By my informal tally, there have been six permanent or acting leaders of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) during the Obama years, counting the careerist who briefly headed the agency during the transition. All but one of the first five have been, to a greater or lesser degree, kowtowing mandarins unquestioningly taking directions, no matter how outrageous, from political operatives inside the White House whose aim is gutting effective immigration enforcement.
This shouldn't be a surprise: Their bosses at the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) have been equally obsequious and destructive.
The sixth, most recent, ICE leader is Sarah Saldana, only in office since mid December. She has a curious pedigree in that she is apparently a Democrat whose own party opposed her being nominated to her previous office as a U.S. attorney, and who was supported by Texas Republicans for both the U.S. attorney and ICE positions.
As I say, curious; enough of an anomaly to make even hard-nosed cynics such as me pause to get the measure of the person before passing judgment. But she's now managed to rack up three strikes in her short tenure in office.
Strike One. Saldana and Gil Kerlikowski, head of DHS's Customs and Border Protection agency, both filed affidavits in support of the government's request to the U.S. District Court in Texas asking it to dissolve its temporary restraining order (TRO) forbidding the executive branch from moving forward with "executive actions" designed to give approximately five million illegal aliens the ability to live and work here for an extended period of time.
Both affidavits were masterpieces of selectivity. What neither they nor any other official at either DHS or the Justice Department admitted to the court was that they were already in violation of the TRO because between mid-December and the date of the TRO, DHS had already approved roughly 100,000 application extensions that were expressly forbidden by the court.
Strike Two. Next was Saldana's press release announcing "enhanced" oversight of agents to be sure that they were making the right release-vs.-custody decisions: "ICE is instituting enhanced supervisory approval for discretionary releases of certain categories of individuals with criminal convictions, including those convicted of two or more felonies or any single aggravated felony, by requiring that any such decision be approved by an assistant field office director, deputy field office director, or field office director." The announcement of these procedures came on the heels of withering criticism of the agency for releasing more than 36,000 criminal aliens in 2013 (a fact they tried desperately to conceal from public view) and around 30,000 last year, when arrests had plummeted, thus nullifying the "mitigating" effect that the figure was 6,000 less than the year before.
It's astonishing that the agency would try to blame the inappropriate releases on poor decision-making by line agents. The agents' union has at least twice rendered votes of no confidence in their leaders and has gone so far as to sue their DHS and ICE bosses in federal court, seeking to be allowed to do their jobs. This is unprecedented in the history of the federal civil service. No, the problem rests not with the agents, but with the culture of fear and intimidation emanating from the top of DHS.
Pressure is put on headquarters officials, who pass it on to the field office directors, who do the same with unit supervisors. And unlike rank-and-file agents, supervisors and managers have no union protections whatsoever. In fact, the higher up the food chain, the more susceptible they are to inappropriate directives. Their positions, their yearly ratings, and their very careers hang in the balance.
Apparently, this culture of intimidation, pressure, and laxity extends beyond the immigration agencies of DHS: Witness the recent example at the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), when a line agent objected to issuance of "pre-check" status to a felon who had been convicted of weapons violations. It was his supervisor who insisted on overlooking the screw-up, even though it clearly contravened the agency's own rules.
If the TSA incident isn't proof enough of White House pressure and meddling, look at Saldana herself.
Strike Three. On March 19, she testified before the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform at a hearing called "A Review of the Department of Homeland Security's Policies and Procedures for the Apprehension, Detention, and Release of Non-Citizens Unlawfully Present in the United States – Part II". When asked if she supported legislation clarifying that ICE detainers are compulsory for state and local agencies to comply with, she promptly responded, "Thank you, amen, yes!"
It was a moment of refreshing and spontaneous candor. Unfortunately, it was also accompanied by one of the most immediate and discreditable walk-backs in recent Washington history:
Yesterday, during my testimony before the House of Representatives' Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, I was asked whether it would help if Congress clarified the law to make it clear that it was mandatory that local jurisdictions cooperate with ICE. I want to be sure there is no confusion about my response. ... Any effort at federal legislation now to mandate state and local law enforcement's compliance with ICE detainers will, in our view, be a highly counterproductive step and lead to more resistance and less cooperation in our overall efforts to promote public safety.
Can anyone doubt the about-face was the result of being taken to the woodshed by White House and DHS officials for going off-script? So, here we are back where we started: just another kowtowing mandarin at the head of ICE — the agency known as "I Can't Enforce" by its own officer corps.