Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has become a political lightning rod in recent months. Out of the debate surrounding ICE and the Trump administration’s immigration policies come two separate issues that need to be addressed. First, are today’s immigration policies legal and sufficiently humane? There is a broad consensus, among elements of both the Left and the Right that the immigration process is broken, and has been for some time. I see a second issue: ensuring that the U.S. government continues to function, and that it can fairly and consistently implement policies, regardless of which political faction happens to be in office. Without this assurance, policy has little practical meaning.
The “Abolish ICE” movement muddies the waters by conflating these two issues, and in turn, risks weakening its own case on Election Day. It blames what is supposed to be an apolitical bureaucracy – ICE – for policies over which that agency has no control. Focusing outrage on ICE will not bring about fundamental changes to underlying policies but merely impede a government agency, through its civil servants, from doing its job. Furthermore, attacking ICE, rather than the policies which ICE – or whatever agency might replace it – is mandated to enforce contributes to a narrative that undermines confidence in the civil service that provides apolitical continuity and expertise as politics shift around it.
The images of children being torn from their parents are indisputably heart-wrenching. However, those elements calling for the disestablishment of ICE should not lay the blame for this cruel practice at ICE’s feet, and should certainly not vilify the civil servants who have a mandate to implement the policies of the current administration until those policies are determined, by the courts, to be illegal. Until recently, the U.S. treated the majority of illegal border incidents, especially when they involved children, who are legally not allowed to be held in detention for more than 20 days, as civil – rather than criminal – matters. Attorney General Jeff Sessions changed this in April, when he announced the Justice Department would begin handling all immigration irregularities as criminal violations, which, in turn, required parents to be held in detention longer than their children could be under the law. Trump administration officials have also admitted that they intended to take children away from their parents as a way of deterring others from trying to cross the U.S. border.
For those in the Abolish ICE movement who need a civics refresher, this policy decision is two steps removed from the civil servants at ICE. First, the Justice Department is a completely separate cabinet agency from the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), where ICE is housed. Secondly, Sessions is a political appointee – not a career civil servant – who is implementing the agenda of a specific presidential administration. Whether one agrees with the Trump administration or not, it came to power through a free (if shocking) election.
While participants in the anti-ICE movement are entitled to exercise their First Amendment rights, they have, at times, veered into criminally disrupting the implementation of policies that elected officials have chosen to pursue. In June, protestors, in Portland, Oregon, under the banner of “Occupy ICE” took it upon themselves to bring the judicial process to a grinding halt by blockading an ICE facility in order to prevent immigration judges, lawyers and litigants from physically entering the facilities. A similar protest in New York, during which protestors attempted to block an ICE vehicle, at Manhattan’s largest ICE processing center, led to the postponement of all immigration hearings that had been scheduled to occur at that facility.
Multiple municipalities have adopted legally defensible sanctuary city policies. However, officials at this level of government may, like protestors, go too far and exceed First Amendment-protected speech when it comes to ICE-related matters. For instance, the mayor of Oakland, California, tipped off the city about impending ICE raids. This legally dubious step went beyond the standard sanctuary city approach of limited cooperation with federal immigration authorities in order to gain the confidence of local immigrant communities, which cities believe will provide information to fight crime and terrorism.
Participants in episodes of obstruction that go beyond First Amendment-protected speech may feel gratification in what they perceive to be claiming the moral high ground or implementation of what they personally believe to be in the best interest of the country. However, when they make unilateral decisions – such as the Oakland mayor’s warning – to disrupt, rather than voice their dissatisfaction with, federal actions they are not changing executive branch-mandated policy. Instead, they are merely kneecapping the apolitical agencies responsible for implementing current – and future – policy.
