A Short, Brutal History of ICE

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“My duty, and the sacred duty of every elected official in this chamber, is to defend Americans,” President Trump said Tuesday during his State of the Union address, to steady applause from Republicans in attendance. “To protect their safety, their families, their communities, and their right to the American Dream. Because Americans are dreamers too.”


The “dreamers” line was a windup to his call to abolish the visa lottery system and a sponsorship program that has, however slow and unevenly, helped keep immigrant families together for the last five decades, but the president had another point to make first. Squinting into the audience, Trump introduced an Immigration and Customs Enforcement agent seated near the First Lady. He was a “leader in the effort to defend our country” who gets “dangerous criminals off our streets,” the president said. He paused for more applause and got it.

It was unsubtle. If you marry the narrative of the idealistic American striver to the nativist fiction about immigrant crime, as this administration has done so consistently, then an ICE agent makes for a natural kind of hero.

But the valorization of the ICE agent—the moment when he becomes, for the purposes of political rhetoric, a Troop—is a comparatively recent development in the history of immigration in this country, since the existence of ICE itself is a comparatively recent development. It can be easy to forget when you consider how much harm the agency has inflicted and how large it currently looms in the political landscape, but ICE is barely 15 years old.

It’s worth asking how we got here.

ICE is a product of the opportunistic and frenzied political reorganization that happened in the wake of the attacks of September 11, 2001. Within a year, a bipartisan majority in Congress had voted to establish the Department of Homeland Security, which absorbed 22 other federal agencies and 170,000 federal employees under the banner of national security. “The continuing threat of terrorism, the threat of mass murder on our own soil, will be met with a unified, effective response,” then-President George W. Bush said at the signing ceremony. Immigration was now part of that unified response.

What before had been Immigration and Naturalization Services, under the Justice Department, and the United States Customs Service, part of the Treasury Department, were folded into this new, national security-focused agency and divided into three components: Immigration and Customs Enforcement, United States Citizenship and Immigration Services, and United States Custom and Border Protection.

“At the time, those of us who study immigration pointed out how dramatic a change this was, to place immigration, which had been under the Department of Justice, into this new agency called Homeland Security,” says Erika Lee, a history professor at the University of Minnesota and director of the school’s Immigration History Research Centers. “It sends the message that immigration was a threat—that all immigration was a threat.”


By 2003, as noted by Marisa Franco and Carlos Garcia in a 2016 piece for The Nation on the machinery of deportation built out over the last decade, Tom Ridge, the first director of DHS, had overseen the rollout of a strategic plan for these newly established enforcement agencies. One goal among others? A 100 percent removal rate of “removable aliens” and the infrastructure to make it happen.

“Moving toward a 100 [percent] rate of removal for all removable aliens is critical to allow the ICE to provide the level of immigration enforcement necessary to keep America secure,” according to that document. “Without this final step in the process, apprehensions made by other DHS programs cannot truly contribute to national security.”


In order to achieve its mission within the decade, the report outlines that ICE would need to establish: “partnerships with critical stakeholders,” “a professional workforce,” and “information technology.”

While its vision for a 100 percent rate of removal within a decade failed, it more than succeeded on these other fronts.


By 2013, the United States was spending more money on immigration enforcement than all other federal criminal law enforcement agencies combined; partnerships—both formal and ad hoc—with local police have given ICE an unprecedented presence in communities across the country; it also has, and makes steady use of, its sweeping powers to surveil.

In the creation of DHS and ICE, “Congress established a monster” that could be used by someone like Trump to precisely these ends, says Bill Ong Hing, a professor at the University of San Francisco School of Law and director of its Immigration and Deportation Defense Clinic. Hing testified against folding immigration into the DHS back in 2002, and has watched in the years since as his warnings—about overstep, about the conflation of immigrants and terrorists—came into being.


The resulting changes were swift. According to data from the Detention Watch Network, the “average daily population of detained immigrants increased from approximately 5,000 in 1994, to 19,000 in 2001, and to over 39,000 in 2017.”

And while the Trump administration has been upfront about unleashing the full power of the machinery that can detain people at that rate, the machinery itself is not a product of the Trump era. “We’ve done this before,” Lee says. “It’s scale. It’s cooperation with law enforcement. It’s moving the level of enforcement far, far, far into the interior. That was Trump’s second executive order but was a continuation of a philosophy and priority of previous administrations, both Democrat and Republican, since the 1990s.”


And what that has looked like, in recent months, is the targeting, detention, and sometimes removal of parents, sick children, domestic violence victims, and younger immigrants with temporary protection through the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. It has looked like flouting due process and congressional inquiries. It has looked like lawlessness and impunity.

It has, in other words, looked like ICE. “It may just be coming to the attention of certain people but of course immigrant populations have long been very, very aware of the power of the state to monitor their movements and their freedoms in the United States,” Lee says.


In 1790, with the United States still in its adolescence, Congress established a path to citizenship for “any Alien being a free white person.” In 1875, Congress enacted a law barring the “importation” of Chinese women “for the purposes of prostitution” and paved the way for the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and other country-based restrictionist policies. Since its founding, this country has moved through a series of restrictionist and comparatively more open policies that have nevertheless maintained the same through line of white supremacy and various iterations of racial panic. What changed with the creation of DHS was the articulation, speed, and scale at which the United States could act on its basest instincts rather than root them out of our institutions.


The high-profile raids, the abrupt detention of immigrants who are well-established in their communities, and ominous rhetoric about fear are all a piece with a long history of racist and xenophobic laws governing who can enter this country and under what conditions they might stay, but ICE is also, in significant ways, something new entirely.

This was the warning Hing issued to Congress in 2002 when it first considered the question of folding immigration into a department built to address terrorism. “This question of how to efficiently, effectively and fairly regulate immigration is one that we must answer with an eye not only to our immediate fears, but to how the answer shapes us as a nation over the long term.”


Fifteen years out, we know what that looks like.

Senior editor, Jezebel