Time for ICE's New Leadership to Rein in Rogue HSI Agents in Charge

By Dan Cadman on July 20, 2018

I have with some reluctance commented twice previously on the absurdist call to "abolish ICE" (Immigration and Customs Enforcement), a call supported unthinkingly by some Democratic politicians until actually pushed to a vote on the matter, at which point their courage failed. (See here and here.)

I use the word "reluctance" because I begrudge spending time and effort addressing an effort that's nonsensical on its face. Unfortunately, in our present political climate even the most absurd issues sometimes need to be addressed when they gain currency within progressive ranks.

The issue is so absurd that even after House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wisc.) retracted a suggestion that he would put the ICE abolishment bill introduced by Democratic Reps. Adriano Espaillat (N.Y.), Mark Pocan (Wisc.), and Pramila Jayapal (Wash.) on the floor for a vote, substituting instead a nonbinding resolution in favor of ICE, Democratic leaders remained so pusillanimous that they simply encouraged their congressional colleagues to vote "present" in order to give them a chance to obscure their actual positions; 133 did so, 18 voted for the resolution, and 34 voted against it

If abolishing ICE is such a good idea, why were so many Democratic representatives reluctant to make their positions known to their constituents? Do they fear being punished in the November elections for taking that position? If that's the case, maybe they need to rethink the wisdom of adopting the position in the first place.

One of the many side shows that has taken place during this circus was revelation of an undated letter sent by 19 special agents in charge (SACs) of the Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) division of ICE to the secretary of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). The letter was also relayed to key members of Congress, although one doesn't see that overtly mentioned in the letter, for instance by a list of "CC" recipients. (My colleague Art Arthur, has already put pen to paper to discuss the letter, but I feel the need to supplement Arthur's remarks.)

I won't attempt to conceal my contempt for the SACs' letter, which was self-serving, and so poorly reasoned as to be almost circular. It reads as a thinly disguised screed suggesting that HSI should be organizationally separated from the other main division of ICE, Enforcement and Removal Operations (ERO), which does the lion's share of the immigration enforcement work conducted by the agency as a whole under Title 8 of the U.S. Code (otherwise known as the Immigration and Nationality Act, or "INA").

For example, the SACs complain that because they are a part of the same agency as ERO, they are distrusted by many state or local agencies. This is undoubtedly true, but most especially so among police and sheriff's departments that engage in sanctuary policies that deliberately and severely obstruct any reasonable enforcement of federal law — often to the harm of their own communities when recidivist alien criminals are returned to the streets where they plied their crimes to renew their illicit activities and prey upon new victims, rather than face removal. One might think HSI would stand by their colleagues in ERO on this matter rather than take a throw-our-colleagues-under-the-bus approach, but that's not the case, as is painfully evident.

The SACs suggest that this lack of trust by state and local police hampers their efforts at various other enforcement activities involving national security and transnational criminal organizations. Yet, what statutes are involved in combating national security threats and transnational gangs? Why, that would be the same INA that has caused state and local organizations to balk at assisting ERO. Look for instance, at Section 217 of the INA, Title 8 U.S.C. § 1189. It is that provision of law that gives HSI agents jurisdiction to arrest and initiate removal proceedings against members, associates, affiliates, and supporters of designated terrorist organizations. And when one considers enforcement actions against transnational gangs, such as MS-13, where does HSI gain its leverage to investigate, arrest, and initiate prosecution or removal proceedings? Again, it is the INA and other immigration-related statutes involving alien smuggling (8 U.S.C. § 1324); reentry after removal (8 U.S.C. § 1326); false statements and counterfeiting (8 U.S.C. § 1306(c) and (d)); visa fraud (18 U.S.C. § 1546); and the like.

Clearly, the SACs are presenting a duplicitous and selective argument when they suggest that in order to do their jobs well, they must be organizationally distinct from ERO. How does that follow? One might more reasonably argue that when the SACs suggest that HSI and ERO have become so organizationally distinct as to merit bifurcation, what they are admitting is that HSI has been allowed to follow a path of such independence from the agency as a whole that it has damaged the synergies of scale and mission that could be achieved if it were obliged, instead, to work collaboratively with ERO.

