Analysis of Obama's Executive Amnesty Scheme: ICE Personnel Reform

By Dan Cadman on December 2, 2014

[Note: This is the third in a series analyzing the pieces of executive action authorized by the president.]

Among the series of memoranda that Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary Jeh Johnson has issued in the wake of the president's announcement of a multiplicity of executive actions on immigration was one entitled "Personnel Reform for Immigration and Customs Enforcement Officers".

The gist of the memo can be found in the last three sentences of the first paragraph: "ICE ERO [Enforcement and Removal Operations division] has ... a personnel structure that lags behind that of other federal law enforcement agencies and components, including other ICE components. This discrepancy hurts morale and presents other management challenges. I know you [ICE acting director Thomas Winkowski] share my commitment to address this."

Unknown to most of the public, there is in fact a three-tiered personnel system in place at ICE among the officer corps. At the top of the pyramid are special agents of ICE's Homeland Security Investigations division (HSI). This division is top-heavy with former Customs agents, whose distaste for any kind of Title 8 (immigration) enforcement activity is a poorly kept secret — and it shows in the statistics.

In "Deportation Numbers Unwrapped", a 2013 CIS Backgrounder, Jessica Vaughan wrote, "In 2008, HSI arrests produced 17 percent of ICE-initiated deportations; in 2013 they are projected to produce only 4 percent of ICE-initiated deportations." (Emphasis added.) This is shocking because a number of extremely important immigration-related enforcement activities are assigned to this division, among them alien smuggling, worksite enforcement (which has become virtually invisible), policing of the foreign student and overstay populations (a laughable effort under HSI), and anti-gang efforts against such violent criminal organizations as Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and others that are heavily alien-oriented.

Below HSI agents on the pay grade pyramid are ERO's deportation officers, and further below them yet are ERO's immigration enforcement agents. These latter two types of officers perform virtually all of the immigration enforcement conducted in the interior of the United States today — at least as much as this administration is willing to permit, which is by any objective measure an ever-narrowing window.

It is long overdue that the pay and grade discrepancies at ICE be rectified — but there is ample reason to be skeptical about the administration's reasons for taking action now, after having had six years to rectify the issue during which (like with immigration reform generally, when the executive and both houses of Congress were controlled by Democrats) they did nothing.

First, it's notable that DHS — and ICE particularly — routinely scores in the gutter on the yearly Office of Personnel Management surveys of federal agency employee morale. (See here and here.)

Second, it's even more notable that the ICE agents' union twice issued an overwhelming vote of no confidence in their leaders (see here and here), and then followed those up by taking the extraordinary step of filing a federal lawsuit against the federal government for being prohibited from doing their sworn duties as officers of the law.

In sum, this looks like an attempt to buy off the members of the ICE ERO officer corps — and not a particularly subtle or adroit one, at that. Although Johnson's memo is long on belated sentiment for the plight of those experiencing these pay inequities, it's woefully short on details as to exactly how or when they will be fixed. What's more, no budget, past or present, has included any funding for this "discrepancy [that] hurts morale".

What's next? Will DHS leaders change their minds if the agents continue to plow forward with their public expressions of distrust and no confidence, particularly after the stunning breadth of the unconstitutional power play that the president's "executive actions" constitute? Or are they banking on a "divide and conquer" scheme by pitting Congress' desire to defund executive action against an unwillingness to hold agents hostage to that situation?

Let's hope the agents have more self-respect and integrity than to fall sway to this ploy. I think they do. And I hope Congress keeps the spotlight on Johnson and Winkowski to make good on their vague commitment to rectify the pay and grade problems plaguing ICE, but not at the expense of providing funds to pay for the president's unlawful acts.