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Abolishing ICE: Good policy, bad politics

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There is a growing outcry to abolish the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) bureau in the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). Although the groundswell largely is coming from advocates for immigration reform, some ICE agents within the bureau’s Investigations unit also are requesting a reorganization of ICE. In sum, it appears that many people with firsthand knowledge think it would be good policy to bust up ICE.

There is a political rub, however, and it is twofold. Most Americans favor stringent security at U.S. borders, and most do not know that ICE’s role in immigration enforcement is not at the border. Without a fuller understanding of the various immigration agencies within the federal government, many Americans misunderstand ICE’s mission and assume it would be reckless to abolish it.

{mosads}In fact, ICE is among eight agencies that have important immigration functions and that are nested at the third tier down within five federal departments.


The ICE function that is the subject of extensive criticism and well-documented problems is its role overseeing the custody of foreign nationals who are detained by DHS. The law requires DHS to detain several classes of foreign nationals, including those who are inadmissible or deportable because of criminal, terrorist, or national security grounds; those who arrived in the United States without proper documents; and those who have final orders of deportation.

The privatization of ICE detention centers has exacerbated the problems the bureau faces and has given considerable fodder to media exposes of abuses.  The DHS Office of Inspector General recently released a scathing report on failures of the private contractors to comply with detention standards. It’s time to restructure the responsibilities to administer detention and removal policies more humanely.

To its credit, ICE also performs critical assignments that include investigating foreign nationals who violate the laws. The main categories of crimes its agents investigate are suspected terrorism, criminal acts, suspected fraudulent activities (i.e., possessing or manufacturing fraudulent immigration documents) and suspected smuggling and trafficking of foreign nationals. ICE investigators are housed in the Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) component and are among those who would dismantle ICE.

If ICE is not at the border performing critical background checks and national security screenings, who does? First, the State Department consular officers screen all foreign nationals requesting a visa, employing biometric technologies along with biographic background checks. In some high-risk consulates abroad, ICE assists in national security screenings. Then, DHS Customs and Border Protection (CBP) inspectors examine all foreign nationals who seek admission to the United States at ports of entry. CBP inspectors and consular officials partner with the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC) to utilize the Terrorist Identities Datamart Environment on known and suspected terrorists and terrorist groups.

They also check the background of all foreign nationals in biometric and biographic databases such the FBI’s Integrated Automated Fingerprint Identification System. Improvements in intelligence-gathering, along with advances in technologies and inter-agency sharing, have greatly enhanced the rigor of our national security screenings.

The most effective policy for interior immigration enforcement would be one prioritizing “quality of life” enforcement. As I have written elsewhere, it would be aimed at protecting U.S. residents from the deleterious and criminal aspects of immigration. Foremost, it would involve the investigation and removal of foreign nationals who have been convicted of crimes and who are deportable, thus maintaining the important activities of the current ICE investigators.  

“Quality of life” enforcement, furthermore, would prioritize investigations of specific work sites for wage, hour and safety violations, sweatshop conditions and trafficking in persons — all illegal activities to which unauthorized workers are vulnerable. “Quality of life” enforcement also would encompass stringent labor market tests (e.g., labor certifications and attestations) to ensure that U.S. workers are not adversely affected by the recruitment of foreign workers, as well as reliable employment verification systems. Many of these functions once were performed by the Department of Labor (DOL), before funding cuts gutted its enforcement duties.

Prioritizing these functions likely would go a long way toward curbing unauthorized migration. Whether DOL or a revamped immigration enforcement be the lead on “quality of life” measures remains a key management question. There is a strong case for re-establishing DOL’s traditional role in protecting U.S. workers and certifying the hiring of foreign workers. Given the critical role that ICE investigators play, it is imperative that they be housed in an agency that provides them with adequate support. These are finer points that can be resolved as the functions are reorganized.   

Including a multi-pronged agency or agencies charged with ensuring “quality of life” immigration enforcement measures as part of a package of immigration reforms would only increase the strong public support (roughly two-thirds favor) for comprehensive immigration reform. Good policy. Good politics.

Ruth Ellen Wasem is a clinical professor of policy at the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs, the University of Texas in Austin. For more than 25 years, she was a domestic policy specialist at the U.S. Library of Congress’ Congressional Research Service. She has testified before Congress about asylum policy, legal immigration trends, human rights and the push-pull forces on unauthorized migration. She is writing a book about the legislative drive to end race- and nationality-based immigration.

Tags Immigration to the United States U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement United States Department of Homeland Security

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