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U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement became the face of President Donald Trump’s immigration crackdown. It was ICE agents who carried out family separation at the border, ICE leaders who engineered some of the largest workplace immigration raids in a decade. And unlike, say, Customs and Border Protection, ICE agents were everywhere—and increasingly butting heads with sanctuary cities and states. When Donald Trump first took office, the head of ICE famously said that the president had “taken the handcuffs off” his agency, that his officers were relieved to be able to just do their jobs. Now the question is whether the next president, Joe Biden, will be able to put the handcuffs back on. On Thursday’s episode of What Next, I spoke to BuzzFeed immigration reporter Hamed Aleaziz about whether ICE has done an about-face under Trump or just evolved, and what Biden can do about it. This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Mary Harris: What is ICE’s mission?
Hamed Aleaziz: It’s such a big agency, and they do so many different things. The agency is split into two different parts. One part is enforcement and removal operations. These are the officers who are tasked with enforcing the nation’s immigration laws, with ensuring that undocumented immigrants show up to court for their deportation proceedings, for detaining undocumented immigrants that they feel should be detained. They’re also in charge of transporting unaccompanied children between Border Patrol custody and nonprofit shelters holding these unaccompanied children.
And then there’s a different part of the agency, which is the Homeland Security Investigations agents, and these guys are mostly focused on criminal cases. They’re really building cases alongside U.S. attorneys, with prosecutors. They work with local criminal justice systems, local police, local sheriffs. They do work that I think would surprise a lot of people. They work on really serious stuff, like human trafficking, smuggling, big cases involving MS-13.
Do these two constituencies get along?
They don’t. There is some overlap, but there has always been this tension where the HSI agents don’t want to be involved in doing a lot of the immigration enforcement, and they see themselves as different from the deportation officers. They see themselves as more serious, as having to build real cases. But during the Trump administration, they’ve been thrust into doing more immigration enforcement.
At one point there was a set of HSI leaders who sent a letter to then–DHS Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen. They said that they want to be split off from ICE because the politics were … becoming too toxic and they just needed a new start, and they think that this is probably the best way forward for HSI to continue to have relationships with local police and local sheriffs.
When we fight about ICE, depending who you are, you may be fighting about something different. If you’re a local jurisdiction, this is like a territory thing—“This is my jail, and I don’t want you in here.” And if you’re an immigration activist, you have a very different perspective of “I don’t think this person should be incarcerated at all.” And what’s happened over the last few years is these allegiances between groups that may not have been aligned in the past.
I feel like the anti-ICE movement has really benefited from having a true enemy in the White House, someone who is acting in a way that they could bring together a bunch of different stakeholders and make the case that this isn’t working. And it really did seem to break through. In October, there was a presidential debate where Biden was asked about immigration, and he really distanced himself from what happened in the Obama era, and that was because of this movement that grew up because of Donald Trump.
Yeah, he said that it “took too long to get it right,” get the policy right. And they’ve said they’re going to have this moratorium on deportations for 100 days while they assess how the agency will operate moving forward. But after that, ICE will still be involved with arresting people. They will still be deporting people. There will still be these really sticky issues. ICE is still going to be working with jails. And I think that’s where it’ll be really interesting to see how the left, how the public, reacts to an ICE under Biden. You know, how do they want the agency to be going about the work that they do? Because they’re going to do the work. So will there be as much controversy? Will there be as many protests and outrage at what ICE does during Biden as there was during Trump? My sense is that there will still be advocates who are really holding ICE’s feet to the fire. There’s going to still be cases that come up in news reports. And it’ll be on Biden to figure this out. Is he going to really hear those calls, or is he going to set a policy and move forward and this is the way it’s going to be done? How this is going to work still remains to be seen.
What’s the likelihood of Biden abolishing ICE?
Zero percent. This is somebody who believes in these institutions, and that was never really going to be his approach. Now, he has emphasized a need for reform. And the vice president–elect, Kamala Harris, during her time in the Senate, has really been aggressive on keeping ICE accountable for issues that have popped up. And I think she’s been really emphasizing issues in detention, how the ICE arrests are happening in communities. She’s really been focused on this issue. And she’s, I think, more likely to be focused on changing the way ICE operates, and she’ll be really key in how things go moving forward.
You spoke with 12 current and former ICE officials who served during the Trump administration about their experiences and their thoughts about what happens now. What did you learn from these people? Because some of them are going to be the people who have to make this pivot once Biden takes charge.
I talked to one person who said that this is just the way things go. You know, ICE—it’s like being on a roller coaster. When it’s the Obama administration, we’re told to only arrest these people. When it’s Trump, it’s go arrest more people. And we’re just going back and forth and we’re used to it, and it is what it is. I think for some people that’s the approach.
For others, I think they’re really excited to see what Biden does, to bring them back into focusing their priorities on serious criminals, on national security threats. They don’t want to be lumped in with picking up the sympathetic individual in the community. There’s people who think that there’s no need for that, within the agency, and that it takes away from the public’s trust of the agency, to be wrapped up in the politics of what’s going on in these areas and getting in fights with local law enforcement.
But at the same time, there are people who feel that there was an overemphasis on the side of the left that had painted the agency as Nazis … and that they were taking advantage of this moment to brand the agency as something that they weren’t. I think there’s still a lot of anger there. These people acknowledge that there were real problems during this time, but they felt that they were just getting constantly beaten up on and they’re tired of it.
You mentioned one officer who flagged the cultural change he’d seen at the agency—how officers stopped talking to lawyers before they did a raid, they would just sort of do their mission and they knew they could get away with things. And that strikes me as something that’s harder to change than bigger, broader rules, because that’s inside the people and they’ve had four years to get used to it.
That really speaks to how key it’s going to be for Biden and who he’s going to pick to lead the agency, what mandate they have, how reform-heavy are they going to be. You know, what are they going to do with officers? Are they going to train them in a new way of approaching arrests and the work that they do? Are they just simply going to go back to the Obama era and just issue a policy and say this is the way it’s going to be done and you’ve got to fill out these forms? Or are they going to really go in and change the way ICE operates?
I think we’ll find out how Biden uses this issue by who he picks to lead the agency and what they say about what they want to do to ICE. That’s going to be the tone-setter for the administration for the next four years.
I think until there is real serious reform and movement in Congress, we’re just going to be doing this between administrations. You get a Biden, you get a Trump, you’re just going to go back and forth and back and forth. That seems to be the way it’s going to be, moving forward, without that real structural change.