NICK EICHER, HOST: Coming up next on The World and Everything in It … The backlash against ICE.
MARY REICHARD, HOST: ICE, of course, stands for Immigration and Customs enforcement.
In 2003, President George W. Bush signed the Homeland Security Act. That consolidated 22 agencies and bureaus into the new Department of Homeland Security. One of the agencies in that new department became known as ICE.
The agency is responsible for federal immigration laws governing border control, customs, trade, and immigration. Today, the agency has more than 20,000 employees in more than 400 offices in the U.S. and in 46 foreign countries.
EICHER: But critics want to abolish ICE. They blame the agency for the family separation policy that recently came under so much scrutiny. WORLD Radio’s Sarah Schweinsberg has a report on the growing dissatisfaction with ICE.
SARAH SCHWEINSBERG, REPORTER: President Barack Obama appointed John Sandweg to direct ICE in 2013. Sandweg directed the agency for six months until he resigned in February 2014. During his albeit brief time at ICE, Sandweg says he learned the agency is tasked with no easy mission.
SANDWEG: It’s their duty and responsibility to execute the directives given out by the president of United States. That’s the law.
Executing those directives is not always popular, especially when they come from the Trump administration. In early April, Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced a “zero-tolerance” policy at the U.S.-Mexico border.
That meant any person caught crossing the border illegally would face criminal charges. The “zero-tolerance” policy led to 2,300 children being separated from their parents as the adults faced prosecution.
Per its mission, ICE’s Enforcement and Removal Operations, or ERO branch, enforced the separation policy. Even after President Trump ended the practice, activists and some lawmakers blamed ICE for what had happened to migrating families.
Two weeks ago, massive immigration marches around the country featured signs and chants to abolish the agency.
Sarah Pierce of the Migration Policy Institute says the “Abolish ICE” movement existed before the “zero-tolerance” policy, but the policy pushed it into the mainstream.
PIERCE: It’s kind of an easy thing to grab onto. A lot of people associate ICE with a lot of what they see is wrong with our current immigration system, including the separation of families.
Some Democrats are among those leading the charge. One of the first was House candidate Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, who railed against ICE during her campaign and reiterated criticism after her primary win last month.
Then New York senator and possible 2020 presidential candidate Kirsten Gillibrand became the first senator to endorse the idea in an interview with CNN.
GILLIBRAND: I don’t think ICE today is working as intended. I believe that it has become a deportation force.
Other lawmakers, including Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren—another possible 2020 presidential candidate—have also jumped on board.
In response, the White House launched a “Save ICE” campaign last week, arguing that without ICE, the nation’s borders are vulnerable to more crime, drugs, and terrorism. Vice President Mike Pence spoke to ICE agents Friday.
PENCE: These spurious attacks on ICE by our political leaders must stop. Under President Donald Trump, we will never abolish ICE.
Many others in Washington agree that ditching ICE isn’t a viable option. In a Washington Post op-ed, Jeh Charles Johnson, the Homeland Security secretary from 2013 to 2017, wrote that abolishing ICE is “not a serious policy proposal.”
And according to a tally kept by NBC News, most congressional Democrats reject the idea. Out of nearly 250 Democrats, less than two dozen favor abolishing the agency. Instead, Democrats say they want to focus on reforming the policies governing the organization.
Here’s Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar talking to ABC’s Martha Raddatz.
KLOBUCHAR: I think what has to change are the policies and the people that are making these policies are making horrendous decisions like separating kids from their parents. We are always going to need immigration enforcement. We are a major country with major borders, so to me the issue is what are those policies and please let’s get comprehensive immigration reform.
In the meantime, former ICE Director John Sandweg says the Trump administration should prioritize deporting criminals and those who recently came into the country illegally, instead of just any undocumented person.
SANDWEG: The real frustration here and the real target of the, of the criticism of it should be placed at the administration. Not on ICE.
Immigration advocate Ali Noorani, director of the National Immigration Forum, agrees that despite its current flaws, ICE is necessary. He says deporting illegal immigrants is only one of ICE’s functions.
NOORANI: Within ICE you have another division, Homeland Security Investigations. HSI is tasked with stopping drug trafficking, human smuggling, and multinational gang violence. HSI is a really important part of ICE. It keeps all of us safe. It keeps the immigrant community safe.
John Sandweg says until U.S. immigration laws are reformed, ICE will never be popular.
SANDWEG: ICE is enforcing a set of laws that are desperately in need of reform. And, and that’s where the frustration should be pointed at Congress and the administration for how law enforcement Ramona, but not with the people at ICE. That’s unfair to them.
Reporting for WORLD Radio, I’m Sarah Schweinsberg.