What is ICE?

Article by Courtney

Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) is an agency in the US Department of Homeland Security.  It is responsible for several functions, but its main purpose is pursuing, detaining, and deporting undocumented immigrants in the US.  

What was the original purpose of ICE?

Following the creation of the Department of Homeland Security after 9/11, ICE was founded in 2003.  The Justice Department described the purpose of ICE as to “prevent acts of terrorism by targeting the people, money, and materials that support terrorist and criminal activities” (2004 Bureau of Justice Statistics Bulletin).  However, as years passed, this purpose changed and grew along with ICE’s budget.  

Each Presidential Administration changed the function of ICE in some way.  For example, under President Obama, ICE agents were encouraged to use discretion about who they detain, focusing on those that match the agency’s priorities (2011 DHS Director Memo).  However, under President Trump, ICE’s budget has increased, and agents are instructed to detain and deport “all removable aliens”. The executive order dispatching this instruction cited that many of these immigrants present a significant threat to national security and public safety” (Executive Order: Enhancing Public Safety in the Interior of the United States).  However, undocumented immigrants are less likely to commit violent crime or to be incarcerated for a crime than US-born residents (CATO).

What is ICE responsible for?

ICE currently has 4 branches, each responsible for a specific function.  These are Enforcement and Removal Operations, Homeland Security Investigations, the Office of the Principal Legal Advisor, and the Office of Professional Responsibility.  

Enforcement and Removal Operations (ERO) is the most widely known branch of ICE and has the largest budget of the branches, with a $3.8 billion budget in 2017, and employs 7900 full-time employees.  This branch’s purpose is to locate, detain, and deport undocumented immigrants living in the United States.  It maintains close to 200 jails and detention centers in the US, employing private companies in most centers to detain undocumented immigrants.

Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) is the branch that most closely follows the original purpose of ICE.  It works to identify and detain those people involved in a wide array of criminal activity, including drug-trafficking, human-trafficking, and smuggling.  HSI had a budget of $2 billion in 2017 and employs 9800 full-time employees.  

The final two branches of ICE, the Office of the Principal Legal Advisor (OPLA), and the Office of Professional Responsibility (OPR), are the smallest. OPLA is responsible for providing legal support to ICE employees, and for representing the government in immigration court cases, while OPR is responsible for oversight.

How do people feel about ICE?

Recently, local law enforcement agencies across the country have been refusing to assist ICE, particularly its ERO branch.  John Cohen, a former acting undersecretary of the Department of Homeland Security, explained that they “are frustrated, people in ICE are frustrated, and other federal agencies are frustrated because of the obsession with immigration enforcement, and particularly the expansion of efforts targeting non-criminal unauthorized immigrants”.  

Outside of this, many political leaders, such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a member of the House of Representatives from New York, have called to abolish ICE and redistribute its responsibilities to other agencies.  The goal of this would be to end the mistreatment of undocumented immigrants at the hands of immigration enforcement.  The fight over ICE, its role in immigration enforcement, and even whether it should or needs to exist continues. 
















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