A Closer Look at Trump's Promise to Triple the ICE Officer Corps

By Dan Cadman on September 7, 2016

In his recent policy speech on immigration, both legal and illegal, Donald Trump said with regard to the latter that, if he were elected president, "We're going to triple the number of ICE deportation officers." The "ICE" to which he was referring is, of course, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the agency within the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) that is responsible for interior immigration enforcement.

Trump's commitment stems from a recognition that, while border enforcement is hobbling along on one leg with one hand tied behind its back, interior immigration enforcement has been completely dismembered, notwithstanding which, like the Black Knight in the Monte Python movie, it refuses to give up.

Interior immigration enforcement has always taken second place to border enforcement. There are many reasons for that, not least of which is the visibility of illegal border crossings. There is serious political liability to leaders who are seen as being weak in border enforcement — even the Obama administration, while doing everything possible to eviscerate the consequences of illegal border crossing behind the scenes, plays the game in front of the cameras, pretending to be tough and interdiction-minded.

Interior enforcement also carries with it more complexity because illegal aliens in the interior are vested with constitutional protections that don't apply in the immediate vicinity of the physical U.S.-Mexico (or U.S.-Canada) frontier. This can mean headaches in the courts, bad case law (especially in activist courts and appellate tribunals such as the Third and Ninth Circuit Courts of Appeal), and bad press when things go wrong.

Even so, Trump is right on point to speak directly to interior enforcement, and to do so in exactly the way that he did. Why?

First, consider the fact that nearly half of the people illegally in the United States these days did not cross the land border unlawfully. They came legally through our ports of entry — either using visas, border crossing cards, or by accessing the visa waiver program — and then just chose to stay past their authorized stay and melt into American communities to live and work illegally.

Second, consider that the ICE agent corps is about half that of the Border Patrol, perhaps even less than half. And if one were to add the other piece of the Border Patrol's parent organization, Customs and Border Protection (which consists of port of entry inspectors in the Office of Field Operations), then ICE is operating at about a third of the overall resources apportioned generally to DHS officers doing field immigration enforcement work.

Finally, Trump was careful to say that he would triple the number of deportation officers in ICE. That was a measured distinction — a recognition that ICE is itself divided into two somewhat incompatible functions. The two divisions within ICE are Enforcement and Removal Operations (ERO — the "deportation officers") and Homeland Security Investigations (HSI — the special agents). HSI probably has a bit more than half of the agent/officer corps within ICE. They are paid at a higher grade level. Once upon a time, HSI maintained the fiction that it did the "higher level" immigration enforcement work while ERO was simply there to "pick up the bodies". That was never really true, because when ICE was created the former U.S. Customs agents, disliking their shotgun wedding with the former Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) officers, undertook a hostile takeover of the investigations division and ruthlessly weeded out the immigration types, forcing them into ERO. Still, it recognized the need for at least a certain amount of maintenance work in the immigration arena. Even that facade has crumbled, in no small measure because this administration would much rather that the HSI agents do no immigration enforcement:

There has been absolutely no HSI presence to weed out illegal aliens employed without authorization in the workplace for nearly the entire Obama administration. ICE leaders claimed that this was so that they could focus on "smart" methods of stopping illegal employment through workplace audits instead of "raids". The audits have slowed down to a trickle and have proven themselves to be virtually meaningless in combating one of the major magnets of illegal immigration.

HSI at the outset had a robust program designed to combat alien smuggling. This was in no small measure because it had inherited a seasoned cadre of anti-smuggling investigators from the INS. They too found a hostile work environment within HSI, a general lack of appetite for their work, and either voluntarily or under pressure migrated into ERO. Now alien smuggling efforts constitute significantly less than 10 percent of HSI's agent productive hours.

HSI was also charged with investigating frauds referred from other DHS entities, such as U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), the immigration benefits agency. In fairness to them, HSI still conducts a few complex cases. But a careful observer of such things will note that, as often as not these days, it is the FBI that refers criminal cases to U.S. Attorney's offices for things such as asylum fraud rings. They appear to have gotten a foothold in the game simply out of HSI's indifference to all things immigration. What's more, because HSI agents perceive themselves as investigators of complex matters, single frauds go completely uninvestigated. The problem with this, of course, is that in today's unsettled world, not even a token anti-fraud compliance program leaves the door wide open to would-be jihadists to engage in all kinds of illicit activities like marriage fraud, secure in the belief that it would be near miraculous for their crimes to come under official suspicion. It's like living in a world in which obeying speed limits and stop signs is pretty much optional because the police have decided to take a hands-off "low priority" attitude toward traffic violations.

Trump may not be fully aware of this "inside baseball" look at ICE's structure and dysfunction as it has developed under the Obama administration, but it is clear that someone who is giving him advice on immigration matters is extremely knowledgeable about the current lamentable state of affairs; quite possibly Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) and his staff. But it is clear that giving resources to HSI would be wasted, short of a major shakeup within the leadership ranks of ICE to alter its skewed priorities. They would not, in the end, be used for any meaningful immigration enforcement priorities.

Whoever it is that provided the advice to Mr. Trump, let me offer a word of thanks on behalf of the many Americans who are deeply concerned over the immigration vacuum that has developed, and let us hope that the next administration takes its responsibility to enforce the immigration laws seriously.