Calls for structural reform of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) are growing in the wake of revelations that the agency created a fake school to lure foreign students to violate immigration laws.
House Democrats activists say the law enforcement agency's mission is too broad and its culture corrupt, but they've stopped short of calling for the outright abolition of ICE as demanded by some immigration activists.
"I think 'abolish ICE' is a buzzword. Because no matter what, we're always going to have to have some level of deportation force as well as an immigration processing institution," said Rep. Ruben GallegoRuben GallegoSenators to meet with Ukraine president to reaffirm US support The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Democrats see victory in a voting rights defeat Sinema reignites 2024 primary chatter amid filibuster fight MORE (D-Ariz.), the vice chairman of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus (CHC).
"And whether we need to separate those institutions into different entities with two different leadership styles and leadership heads, we can do that," added Gallego.
Rep. Linda Sánchez (D-Calif.) also said many Democrats are focused on reform, rather than abolition.
"The fact of the matter is we do need law enforcement to screen people at our ports of entry to make sure that there's not human trafficking going on, to keep contraband out of the country. So you can't ever abolish ICE. You could call it something else. I say reform ICE, let's put some guardrails in place so that they aren't embarking on these crazy schemes," said Sánchez, chairwoman of the CHC Immigration Taskforce.
Gallego added the agency "clearly needs to be redone because this organization has gone rogue and doesn't know how to prioritize real threats versus what I would say are actually assets that we could be bringing into our country."
The latest backlash against ICE was prompted by a sting operation starting in 2015, under former President Obama's administration, in which agents set up the University of Farmington in Michigan, an institution that sponsored student visas but offered no classes, only to arrest and deport the foreign nationals who registered.
It's unclear whether the foreign nationals believed the University of Farmington was a fake institution set up to shop out student visas, as ICE claims, or whether they were entrapped into unknowingly violating their visa terms.
César Cuauhtémoc García Hernández, an associate professor of law at the University of Denver who wrote “Migrating to Prison: America’s Obsession With Locking Up Immigrants,” said it's unclear whether ICE's actions constitute entrapment.
"The courts have given officers some pretty wide latitude when it comes to creative methods of identifying people who are violating the law and gathering evidence," García Hernández told The Hill.
García Hernández said any reforms to the immigration enforcement system should first focus on eliminating immigration imprisonment.
The controversy over the sting operations comes as aspects of ICE and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) as a whole have come under scrutiny, even before President TrumpDonald TrumpSanders calls out Manchin, Sinema ahead of filibuster showdown Laura Ingraham 'not saying' if she'd support Trump in 2024 The Hill's 12:30 Report: Djokovic may not compete in French Open over vaccine requirement MORE started enacting his restrictive immigration agenda.
A commonly cited issue is the size of DHS, with more than 200,000 employees on its payroll, and the sometimes-contradictory missions conducted by its agencies.
In the case of ICE, the agency is divided into Enforcement and Removal Operations (ERO), which investigates, detains and deports foreign nationals for immigration violations, and Homeland Security Investigations (HSI), which investigates criminal activity that transcends international borders.
Asked if she believed HSI and ERO belong under the same roof, Sánchez simply replied, "no."
Sánchez called for deep reform of an agency that's had a reputation for hard-edged enforcement tactics since its creation in 2003, in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
Rep. Norma TorresNorma Judith TorresDemocrats eager to fill power vacuum after Pelosi exit House passes giant social policy and climate measure State Democrat group teams up with federal lawmakers to elect down-ballot candidates MORE, a fellow California Democrat critical of ICE's methods, said she's "been close" to calling for the abolition of ICE, "because of how they have performed in dealing with immigrants."
"If this university kicked off during the Obama administration that means nothing to me. The fact that ICE went and took advantage of a situation is what I find disgusting," said Torres.
But Torres said Trump's leadership has worsened the agency's behavior.
"This is a mean-spirited issue of this administration that is directing their employees to act a certain way, a racist way, a way that is inhumane," said Torres.
While Congress hasn't directly addressed the Farmington University case, ICE's leadership has faced congressional oversight from the House Oversight and Homeland Security Committees.
Hearings with top officials have so far centered on immigrant detention and a short-lived policy proposal to revoke deportation deferrals for critically ill foreign nationals seeking medical attention.
And the "abolish ICE" buzzword has lost potency on the left, where a recognition of immigration enforcement needs has taken hold.
"A pretty small percentage are calling to abolish ICE, most people are saying we need to restructure and reform it. And I think that's where the drive is. You hear that from the candidates. I hear that from progressive members of Congress," said Frank Sharry, executive director of America's Voice, a progressive immigration reform group.
Sharry added that the Farmington University incident was unlikely to reopen calls for abolition of the agency, as immigration enforcement agencies regularly rank among the least popular government institutions.
"They're well known as agencies that do bad things to innocent people, the idea of luring people to a school to learn English, and then prosecuting them for coming, it's just unbelievable," said Sharry.
But García Hernández said the agency's hardline tactics are politically aimed at an audience that's receptive to the methods.
"Instances like this situation in Michigan sour public opinion, or have to have the promise of souring public opinion. But the reality is that when it comes to the Trump administration, ICE has a lot of support within DHS, within the White House, and certainly within the political base that put the president into the White House," said García Hernández.