Eight minutes and forty-six seconds became a symbol in protests across the United States and the world, condemning the police killing of George Floyd, a 46-year-old unarmed Black man. The protests have continued for more than 50 days, shaken the morale of local police departments, and awakened the public to self-educate on systemic racism, grasping onto the words of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.: “A riot is the language of the unheard.” Meanwhile, COVID-19 is raging throughout the United States with more than 140,000 deaths and disproportionate effects on immigrant and minority communities.
Against this backdrop is the dangerous choice by the Trump administration to deploy federal immigration agents to local protests and beyond.
In early June, an officer from the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detained a protester at a George Floyd rally in New York City; officers had to let him go, because he is Puerto Rican and so has U.S. citizenship. More recently, a police crackdown in Portland, Ore., has involved “heavily armed federal law enforcement officers dressed in camouflage stepping out of unmarked civilian vans and forcibly detaining anti-racism and anti-police brutality demonstrators,” as Vox reported. The Trump administration has confirmed this includes agents from the Department of Homeland Security.
The Trump administration has also signaled plans to deploy 150 ICE agents to Chicago and mentioned New York City and Philadelphia as possible locations where the president might send federal agents. With a focus by the administration on “Democratic” cities, the politics are striking. Said Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney: “The president’s threat is wrong on many levels. To send federal agents to police U.S. cities that have not requested such aid can only impede the work of local governments and exacerbate already heightened tensions in these cities.”
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D., N.Y.), alongside D.C. delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, is expected to introduce a bill in the House of Representatives that would improve transparency by requiring federal law enforcement officers to identify themselves. It would also establish an oversight mechanism with reporting requirements. While these are fair moves to at minimum hold these officers accountable, the problems with their role run deeper than identification will solve.
The Department of Homeland Security is a cabinet-level agency created in the aftermath of Sept. 11 whose mission is to counter terrorism and secure the homeland. ICE and Customs and Border Protection (CBP) are units in the department whose primary responsibility is to enforce federal immigration law, a complex web of statutes and regulations and involve a range of enforcement activities like arrest, detention, and deportation of noncitizens.
What role do they have in crowd control? On paper, none. But that’s now what they are doing at protests. They are there to intimidate and harass immigrants and citizens alike. They have become Donald Trump’s very own political police force, just what every textbook autocrat needs.
In the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, ICE announced a specific policy to limit immigration enforcement, ostensibly to reduce the spread of disease. ICE and CBP also maintain a policy to generally not carry out immigration enforcement actions in “sensitive locations,” including schools, hospitals, places of worship, and “[d]uring a public demonstration, such as a march, rally, or parade.” Despite these policies and significant health and safety concerns associated with crowding and transportation, ICE and CBP have continued to detain and deport immigrants—including at public demonstrations — and are expanding their role under Trump’s direction.
DHS has limited resources, so choices are made every day about whom to deport and whom to leave alone. The tool that drives these choices is called “prosecutorial discretion” and is a significant part of the immigration system. The abuse of this discretion by agencies under the Trump administration has motivated many to question whether the structures of ICE and CBP should even remain.
Deploying nameless immigration agents to the streets, snatching protesters, and throwing them into unmarked vans abuses the department’s own policies and wastes resources. It also signals a kind of authoritarianism that undermines American democracy.
The House bill to improve accountability would be a good step forward — but ultimately, federal immigration agents should stay off the streets.