Before looking into the actions of ICE and determining whether it is an organisation that should be shut down, it is important to gain an understanding of what ICE actually is.
What is ICE?
The U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, more commonly known as ICE, is defined as being a federal law enforcement agency, meaning that they are an organisation tasked with maintaining law and public order. They are under the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and – officially – their job is to protect the U.S. from transnational crime (crime that occurs across country borders such as human trafficking, drug smuggling etc) and illegal immigration. Being set up in March 2003 under George W. Bush, the agency was founded as a direct response to the attacks that took place on the 11th of September 2001, often referred to as 9/11, in an attempt to try to make the U.S.A a safer country for its inhabitants.
Why is ICE under fire now?
You may be wondering why an organisation set up in 2003 is gaining so much attention from the media and is the subject of multiple demonstrations and protests today. Under the Obama administration, ICE deported over 2.4 million immigrants, with 40% of those deported in 2015 having no criminal convictions, and the majority of those that had convictions were over minor charges. It should be noted though that President Obama had tried to introduce a policy that would have protected over four million illegal immigrants and their families which was overruled by the Supreme Court in June 2016. However, these figures can actually be deemed as being quite misleading due to the fact that the way that deportations were classified had been changed: originally under the Bush administration, any individuals caught trying to illegally cross the border into America were simply escorted back to their countries without it being officially listed as a deportation. This changed under Obama, leading to a stark increase in the number of deportations and earning him the nickname “Deporter-in-Chief”.
However, this increase in the number of deportations as a result of a change to the classification system is deemed as a minute issue in contrast to the stance taken by the Trump administration upon his ascension to presidency in 2016. Upon his appointment as President, Trump vowed to pursue an immigration policy centred around the notion of “zero tolerance” which has resulted in the separation of children from their parents, the division of communities, children being locked in cages like cattle and even condemnation from the United Nations where they regarded the “zero tolerance” attitude as a human rights violation     . Trump is further accused of escalating ICE arrests where in the year of 2017, ICE made more than 143,000 immigration arrests, a 41% increase from the year before. Coupled with the fact that ICE supported a presidential contender for the first time in September 2016 when they came to endorse Trump’s candidacy and the then to-be-head of ICE declared that they would finally have the backing of a president who would let the agency do its job, it can come to no surprise that Donald Trump himself is being attributed to and directly associated with the actions of ICE, and thus has come under fire for the atrocious actions of the agency. Considering the fact that funding for ICE averaged $6 billion annually under the Obama administration, and shot up to $7.6 billion in 2018 and $8.3 billion in 2019 under the Trump administration, it is not too farfetched to tie President Trump to the actions of ICE.
Why are people calling for its abolition?
⁃ Sexual abuse: from 2010 to 2017 there were 1,224 sexual abuse complaints from individuals kept in ICE immigration custody. Only a minute 2% of these complaints were actually investigated however, questioning the safety of individuals kept in ICE detention centres and showcasing their lack of regard for the wellbeing of their detainees.
⁃ Separation of families: Adopted in 2018, The Trump administration’s family separation policy involved separating children from the parent or guardian with which they entered the U.S. and placing them under the supervision of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services whilst the adults were prosecuted and held in prison   . This policy was actually found to have been acted upon for up to a year before its official announcement, admitting that an additional 1712 children may have been separated before the zero-tolerance policy was even implemented and was continually acted upon even after its official ending in June 2018 up until at least October 2019. This has been criticised harshly due to the fact that the policy did not include measures to help reunite families that had been separated (which was revealed in June 2018) .
Although the policy had already officially been ended, the numbers of children being separated remained heart-wrenching with 245 children in March 2019 being torn from their families, sometimes even without clear documentation meaning that officials would not be able to track them down in order to reunite them with their family . An average of five children per day were being separated from their families in July and by October, the total number of children taken had reached 1,090 for the year of 2019. With this blatant refusal to follow orders and stop abiding by the family separation policy, it has raised questions about whether reform is even possible for ICE as they have clearly shown their reluctance to follow instruction in favour of facilitating the inhumane treatment of immigrants. In fact, in January of 2019, ICE acknowledged that thousands more children may have been separated than the official figure of 2,737.
⁃ Cages/conditions: As previously mentioned, ICE legally can only keep children for up to 72 hours before having to hand them over to the U.S. department of Health and Human Services, however in reality they are being kept for days and sometimes even weeks in their detention centres without adequate food or resources. The children are being subjected to cramped conditions without being able to shower or clean themselves and are sometimes even being kept in cages  . Whilst these startling findings were from one facility – the Clint facility – the poor conditions have proven to be universal amongst ICE’s detention centres, prompting the public to refer to them as “concentration camps”  . This horrifying reality of what these poor children are being subjected to again warrants the question of whether it is morally sound to give ICE the money that they are being paid by the government, when it could be used on other arguably more important matters such as schooling and infrastructure.
– Treatment: The treatment of the detainees in Detention centres is absolutely disgraceful as evidenced by the experiences of Carlos Hidago, an individual who was kept at one of the facilities. He stated that guards at the Adelanto, California processing centre would mock the detainees as they were lining up to get food by referring to them as cows, shouting “Moo! Here are the cows walking through”. Toiletries and clean clothes were in short supply, with sick detainees even being left in their tainted clothing. Detainees would often try to attempt suicide, where inspectors would find nooses constructed from twisted bedsheets in 15-20 of the cells. From December 2016 to October 2017, there were seven documented suicide attempts, which Hidago stated was greeted with jest by the guards, calling the individuals – who had attempted to end their lives – upon their return from the medical sector “Suicide Failures”. This type of derogatory behaviour towards illegal immigrants by ICE is frankly disturbing and disputes the idea of ICE officials and guards having any semblance of humanity.
