Homeland security investigators push to break with ICE


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WASHINGTON – Federal agents from Homeland Security Investigations say they have been kicked out of joint drug control operations, rejected by local law enforcement and heckled at campus job fairs. Their parent agency, US Immigration and Customs Enforcement, carries a stigma that undermines their investigative work across the country, officers said in an internal report.

Agents say they face a backlash in liberal “sanctuary” jurisdictions where authorities strictly limit contact with the ICE, but also in some Republican-led states where politicians express support for the agency. And the record of HSI agents “worsens,” according to a report prepared by an agent task force formed by HSI to consider changes to the agency’s place within the Department of Homeland Security.

HSI agents gathered dozens of these examples to convince DHS secretary Alejandro Mayorkas that they should quit ICE. They say their affiliation with ICE’s immigration enforcement role endangers their personal safety, stifles their partnerships with other agencies and scares off victims of crime, according to a copy of the report provided at the Washington Post.

“Splitting HSI into its own stand-alone agency is not just a brand preference,” the agents said in the document, which was circulated in an internal September 16 email. “HSI’s affiliation with ICE significantly hinders investigations and HSI’s ability to fulfill its mission. “

While a break would require congressional approval and seems unlikely, the report is one of the most detailed accounts of how the acronym ICE has become a scarlet letter for agents tasked with targeting terrorists. , former Nazis, human traffickers, drug dealers and purveyors of stolen antiques.

Although they sometimes work together, officers pointed out in the report that HSI’s work is separate from the Enforcement and Deportation Operations (ERO) of ICE, the branch that fulfills the role of Detention and Deportation. for which the agency is best known.

As the principal investigative agency of DHS, HSI has more than 10,000 employees in more than 250 offices in the United States and in 50 countries around the world. The agency focuses more broadly on transnational crime, and officers arrest unauthorized immigrants and US citizens.

The ERO’s 6,000 ICE officers have a much narrower mandate: to arrest non-citizens for civil violations of federal immigration law, such as exceeding a visa.

But in the 18 years since the creation of the ICE following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, HSI agents have struggled to establish a distinct identity, lacking the prestige of the FBI or the visibility of the US. Border Patrol. The ICE became a lightning rod for criticism and anger from Democrats when President Donald Trump praised the agency and urged its officers to expel “millions.”

HSI agents say the backlash against ICE has left them increasingly isolated and unable to work with national and local law enforcement, especially in jurisdictions where elected officials do not want police to help anyone with agency lettering on their jackets and business cards.

In Minnesota, HSI officers had to change the signs on their cars because local activists labeled them “immigration vehicles” on social media, according to the officers’ account. Police departments and local governments have avoided them in Georgia, Texas, Pennsylvania, Washington, California, Florida and elsewhere, officers said.

In a statement, ICE spokeswoman Paige Hughes said the agency “relies on close working relationships with its state, local and international partners,” but she did not elaborate. report details. She added, “ICE refrains from discussing deliberations publicly with its partners to maintain operational security and in recognition of the sensitive nature of many of our activities. ”

HSI agents pitched the idea of ​​a split in 2018 under Trump, who mainly touted ICE’s eviction division and the affiliated union that backed his political campaign.

The idea didn’t go anywhere until HSI agents brought it up again this year as Mayorkas toured the country to hear employee ideas for the agency, the door said. DHS, Marsha Espinosa, spoke in a statement. HSI has formed a working group to develop the proposal, she said.

“The secretary has read the proposal and looks forward to the continued engagement of the workforce on this and other workforce ideas,” she said.

But she added: “There are currently no plans underway to separate HSI and ERO.”

At Mayorkas’ request, HSI agents considered the possibility of remaining under the ICE, with a different internet address and email address to distinguish it from immigration law enforcement. The split would require congressional approval, the agency’s own director confirmed by the Senate, and the administrative costs of the personnel and budgets division, according to a report from the Center for a New American Security, a Washington think-tank. .

But HSI agents, who are not part of a union, argued that “the problems are too numerous and pervasive to be solved on a piecemeal basis.” In the report, they cited 77 examples of how the agency’s affiliation with ICE erodes partnerships with national and local law enforcement agencies, colleges and universities, and community organizations, making it difficult to recruiting employees and rescuing victims of crime.

Officers attended a career fair at Kent State University outside Cleveland in 2020, but student protesters blocked the table and heckled them until they gathered their documents and left, according to the report.

A campus media report said the protesters lined the table with leaflets saying “Make it down the ice.” “

Victims of crimes, including some overseas, refused to come forward, the report said. In 2019, HSI was unable to interview an allegedly exploited child abroad due to “strong resistance” from authorities and mistrust of the child’s parents.

“The public perceives the ICE as focusing only on immigration law enforcement,” the report said.

HSI officers in Nashville said they asked a local police department last year to provide office space for a “Joint Task Force on Internet Crimes Against Children” in an area where they are investigating nearly 60 child exploitation cases per year. The police refused, according to the report, because of “the affiliation with the ICE”. The report did not identify the police department.

Other localities have restricted ICE’s access to government records or buildings to conduct interviews, or have refused to provide patrol cars or uniformed officers to support plainclothes officers during investigations, said agents.

“You put officers at risk when they have to work in this kind of environment and with these restrictions,” said Jerry Robinette, former special agent in charge of HSI in San Antonio. “It’s like a doctor saying, ‘I’m going to have surgery, but I’m not going to let you look at the x-rays.’ “

Some agencies disputed the HSI account in the report, which says it had difficulty obtaining government documents from the New York Department of Motor Vehicles and the Michigan Attorney General and Unemployment Agency. Officials in New York and Michigan said they had no evidence to back up the claims.

“We are not aware of any access to DMV data denied to Homeland Security Investigations,” New York DMV spokesperson Tim O’Brien said in an email. “Any HSI manager who does not have the data they need to do their job should contact their Data Access Coordinator for NYS Data to resolve any confusion. “

Thomas Warrick, former DHS deputy assistant secretary for counterterrorism policy and director of the Future of DHS Project at the Atlantic Council, said the agency split would be too disruptive at a time when the whole system is in full swing. mutation.

In the past year alone, DHS has faced record-breaking arrests on the US-Mexico border, disasters such as the tornado that swept through Kentucky this month, and conflicting public and political pressure on immigration enforcement.

“DHS has so much to do that the disruption caused by a reorganization would not be desirable for the next several years,” Warrick said. “That’s not what ICE needs right now.”

The agency spent five years without a Senate confirmed leader. In April, President Biden appointed Ed Gonzalez, the Sheriff of Harris County, Texas, as director of ICE, but no vote was scheduled.

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