'We As Legislators Can't Keep ICE From Lying' About Being Local Cops

ICE agents undermine public safety when they pretend to be local police to gain entry to immigrants' homes.


Orit Ben-Ezzer/ZUMA Press/Newscom

Why would a family of undocumented immigrants allow federal agents without a warrant to search their house? Because Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents misidentify themselves as local police.

"We have repeatedly seen ICE go to people's homes and coerce people to authorize entry under the mistaken belief that [the agents] are police," Michael Kaufman, a senior staff attorney at the ACLU of Southern California, tells Governing magazine.

The practice doesn't just threaten those in the U.S. illegally. "It undermines public safety in these communities if people feel like they might be getting tricked," Kaufman says.

Los Angeles authorities worry ICE will undermine decades of work the city has done to convince undocumented immigrants that cooperating with police on criminal matters won't lead to their detention and deportation.

California recently passed a law (AB 1440) to try to thwart this practice, stipulating that ICE agents in California are "not allowed to refer to themselves as a police officer." But it's a toothless endeavor—states and municipalities don't have the authority to dictate what federal law enforcement officers can and cannot do. (Kaufman says the new legislation was meant to send "a message" to the feds.)

California isn't the only place upset about ICE's tactices. From Governing:

In March, city officials in Hartford, Conn., sharply rebuked ICE agents for wearing uniforms that only said 'POLICE' while trying to lure a woman to a public safety building so they could detain her. The Southern Poverty Law Center accused ICE of deceiving Atlanta residents by stating they were police officers searching for a criminal and for sometimes even showing them photos of a random black man they said was their suspect.

While it is legal for ICE agents to identify themselves as police, the practice becomes illegal once it leads to an unlawful search of a person's home or car. In Texas, lawyers successfully argued that ICE agents violated a woman's constitutional protections when they identified themselves as police and showed her photos of a stranger to coerce her into letting them into her home.

ICE has defended the practice by saying that "police" is a general term for law enforcement agents and that it is necessary to convey ICE agents' status to non-English speakers.

It's a weak defense. If ICE agents' real concern was simply to convey their authority, why not identify themselves as "immigration police"? Why identify as police when talking to people who clearly understand English? Why the pretense of chasing a criminal suspect?

Alas, there's little anyone outside the federal government can do about the subterfuge. As California Assemblymember Ash Kalra told Governing: "It's unfortunate, but we as legislators can't keep ICE from lying. If they want to misrepresent themselves, they can do that."

U.S. Rep. Nydia M. Velázquez (D–N.Y.) has proposed federal legislation "to prohibit immigration officers or agents of the Department of Homeland Security, including officers and agents of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and U.S. Customs and Border Protection, from wearing clothing, accessories, or other items bearing the word 'police' while performing duties under the immigration laws." The bill has attracted 19 co-sponsors (all Democrats), but it has gone nowhere since it was introduced in April.