⁃ Chemicals: In light of the pandemic currently sweeping the globe, an ICE detention centre run by the GEO Group Inc has been found to be spraying the chemical HDQ Neutral (a COVID-19 disinfectant) over 50 times a day in its communal areas, roughly every 15 to 20 minutes. This particular detention centre was previously accused of not doing enough to prevent the spread of COVID-19 throughout the facility, and seems to now be running its measures into the ground at the expense of its inmates. The manufacturer of the chemical, Spartan Chemical, warns that, if overused, HDQ neutral can be extremely harmful as it causes skin burns and serious eye damage when inhaled .
Coupled with the fact that the centre has eminently poor ventilation, the spraying of the chemical on the detained individuals has been leading to excruciating pain: the inmates have stated that “The guards have been spraying this chemical everywhere, all over everything, all the time. It causes a terrible reaction on our skin” and “when I blow my nose, blood comes out. They are treating us like animals. One person fainted and was taken out, I don’t know what happened to them. There is no fresh air”. After using the bathroom post chemical treatment, another inmate said “I started bleeding from my nose after being in contact… I am still bleeding, more than five hours later”. The idea that the centres are seemingly intent on using these chemicals to the extent where they are causing severe harm to the occupants with the startlingly poor ventilation, only serves to supply further weight to the notion that these detention centres can be likened to “concentration camps”.
⁃ Wrongfully detaining US citizens: From 2012 to early 2018, ICE had wrongfully arrested and detained 1,488 US citizens, many of whom spent months or even years in the detention centres with some even being wrongfully arrested more than once. In 2019, an 18 year old US citizen that was detained stated that they lost 12kg in 23 days from the poor treatment that they received whilst imprisoned in the detention centre, and considered self deporting as a result. Could it be possible that the ICE officers are being too gratuitous with their arrests, abruptly disrupting and sometimes even destroying the lives of innocent individuals and wasting money?
⁃ Passed reform: The overarching thinking behind the demands for the abolishment of ICE is that it is an organisation too far gone for reform: how is it possible to reform an organisation which claims that mass deportations make the country safer? By examining the case of Amy Gottlieb’s husband – Ravi – ICE’s blatant disregard for authority is made startlingly apparent: “When the agency refused to issue a stay of deportation and we challenged them in court, they said the court has no jurisdiction over their decisions”; and “when ice detained Ravi and members of Congress asked for his release, Ice ignored the request” suggesting that they feel as though they are above Congress itself. They have also displayed contempt for public opinion, causing Gottlieb to write that “when hundreds rally to ask Ice not to deport someone, Ice will often deport that person even more quickly” and “when immigrants are actively and publically challenging ICE practices, they or their family members are targeted for deportation to keep them quiet” . Is it safe for an organisation with so much funding and the appearance that they are above the law and congress, to be in operation?
What are the arguments against ICE’s abolishment?
⁃ ICE’s primary goal is to combat and deport illegal immigrants which have unlawfully entered the country. There needs to be an agency that is tasked with combating that as illegal immigration is dangerous, is a threat public safety and is a burden on tax payers’ money.
⁃ There has to be an organisation under the government that is specially tasked to deal with illegal immigration in order to make legal immigration more appealing. It is unfair for there to be so many illegal immigrants when there are many people who have lawfully emigrated, abiding by the rules.
⁃ It is said that ICE is one of the primary agencies responsible for combating human trafficking, which can be highlighted by the fact that in 2016, ICE made 1,952 human trafficking arrests and assisted over 400 victims. Human trafficking victims are often vulnerable children, women and men, and apprehending the perpetrators as well as rescuing the victims is an extremely important job that has to be prioritised.
⁃ Whilst a major part of preventing illegal immigration is spotting and stopping individuals trying to cross the border, a large part also involves deporting individuals who have actually made it into the country. Without ICE, there would be no organisation to carry this out. It is estimated that there is an illegal immigrant population of 10.5 million (as of 2017) in the U.S; this is unfair to legal immigrants and U.S. citizens.
With all things considered, it is apparent that the agency of ICE cannot be allowed to continue along its current path of destroying families, blatant dismissal of congress and the law, and repeated arguable human rights violations. Whilst the goal that the agency is supposed to serve is incredibly important, such as apprehending human and sex traffickers, these tasks can easily be carried out by another organisation. The fundamental problem with ICE is that they genuinely believe that they are above the law, and this means that potential reform seems borderline impossible. How can you reform an agency that refuses to listen to legislation?
Whilst the push for ICE to be abolished is ever-growing, the movement does not have enough support in Congress for this to be a feasible goal yet, however it is abundantly clear that some action has to be taken against ICE. Whether that means a complete abolishment or a push for reform, only time will tell.
In the meantime, however, if you want to try to make a change to the way with which ICE conducts itself, I have listed below a few petitions that you can sign in order to channel that energy into a positive movement for actionable change.
Stop ICE using HDQ neutral and other chemicals on detainees:
You can find many other petitions on Change.org
Written by Umran Tuglu