and cash and narcotics seizures – metrics that usually represent a small fraction of the total amount of narcotics reaching the street. ICE claimed it seized 6,105 pounds of fentanyl in 2020 – a year in which opioid-related overdoses increased significantly over 2019.
  • In terms of convictions, ICE reported in 2019 that it arrested 37,547 people for various crimes and won 16,792 convictions, a conviction rate of less than 50 percent. By comparison, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) boasts a conviction rate in the high 80s. Policymakers may be tempted to break up HSI as ICE’s core missions decline and place its agents in other agencies.
  • While ICE claims in its yearly reports that it plays a pivotal role in terrorism prevention, it has yet to provide a public accounting of any successful operations and whether it has prevented an imminent attack during its 18 years of operations. 

ICE is not the only agency of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) with problems. The U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) found DHS employees have a 10-point lower Employee Engagement Index Score – a measure of employee enthusiasm and purpose – compared to the federal average. But ICE and its missions are arguably the most vulnerable.

  • Numerous observers report it suffers from a culture of regular misconduct. As the ACLU documented, between Jan 2017 and April 2020, 39 adults died in ICE custody. During the Trump Administration, none of ICE’s directors was confirmed by the Senate – a sign that legislators don’t hold the agency in high esteem – and leadership resignations were common, including the remarkably brief two-week tenure of Jonathan Fahey this January. These issues only add to the damage done by numerous reports of ICE’s underhanded tactics and abuse of migrants, resulting in one 2019 poll finding that Americans considered ICE the worst federal agency. (Even so, according to a 2018 Politico Morning Consult Poll, most voters also say they do not support abolishing ICE.)
  • These contradictions are likely explained by the inertia of government reform and the rise of party polarization. In the past, a federal agency defined by inefficiency, incompetence, and bloat would have generated sharp criticism from Republicans. Yet, statements of support for President Trump during his presidential campaign and Presidency by ICE officials and the union representing its rank and file seem to have bought them protection. While the #AbolishICE groups are still likely to be frustrated that the agency survives, ICE seems destined to take some serious hits and would be wise to accept a serious conversation about its role and performance rather than wait for Mr. Trump’s return.

March 8, 2021

* Brandon Hunter-Pazzara is a CLALS Fellow and PhD Candidate in Cultural Anthropology at Princeton University.

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