Learning how immigration policy orders streaming out of the new management in Washington actually play out on the front lines is a tough proposition these days. Few in the field are exactly eager to talk about their jobs when they perceive that high-up bosses hate them. That is most especially true of those who work for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement's Enforcement and Removal Operations (ICE ERO) division, the Democratic Party's favorite whipping boy.
One of President Biden's first moves in office was to "pause" almost all ERO operations for 100 days. Then, when that was temporarily halted in Texas court action, the administration issued new rules sharply curtailing which illegally present aliens ICE agents can arrest: mainly the worst aggravated felons and terrorists (whose continued freedom would prove politically embarrassing), but even that requiring unprecedented individual pre-approvals from Washington headquarters. Next up, as my colleague Jessica Vaughan has expertly sussed out, is a proposal to abolish ICE's deportation officer corps altogether in a soon-to-be announced "reorganization" of the agency.
The extent to which these Washington ideas actually translate to the ground is rarely revealed and is made especially confusing when some media focus on residual removals that are still taking place, which are usually painted as examples of Biden still doing this to innocent people.
But CIS caught up to one ICE ERO officer recently who described what work is like these days. The officer, based in the Texas interior, agreed to speak only on condition of anonymity. The bottom line: It appears as though Washington fiats are indeed being carried out, at least in this agent's corner of the world.
"They've told us to stop arresting people, except for aggravated felons, but we have to ask Washington first if they meet the new criteria," the agent said. "And they decline some of them."
The agents have readjusted to hunting down the worst sorts of aggravated felons in the country, an effort that sometimes takes long periods of time and might well yield little or no fruit. But even then, the officers aren't allowed to take in a dangerous criminal alien if the conviction is older than 10 years.
Prior to the Biden administration and for all of this officer's career, permissions were fairly open for arresting illegal aliens of all stripes.
"We just followed the law. We all know the law and we followed it as our main guidance."
In past administrations, ERO officers were often asked to focus on arresting dangerous criminal aliens, like now, but there were no actual prohibitions on also chasing down those with removal orders on them from immigration judges. No immigration judge will see their removal orders carried out now, the officer said.
In Texas, ERO officers also always had the latitude to arrest removable criminal aliens who'd been jailed and were being released, if there were detainer warrants on them. Sometimes, the officers would pick up and process "collaterals", meaning illegally present people who were found in a targeted location or near a targeted person, but the officers were given discretion over whether to make those arrests.
There was always plenty to do in a state like Texas, the officer said.
Not so much anymore.
Now, the officer said, the local field office only works on that narrow approved aggravated felon mission that yields little or no fruit most of the time. The strangest aspect is having to ask permission to do even that little bit, from Washington bureaucrats. The requests go up through the local chain of command, then the officer waits for an answer. This particular agent has not had any requests declined, but others in the field office have. The officer did not want to talk about those.
The officer felt frustrated because many aliens not considered "approved aggravated felons" were still very dangerous and need to be taken off America's streets. But the officers have no choice now but to watch them carry on. People are going to get hurt and even die as a direct result, but the officer felt powerless to do anything about that.
All of the new rules leave little for the ERO officers to do. So many are volunteering for extra duty down on the Texas-Mexico border to help manage the gathering new mass-migration crisis that brought at least 100,000 migrants over the border in February alone and 80,000 in January. The ICE ERO officers who volunteer will be doing mostly administrative work that frees up Border Patrol agents.
The whole field office is on edge, too, these days, and reeling from low morale, the officer said. Everyone is waiting for the arrival of a new plan for ERO operations from Washington, D.C. That guidance will set in stone what they can and can't do for years to come.
Watching dangerous illegal immigrants walk around free of deportation fear "really sucks. Yeah, it's really weird right now."
And also: "It's really, really weird not being able to do what you're supposed to do."