ICE Investigators Are Sick of Being Confused With Immigration Enforcement

The enforcement of "zero tolerance" immigration policies by ICE's Enforcement and Removal Operations is harming another part of the agency.


At least 19 agents working for an investigative division within Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) are asking for separation from the agency. In a letter first reported by The Texas Observer, agents from the Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) division informed Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen M. Nielsen that their association with ICE's immigration enforcement tactics has jeopardized their ability to conduct investigations unrelated to immigration.

The four-page letter explains that HSI's mission and that of ICE's Enforcement and Removal Operations (ERO) are fundamentally different. HSI, referred to as the "U.S. Government's 'Transnational Investigative' agency," specializes in drug trafficking, human trafficking, and trade fraud investigations. The division has played a major role, for instance, in prosecutions of dark web drug vendors operating in the United States.

The fact that HSI resides under the same bureaucratic umbrella as ERO has negatively affected the division's ability to investigate matters unrelated to immigration. From their letter:

The disparate functions performed by ERO and HSI often cause confusion among the public, the press, other law enforcement agencies and lawmakers because the two missions are not well understood and are erroneously combined. ERO's administrative actions have been mistaken for illegal investigations and warrantless searches. HSl's investigations have been perceived as targeting undocumented aliens, instead of the transnational criminal organizations that facilitate cross border crimes impacting our communities and national security. Furthermore, the perception of HSI's investigative independence is unnecessarily impacted by the political nature of ERO's civil immigration enforcement. Many jurisdictions continue to refuse to work with HSI because of a perceived linkage to the politics of civil immigration. Other jurisdictions agree to partner with HSI as long as the "ICE" name is excluded from any public facing information. HSI is constantly expending resources to explain the organizational differences to state and local partners, as well as to Congressional staff, and even within our own department—DHS.

We've seen before how aggressive immigration enforcement can compromise other types of investigations. The East Valley Tribune, a newspaper based in Tempe, Arizona, published a five-part series documenting the ways former Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio's emphasis on immigration enforcement affected law enforcement resources. The paper explained that the overemphasis led to "slower response times on emergency calls, a dropping arrest rate and, for a time, excessive overtime costs." That series earned the Tribune a Pulitzer Prize in 2009. As the Pultizer committee noted, the report exposed "how a popular sheriff's focus on immigration enforcement endangered investigation of violent crimes and other aspects of public safety."