The letter provides a rare public glimpse into something I and a few of my colleagues have written about before: the serious internal divide between HSI and ERO. HSI agents, in the main, emanated from the ranks of the legacy U.S. Customs Service and never overcame their elitist disdain for doing immigration work, which they think is beneath them.

It is an open secret among those within ICE that HSI has done its level best to a) force legacy Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) agents out of their ranks and into ERO; and b) avoid doing immigration enforcement work in every meaningful way they can, unless it's "sexy" enough to meet their demands. Routine but critical immigration work such as overstay compliance or apprehension of alien criminals is shrugged off whenever possible.

HSI would, of course, deny this, but the facts speak for themselves. If one were to examine that list of 19 SACs, one would discover that all except perhaps two of them are legacy Customs agents. This is, in fact, true for the other SACs, as well as the deputy and assistant SACs, and even the resident agents in charge (RACs). There is only a token sprinkling of legacy INS agents among the leadership ranks in field offices, and this holds true in HSI at ICE headquarters as well. What's more, if one were to examine the case and work product statistics, one would come to the same conclusion: This division of ICE abhors Title 8 (Immigration and Nationality Act) enforcement work. This seems to be true from top to bottom.

Even though, as I said, the letter was poorly reasoned, there was nonetheless a certain low cunning at work. It was no accident that it was written and made public only after the "abolish ICE" phenomenon started to gain currency on the Left. What's more, it took place just on the cusp of the departure of ICE Acting Director Tom Homan, who had gained the ear of the president for his forthright and unapologetic approach to immigration enforcement matters. This therefore obviated the possibility that Homan would be in a position to come down on them for having written it. Further, these SACs knew that the at-least temporary replacement for Homan was going to be Peter Edge, previously the man in charge of HSI, and himself a legacy U.S. Customs agent whose sympathies were decidedly in their favor.

Finally, I strongly suspect that, by addressing the letter jointly to DHS and Congress, the SACs believed that they would be covered by a federal statute that prohibits reprisals against whistleblowers, particularly when they address their concerns to Congress. Of course, to be considered a "whistleblower" one has to be taking steps to expose fraud, waste, or abuse, and even the most cursory examination of the letter makes clear that there is nothing of the sort going on. These not-so-special agents simply want their own agency — in other words, laughably, to re-create the Customs Service that, like INS, was itself abolished in favor of the shotgun wedding that became DHS and its subordinate agency, ICE — so that they don't even have to make the pretense of undertaking immigration work, except when they pick and choose it as being sufficiently desirable.

But time and circumstance haven't been on their side, despite the superficial optics of the "abolish ICE" movement. Edge did not, as Homan had, get to sit in the job on an unconfirmed basis for any length of time at all. Indeed, it was a mere span of days before the administration announced that Homan would be replaced by Ron Vitiello, who would therefore be both the ICE deputy and acting director. As Arthur stated in his blog, "If the president meant to send a message about his refusal to back off his support of ICE's immigration-enforcement mission, his appointment of Chief Vitiello as ICE director was the most concrete way in which he could have done it."

Now we have further proof of the president's intent. Edge, instead of retrenching back to his former job as head of HSI, has now announced his imminent retirement via an all-hands internal memo. Coincidental timing? Unlikely.

I have no doubt that these messages — Vitiello's assignment, and Edge's retirement — are being heard loud and clear by HSI SACs all over the country, and most particularly by the 19 of letter-writing infamy. Is it enough? Doubtful. There is clearly a continuing problem within HSI.

Vitiello needs, with support from DHS Secretary Nielsen, to systematically replace those SACs. They have clearly indicated their unwillingness to support the administration's enforcement priorities and agenda. And setting that agenda is the prerogative of the chief executive of the United States. Remember when Barack Obama's ICE chief publicly said that she would fire and replace any agents who chose not to comply with the president's enforcement priority objectives? If that applies to rank-and-file agents, surely it applies three times over to the bosses from whom they take their marching orders. What's good for the goose is good for the gander.