The Slatest

What ICE Really Does

There’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement. There’s Customs and Border Protection. Who does what?

ICE officers arrest an undocumented Mexican immigrant during a raid in the Bushwick neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York, on April 11.
ICE officers arrest an undocumented Mexican immigrant during a raid in the Bushwick neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York, on April 11. Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by John Moore/Getty Images.

Abolish ICE” has evolved in the past few months from an untenable left-wing position to a mainstream movement. It now has support from a number of Democratic politicians—following the example of New York congressional nominee Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez—as well as pushback from White House. Now Rep. Mark Pocan of Wisconsin is drafting legislation to replace ICE with something else. But U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement is only one agency responsible for enforcing immigration laws. News reports about family separation and detention just as often referred to the involvement of U.S. Customs and Border Protection. How do ICE and CBP divide up their work?

It’s messy. In theory, each agency is responsible for handling different elements of immigration enforcement, which is overseen by the Department of Homeland Security. CBP is supposed to focus on enforcement at the border, while ICE is supposed to focus on enforcing immigration laws in the interior of the country. However, in practice, those lines get blurred, especially when agencies’ resources and facilities are pushed to their capacities, as they are now because of the Trump administration’s zero-tolerance policy.

CBP conducts inspections at the border, and it also runs the U.S. Border Patrol, which works to detect and prevent unauthorized entry into the country. Increasingly, the Border Patrol has strayed from its original mission of operating close to the border by patrolling the interior of the country. Since 1953, Border Patrol has been authorized to operate anywhere within 100 miles of the United States’ land and coastal borders (an area that encompasses two-thirds of the U.S. population), and several courts have condoned Border Patrol activities even farther beyond the 100-mile zone.

Meanwhile, ICE is primarily tasked with enforcing immigration laws within the United States. Its broad array of functions includes arresting people to put them into immigration proceedings, managing immigrant detention, and deporting people.

To illustrate the distinction: Border Patrol agents are the ones who have been caught dumping out water left for migrants in the Arizona desert, and ICE agents are the ones conducting workplace raids around the country to arrest undocumented immigrants.

When undocumented immigrants are found crossing into the United States, they are initially put into CBP custody, but then they are bounced between agencies. Both adults and children who are apprehended between ports of entry by Border Patrol agents are first taken to temporary border stations, according to a CBP fact sheet about the zero-tolerance policy. Most of the viral images of kids in cages come from these CBP-administered facilities.

Adults are then referred to the Department of Justice, where they may face criminal prosecution for illegal entry. Under the administration’s family separation policy that ostensibly ended on June 20, it was at this point when children and parents were split up (since children cannot be placed in criminal jails), and the children were designated as “unaccompanied alien children.”

CBP is supposed to transfer any unaccompanied children to the Office of Refugee Resettlement, which is run by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, but because the refugee office is so swamped, hundreds of children have remained in CBP custody. Adults, after court hearings, are transferred to ICE custody, where they may be held in ICE detention facilities.

It’s worth keeping in mind that ICE and CBP are relatively new. The Department of Homeland Security was created in 2003 as part of a massive government restructuring in the aftermath of 9/11, and ICE and CBP took on the functions previously performed by the Immigration and Naturalization Service. Since then, these agencies have evolved to suit the nation’s political priorities, shifting focus from counterterrorism to stemming immigration from Latin America.

Given the complicated situation at the border, it’s unclear whether abolishing ICE would solve the family separation crisis since ICE’s work is so intertwined with that of CBP and other federal agencies. ICE and CBP are both cogs in a larger immigration enforcement system, so targeting only one organization for abolition may not achieve the movement’s goals.

The Explainer thanks Kate Voigt of the American Immigration Lawyers Association and Nancy Morawetz of the NYU School of Law.