There’s probably no agency in the Trump administration that’s more controversial right now than ICE. The 20,000-strong Immigration and Customs Enforcement is the entity responsible for carrying out many of the White House’s hardline immigration policies, including deporting people who have been in the country for years.
The ICE union, which represents 7,600 officers, was among the few federal government agency unions to endorse Trump before the 2016 presidential election. (The Border Patrol union was another.) ICE union head Chris Crane, a vocal critic of presidential immigration policies for years, said then that “America has been lied to about every aspect of immigration in the United States,” and only Trump can “put politics aside to fix the problem.”
But in recent months some ICE officials have grown disenchanted with Trump’s approach. Upset that the immigration plan was too permissive, and that there were too many former Obama officials running the agency, they started a rogue website late last year to “communicate directly with the American people,” which features plenty of Breitbart articles, along with long interviews with Trump advisor Stephen Miller. In a February letter to the White House, the union said it could no longer support the president on immigration because he was repeating the mistakes of the past.
“They’re still playing by the same failed playbook,” Crane told Quartz recently. “They can’t change and they can’t innovate.” While Trump promised the union he would formulate an immigration plan with people who had experience in detention and removal, he hasn’t, Crane said. “They said they would work with boots on the ground people in the field and they didn’t do it,” he said.
“We had absolutely no input” on the administration’s ongoing strategy, he said, or on who the new head of ICE should be. Ron Vitiello, a career border patrol agent, was named director on June 30. “No one even asked us about him,” Crane said, calling it “another broken promise” by the Trump administration.
The Trump administration’s fiscal year 2019 proposed budget does include a 10% increase to ICE spending, but getting that through Congress given the scrutiny of ICE’s policies in the field may be tough. “Everyone wants to give money to border control,” Crane said, but they “don’t want to increase ICE.”
What the union wants is, essentially, the opposite of the #AbolishICE movement—more funding to detain more people, and an end to the policy of releasing people from expensive detention facilities, to return at a later date to the US’s overburdened immigration courts. The Trump administration is now following that same “catch and release” policy that it had pledged to end, and criticized previous presidents for, after federal judges ruled the administration can’t detain children indefinitely. That means when people come into the country “there’s a de facto amnesty policy created,” Crane says.
The union is against the administration’s child separation policy, Crane said, adding that Border Patrol is responsible for the actual separations. “We’ve never supported that,” he said.
Crane disputes the concern expressed by some immigration experts that ICE’s focus on detaining anyone who is in the country illegally is taking attention away from the criminals who pose the biggest threat to U.S. citizens. “The priorities are always going to be criminals, and fugitives,” Crane said. But when ICE agents come into contact with other people who are illegal as it is pursuing those criminals “we’re going to make arrests,” he said. “You can’t have the message out on the street that if you’re just there illegally, we’re just going to ignore you,” Crane said. “Otherwise, they’re just going to keep coming. That’s the wrong message to send to the world.”
Decisions made in Washington rarely reflect what’s happening on the ground, he said. “Most of those people in headquarters have never been out in the field at all,” Crane said. “They have no clue what we do,” he said. “There’s no connection between the officers in the field and the leadership,” he said.
Ultimately what the U.S. should be doing to fix the country’s massive immigration problem, Crane says, is to put more pressure on U.S. businesses not to hire illegal labor, and force employers to use electronic document systems like E-Verify, he says. But that’s unlikely to happen as the demand for low-wage undocumented workers shows no signs of waning. “Our government has sold out to big business and the Chamber of Commerce,” Crane said. “We keep doing it the dirty way, because big business wants that dirty labor.”
Hating or supporting ICE has morphed into a politically useful tool for the right and the left, with the #AbolishICE movement picking up Democratic support, and the president’s vitriol, ahead of the November midterms. There’s little chance that Congress will pass any laws between now and then to address some of the long term fixes that Crane recommends.