The midterm and 2020 presidential elections will be where policies can be challenged and changed. However, as I see it, the “Abolish ICE” movement is undermining the electoral chances of candidates who, in the near future, might be able to develop workable immigration policy that the movement would favor. Politicians, including Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who’s running for Congress in New York; Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA); and Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) have picked up the “Abolish ICE” cudgel on the campaign trail. This has been an early Christmas present for GOP candidates, and the president, who have tarred centrist Democrats – who do not think in simplistic zero-sum terms – with the anti-ICE brush. Even if reform-minded candidates can achieve election to office, policy changes will not be effective without government institutions (e.g. ICE) capable of implementing those changes.
Other parties driving the Abolish ICE movement fall well-outside of the political mainstream. They include anarchist collectives (not exactly the bellwethers of national . . . or even local . . . politics) as well as prison abolitionists. As the name suggests, prison abolitionists want to do away with incarceration as well as the entire system of policing (no law enforcement agency – ICE or not – is going to make these constituencies happy). These are the Left’s answer to the conspiracy theorists of the alt-Right, whose dogmatic disregard of reality has progressed from keeping tinfoil hat manufacturers in business to driving real acts of violence.
The anti-ICE movement is not simply helping to fuel the polarization of American politics, it is contributing to the corrosion of a strong, apolitical civil service. Political fads come and go but a career civil service is a repository of expertise that is designed to provide continuity as administrations change and it is this deep-seated knowledge that helps to translate policy platforms, whatever they may be, into reality.
Although the “Abolish ICE” movement’s target is not the federal workforce per se its criticism of process, rather than policy, may have the unintended consequence of exacerbating an already existing sense of malaise among personnel of multiple U.S. government agencies. Civil servants are increasingly besieged by elements from across the political spectrum. Anti-ICE protestors have verbally assaulted ICE employees who have no control over the policies they must implement to responsibly fulfill their duties. In June 2018, Occupy ICE protestors outside of ICE’s Washington, DC, headquarters, chanted “Quit your jobs” at employees. One megaphone-wielding protestor demanded to know whether police officers watching the demonstration had children and how the officers felt about the sound of crying within ICE detention facilities. To a harried federal worker, Abolish ICE might appear as just one more hostile voice joining the general cacophony of criticism from the “deep state” conspiracy theorists of the alt-Right and the news of a canceled pay raise.
The “Abolish ICE” movement and other critics of the government are active at a time when civil service morale is not the picture of health. The Office of Personnel Management’s most recent Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey (FEVS) assessed that the “global satisfaction index” was at 64 percent. Although this less-than-overwhelming number is an improvement over the two previous years it is worth noting that response rates were the lowest since 2004.
Low morale has been a chronic problem at ICE’s parent department, DHS. In 2012, the Government Accountability Office noted that DHS employees, on average, had lower morale than their counterparts across the federal government. By 2015, little had changed. Congress, two years later, felt the need to introduce the “Department of Homeland Security Morale, Recognition, Learning and Engagement Act of 2017”. Although the 2017 FEVS survey indicated a hint of improvement, a one-year uptick of a few points – when viewed against this history of discontent – suggests that morale is still fragile.
The U.S. government already has a difficult time with the reality that its employees no longer feel the need to serve out 30 years and are instead willing to pursue other options if those choices offer greater satisfaction. This is assuming that the government can even get employees with the right skills through the door in the first place, a task which has proved difficult, especially in the cyber field. Talented individuals who might have otherwise considered a career that included government service could be forgiven for giving a second thought to taking a job that draws so much misdirected criticism.
The “Abolish ICE” movement is a symptom of political polarization, not a solution to a policy dilemma. Vilification of a bureaucracy will not resolve the underlying problematic policy that an agency is responsible for implementing. Future immigration reform will not be effective without the U.S. government agencies capable of translating it into reality. Unfortunately, the Abolish ICE movement contributes to the anti-government sentiment that helped to bring the current administration into office. Civil servants are caught in the crossfire, and will become increasingly disenchanted with their jobs and seek career fulfillment outside of government. The resultant erosion of an apolitical, repository of expertise that can temper political extremes may be the unintended legacy of those factions on both the Left and the Right.
The views expressed in this essay are entirely those of the author and do not represent the views of any U.S. government entity.