Cutting Sign at ICE: Tracking Current Enforcement Priorities

By W.D. Reasoner on January 12, 2012

In the unique and often insular world of immigration law enforcement, "cutting sign" is the phrase used to describe tracking illegal alien border crossers through natural, often hostile desert or mountain, terrain. These tracking skills, still used by Border Patrol Agents today, primarily along our Southwestern border with Mexico, were originally learned from Native Americans many decades ago and have been passed on since through training and on-the-job experience.

In the now-defunct Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS), where many individuals who began their careers in the Border Patrol later moved into other occupations as examiners, inspectors, deportation officers, or criminal investigators, over the course of time "cutting sign" took on a more generalized meaning as well. Officers often used it to describe the skills needed to discern what was going on within their organization – the next big initiative; who was up, who was down, who was out; what direction the great big aircraft carrier that was their bureaucracy was turning toward. With the advent of the Department of Homeland Security, the abolition of INS, and the merger of various former INS components with the Customs Service (now also defunct), use of the phrase, at least outside of the Border Patrol, is again becoming rare. Non-INS types would perhaps use the phrase, "reading the tea leaves" to describe their efforts to peer into an organization's inner workings and direction. Call me old-school; I still like the notion of "cutting sign".

At its best, cutting sign is not just a skill or craft: in the most demanding of terrains, it becomes almost an art and, as with all art, the best practitioners are rare. But, also like art, there are varying levels of competence or even demand. In some terrain – such as the drag strips just north of the border fence, which are maintained to beach-like smoothness on the U.S. side – even the hapless Inspector Clouseau would be able to see the tracks in the sand.

All of this is prelude to a discussion of cutting sign on the direction that one of the INS successor organizations – the DHS Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) – has taken in the past couple of years. It seems to me that cutting sign in this case falls clearly into the Inspector Clouseau category, although it is less clear whether Clouseau better describes the tracker or the tracked. Consider the following (italic emphases added):

  • December 2010 ICE Director John Morton, speaking at a news conference after questions are raised as to ICE manipulation of its statistical reporting of removals for federal fiscal year 2010 in order to inflate the figures: "When the secretary tells you that the numbers are at an all-time high, that's straight, on the merits, no cooking of the books…it's what happened."

  • October 2011 President Barak Obama, speaking at a roundtable with Hispanic reporters, after ICE statistical reporting of removals for the next federal fiscal year, 2011: "The statistics are actually a little deceptive because what we've been doing is, with the stronger border enforcement, we've been apprehending folks at the borders and sending them back. That is counted as a deportation, even though they may have only been held for a day or 48 hours, sent back – that's counted as a deportation."

  • December 2011 The Rasmussen organization issues a poll stating that "60% Think Federal Government Encourages Illegal Immigration: Voters continue to believe strongly that the federal government's actions are encouraging illegal immigration…."

  • January 2012 U.S. District Court Judge Shira A. Scheindlin, overseeing a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit against ICE, is quoted by the Los Angeles Times as saying that "there is ample evidence to show that immigration and Homeland Security officials went 'out of their way to mislead the public about Secure Communities.'" (Regular readers of the Center's publications will know that Secure Communities is an ICE program designed to use fingerprint biometrics to identify illegal aliens arrested and charged with crimes by state and local police that has become mired in controversy over vacillating ICE policies and public statements since its inception.)

  • January 2012 Chris Crane, union president of the National ICE Council, is quoted in the New York Times as saying, "Law enforcement and public safety have taken a back seat to attempts to satisfy immigrant advocacy groups," and that [ICE Director John Morton's] directives presented enforcement agents with "a roller coaster of arrest authority that has changed from month to month, week to week and at times from day to day." Crane alleged that some agents were afraid to make any arrests because of these policy shifts.

  • January 2012 Syracuse University's Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC) issues a press release stating in part, "Case-by-case records provided by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) show that many fewer individuals were apprehended, deported or detained by the agency than were claimed in its official statements — congressional testimony, press releases, and the agency's latest 2010 Yearbook of Immigration Statistics… Details about the vast differences between the agency activities documented by the data and its public statements are laid out in a FOIA appeal filed by TRAC on January 4. The surprising size of the discrepancies, the TRAC appeal said, indicated that either 'ICE has been making highly exaggerated and inaccurate claims about the level of its enforcement activities,' or it is 'withholding on a massive scale.'"

I really ought to just let the above factoids – only a few standouts among the many that exist – speak for themselves, because they paint a clear enough picture. But at the risk of gilding the lily, I won't.

If ICE is in disrepute – and it is, from both the left and the right – its leaders shouldn't act so mystified. They need only look at the tracks in the sand which, they'll discover, lead to their own feet.