WASHINGTON -- The attitude of President Donald Trump toward federal law enforcement is, to put it mildly, mixed. The FBI refused to bend to his will. So it is comprised of “hardened Democrats” engaged in a “WITCH HUNT.” The FBI was, according to Trump, too preoccupied with the Russia investigation to prevent the Parkland, Florida, school shooting. Its reputation “is in Tatters -- worst in History!”
But Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has passed the loyalty test. ICE’s enforcement surge “is merely the keeping of my campaign promise,” explained the president. Referring to ICE acting Director Thomas Homan, Trump said, “Somebody said the other day, they saw him on television. ... ‘He looks very nasty, he looks very mean.’ I said, ‘That’s what I’m looking for!’”
This is territory more familiar in political systems of personal rule. The agency that defies the ruler must be discredited. The agency that does his bidding is viewed as a kind of Praetorian Guard.
Most of the professionals working in ICE would surely deny this characterization, pointing to an important legal role independent from any individual president. But they need to understand that their work is now being conflated with Trump’s nativism.
ICE’s 40 percent increase in arrests within the country after Trump took office is now closely associated with the president’s political priorities. His sweeping executive orders on immigration broadened the focus of enforcement beyond serious threats to public order. Arrests of immigrants without criminal convictions have spiked dramatically. Routine “check-ins” with ICE officials can end with handcuffs and deportation. “Sanctuary cities” -- a recurring presidential political obsession -- are being targeted with additional personnel. Hundreds of children have been removed from parents seeking asylum and detained separately -- compounding their terrible ordeal of persecution and flight. ICE recently announced a new policy that makes it easier to detain pregnant women. Asylum seekers have often been denied “humanitarian parole” while their cases are decided, effectively jailing them without due process.
Officials of the agency insist their nonpolitical mandate hasn’t changed. But Homan has praised the Trump administration for taking “the handcuffs off law enforcement.” Whatever their intention, ICE agents are being used by the president to send a message of callousness. And they are tying themselves to Trump’s political fortunes in the process.
The job performed by ICE is essential to American security, and not easy. Agents must prevent some truly dangerous people from entering and staying in the country -- gang members, drug dealers and terrorists. But it is also their job to deal with asylum seekers -- men, women and children fleeing from gangs, targeted for death by drug cartels and oppressed by terrorist states. Some of the worst people in the world, and some of the most sympathetic people in the world, are processed by immigration officials. It takes care and discernment to make this distinction.
ICE is not currently an agency famous for its care and discernment. In releasing an immigration activist detained by ICE early this year, U.S. District Judge Katherine B. Forrest said, “It ought not to be -- and it has never before been -- that those who have lived without incident in this country for years are subjected to treatment we associate with regimes we revile as unjust. ... We are not that country.”
Accusations of abuse in ICE custody are numerous and serious, and they pre-existed the Trump era. An investigation by ProPublica and the Philadelphia Inquirer reported cases of racial profiling, fabricated evidence and warrantless searches -- all given little scrutiny by overwhelmed immigration courts. During the last few years, there have been hundreds of accusations of sexual abuse, racial slurs, abusive strip searches and verbal harassment in ICE jails, prisons and detention centers. For an institution that claims “zero tolerance” for such practices, it seems to get a lot of serious complaints. One asylum seeker, Gretta Soto Moreno, has called the facilities worse than normal prisons because ICE “feels like it can treat immigrants any kind of way.”
This is the bitter fruit of dehumanization -- in a facility, in a system, in a country. It is unclear if Trump would even regard such a reputation as undesirable. He has effectively given permission for bullying.
This is an issue ripe for more rigorous congressional oversight -- even an independent commission to investigate charges of physical and sexual abuse in the ICE system. But this would require a critical mass of elected Republicans to give a damn about the rights and dignity of migrants. It is a distant dream.
Michael Gerson’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.