15 Years After Its Creation, Critics Want To Abolish ICE

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In this Feb. 9, 2017, photo provided U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, ICE agents are seen at a home in Atlanta during a targeted enforcement operation aimed at immigration fugitives. (Bryan Cox/ICE via AP)
In this Feb. 9, 2017, photo provided U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, ICE agents are seen at a home in Atlanta during a targeted enforcement operation aimed at immigration fugitives. (Bryan Cox/ICE via AP)

As outrage on the left continues over President Trump's immigration policies, some progressive Democrats are calling for more oversight of Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Some are even calling for ICE to be abolished.

Here & Now's Meghna Chakrabarti takes a step back to look at the history of ICE with Deborah Kang, associate professor of history at California State University San Marcos and author of the book "The INS on the Line: Making Immigration Law on the U.S.-Mexico Border, 1917-1954."

Interview Highlights

On calls to abolish the agency

"I understand it. I understand where it's coming from because when you look at how removals have been conducted since 9/11, the vast majority of removals today, or the bulk of removals today, are conducted by ICE, not [Customs and Border Protection]. So what our nation's immigration agencies are doing is they're targeting these long-term permanent residents for deportation, for removal. And that really casts a pall on on our nation's immigration agencies, our nation's immigration history.

"So I am in full sympathy with these critiques of ICE, but I think it's unrealistic to think that if we eliminate ICE, we will get rid of the problem. Because I think Congress will then turn around and expand the powers of CBP, and basically restore its powers to conduct interior enforcement. That's what it was doing before 9/11. It was doing both border and interior enforcement. So Congress will either do that, or they'll create a new agency. I think the solution is to create some kind of permanent oversight body, and ideally by Congress, and an oversight body that has some kind of enforcement power."

On the creation of ICE in 2003

"ICE was very much a product of 9/11. What happened is, shortly after the terrorist attacks, Congress commissioned an investigation into the attacks that became the 9/11 Commission Report. And that report recommended the reorganization of the nation's immigration agencies. At that time, these agencies were known as the Immigration and Naturalization Service, and under the Immigration and Naturalization Service, you had an agency called the Border Patrol. So as a result of the 9/11 Commission Report Congress, in 2003, dissolved the INS and rearranged the nation's immigration agencies. Congress housed them under a brand-new agency that we now know as the Department of Homeland Security. And the three immigration agencies, which exist today, are Citizenship and Immigration Services, Customs and Border Protection and Immigration and Customs Enforcement."

On the scope of ICE's power

"A 1996 immigration law gave the nation's immigration agencies the power to deport larger numbers of people and to deport them more easily. When this measure was passed in 1996 — it's the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act — when it was passed in 1996, the nation's politicians and immigration agencies didn't use it to its full effect. And what's happening now is that the nation's immigration agencies are using that measure, as well as several other measures that were passed in the '90s and after 9/11, to expand immigration law enforcement. Now what ICE has done in using these laws is that it's created this kind of massive interior enforcement complex. This is a complex on which we spend approximately $7 billion to $8 billion a year. It's composed of 20,000 ICE agents. It also consists of approximately 200 detention centers. And then the scope and scale of interior enforcement, meaning the pursuit, arrest, detention and removal of individuals from the interior, that's unprecedented.

"And also, because of that '96 law, what ICE's able to do with these interior enforcement operations is it not only focuses on removing immigrants who've, say, just crossed the border illegally. It now has the power, because of that '96 law, to pursue, arrest and remove long-term permanent residents who have committed some kind of crime. And it's because of that '96 law that you see this huge spike in the number of removals from the interior."

"The scope and scale of interior enforcement, meaning the pursuit, arrest, detention and removal of individuals from the interior, that's unprecedented."

Deborah Kang

On whether ICE has become more than what it was originally intended to be

"That's a very difficult question to answer because, especially as somebody who's studied the history of the INS and the Border Patrol, the pattern seems to be that the Border Patrol, and later CBP and ICE, really get to call the shots. They really get to define the parameters of their authority to conduct immigration law enforcement. And this is very much the case because for almost 100 years now, very little oversight has been exercised over the nation's immigration agencies. And over the course of 100 years, numerous reports and investigations have been issued identifying widescale cases of abuse being committed by the, first, the Border Patrol, and later CBP and ICE."

On investigations into abuse

"There have been some very recent investigations into both ICE and CBP handling of adults and child immigrants. So, for example, in April, The Intercept published a report on ICE treatment of children. In May of 2018, the ACLU of San Diego published a report on CBP abuses of children. And both reports are based on documents from these agencies themselves, through documents that were procured through FOIA requests. And what these investigations reveal is rampant abuse — physical abuse, verbal abuse, even sexual abuse — against these children. And this abuse, again, it's being committed by both CBP and ICE. What both reports are finding is that complaints are being filed against the agencies, but the agencies pay lip service to these complaints, and in a very, very small percentage of cases was there found to be any wrongdoing. And then once that finding is established, usually there's no punishment for the individuals who have committed these abuses. And, as I said earlier, this is a longstanding pattern. Between 2013 and 2016, five independent investigations were conducted of CBP and its operations. And the conclusions that these reports came to, and they came to them independently, is the CBP takes really a lawless or freewheeling approach to immigration law enforcement."

On the lack of action from Congress to push for more oversight

"Congress and the courts have traditionally taken a hands-off approach to oversight of the nation's immigration agencies. And the bottom-line reason is because these agencies are dealing with noncitizens. They're dealing with immigrants. That's one reason. The other reason is because oftentimes immigration regulation is seen as a function of national security. And this is particularly the case after 9/11. And so Congress and the courts can say, 'Look, we aren't really going to pay too close attention to these immigration agencies because they're defending our national security. So, in turn, they need a lot of leeway.' "

This article was originally published on June 25, 2018.

This segment aired on June 25, 2018.



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