A nascent movement to dissolve the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency seemed to get a surprising co-sign from ICE itself this week.
But while 19 senior members of the agency signed onto a proposal to officially dismantle their current agency, it would be a mistake to see this as uniformed immigration police co-signing the campaign to “Abolish ICE.” The plan doesn’t actually contemplate the same end goal as the abolitionist camp. It calls instead for fracturing the current structure but dispersing its same functions to other addresses within the federal org chart.
The plan would split ICE’s two largest divisions — Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) and Enforcement and Removal Operations (ERO) — and reassign their personnel elsewhere. It was authored by Special Agents in Charge from HSI, who remember the pre-9/11 days when their work was independent of the deportations work ERO now performs — and before the two offices ranked at the bottom of morale and reputational surveys.
“The establishment of two separate agencies will allow employees to develop a strong agency pride” in each body, the agents wrote in a letter to Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen.
Immigration cops formulating and circulating their own plan to dissolve the agency may seem like welcome news for the “abolish ICE” crowd. It is at minimum a sign of further momentum behind the relatively new idea. The letter hit the papers the same week that the campaign formally moved from just-a-slogan status to actual legislation, in the form of a bill from Rep. Mark Pocan (D-WI), and the same night that 575 people arrested protesting at the Capitol had included “Abolish ICE” in their chants. It landed the same week that Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s upset primary win in New York showed the idea-cum-legislation might have real electoral weight as well. Things are moving fast — so much so that some of the agents directly targeted by the abolition call seem ready to work with their antagonists rather than dig in for a fight.
But ICE agents’ participation in their agency’s dissolution doesn’t necessarily mean government cops are embracing the full spirit of the idea. Abolishing ICE is one thing; scattering its components, functions, and personnel through other federal agencies would be quite another. Anyone who’s ever mowed a lawn in springtime knows that cutting down a dandelion only scatters the weed across the yard. And the internal ICE proposal is a lawnmower, not a targeted spritz of pesticide down at the roots.
There is a long history in American law enforcement of scandalous teams and policies getting sent to the symbolic guillotine but keeping their claws firmly clenched in the departments that officially dissolved them.
Take Chicago’s notorious Special Operations Section. The large roving task force built in the late 1990s and officialized through the early 2000s was officially dissolved in 2007 after numerous overlapping scandals. Whistleblowing members of the team ratted out systemic corruption, criminality, and extortion conducted by SOS officers. But years after the shutters came down on SOS, most of the officers who had made up the team were still on the force. Just this past spring, local reporters broke the news that almost a dozen more officers with ties to the old SOS had been suspended from testifying in court because prosecutors had decided they were not trustworthy. Dissolving the SOS did not purge the cultural stains of the rip-and-run drug and gang cops whose understanding of what police work is had been born out of early service in the corrupt unit.
In Los Angeles in the 1990s, a similar group of free-range gang and gun specialists within the LAPD operated with the same special status — and some of the same repugnant attitude toward their role in the city’s underworld. The Rampart scandal spawned multiple Hollywood movies and the long-running FX show The Shield. It also got a handful of LAPD officers charged and fired — while dozens of others connected to the troubled, criminal unit of special-authorization gang cops simply got reassigned around the city, often after having administrative findings against them overturned on appeal. People inside the department still argue that the initial attempts at punishing conduct turned up by the Rampart scandal were too broad — and that the decision to shutter the “CRASH” gang units that had bred the corruption backfired in the form of a supposed uptick in violent crime (which, of course, is actually down dramatically since the CRASH era). Conservatives outside the LAPD blamed it all on affirmative action hiring policies. Lessons, it’s safe to say, went unlearned.
In surrounding Los Angeles County, it’s been so difficult to shed deputies connected to misconduct that a secret list of men and women still on the job despite seriously tarnished reputations is 300 names long.
This spring in Baltimore, prosecutors benched scores of city cops from future trials and vacated many more past convictions that had been based on testimony from officers entangled in one of several overlapping scandals about “testilying,” evidence planting, and out-and-out corruption. If other big-city scandals of similar scope in LA, Chicago, New York, and elsewhere are any guide, many of those officers will eventually make their way back onto the streets.
Law enforcement cultures are sticky. Reformer police chiefs rarely succeed in scrubbing out the old way of doing business and getting mid-level and front-line staff to buy in to their new, constitutionally responsible vision for police conduct.
The ICE agents’ proposal is therefore dangerous to the politics of “Abolish ICE.” If enacted, their plan for splitting HSI from ERO would allow some elected leaders to declare victory on a cause that’s energizing their base. But it wouldn’t actually try to dismantle the moral rot evident in ERO. As the Tribune’s initial report notes, “HSI agents aren’t allowed to unionize under federal law, but the union representing ERO agents endorsed Trump’s candidacy and has been supportive of his harsh immigration policies.” The folks who pretend to be handing out free donuts so they can round up and deport undocumented immigrants, the men and women who stand guard inside ICE’s detention facilities or at least drive the vans that transport detainees to for-profit jails, the people who raid tenement houses and restaurants? They are not looking to disappear. Even the HSI leaders who floated the division to Nielsen aren’t contemplating an end to their peers’ function. They just want to stop being associated with those people and the work they take to with such relish.
It’s not even clear yet that the Democrats who are embracing the abolitionist call have a firmer plan for disintegrating the deportation and detention system. The bill Pocan plans to introduce would dismantle ICE within six months and then appoint a commission to determine how its current functions might be fulfilled by other federal agencies, according to the congressman’s office. There are some number of undocumented migrants who will be ordered deported, and someone will have to deport them. Few who want to see ICE abolished have yet laid down markers on exactly who would execute the fewer and smarter deportations that would follow, or how they would go about it. None of that is a problem for now — there is time to find careful, informed, and viable answers to these questions — but it injects a precariousness into the current high-tide moment abolition is experiencing in political terms.
ICE is a relatively young agency, the product of a forced destruction of a longstanding wall between deportation work and investigative teams that targeted international smugglers. Forcing the two to share a roof and a logo in the wake of the September 11th attacks helped build institutional, official momentum for the animating lie of the xenophobic anti-immigrant set: That crime and migration are synonyms. Un-wedding those functions could restore some sanity to federal immigration enforcement and make it harder for a would-be autocrat like Trump to wield federal immigration power with such cavalier cruelty in the future. But the institutional history of policing in America suggests it’s much easier to rebrand law enforcement than to actually purge a culture of abuse.