ICE's No Tolerance Policy is Wreaking Havoc on Families and Clogging the Immigration System

And abolishing ICE without changing the law isn't the way to fix it.


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Early on a Sunday morning in late May, Jose Garcia was walking to his car to grab a coffee mug when several armed agents in bulletproof vests approached and told him he was under arrest.

The arrest was part of an Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) sweep that had picked up 162 people, including at least eight green-card holders like Garcia, who had lived in Southern California for more than 50 years and provided for his family by working three jobs.

ICE targeted Garcia based on a 17-year-old domestic violence misdemeanor, which he says happened when a neighbor called the police after overhearing an argument between him and his wife. The courthouse didn't retain any documents describing the incident in any further detail, but Garcia's guilty plea made him eligible for deportation.

Garcia's ordeal happened at the height of the media storm around family separations at the U.S.-Mexico border. Thanks largely to the efforts of his daughter Natalie Garcia, his case received national attention. His Los Angeles–based attorney, Mackenzie Mackins, believes it was this media attention and the ensuing community support that led to an unusually quick resolution. After three weeks, a judge granted Garcia's case and released him from county jail to return to his family.

"Mr. Garcia's case is just one of many where members of our community, hard workers, have been picked up by ICE and targeted for reasons that are beyond comprehension for most Americans," says Mackins.

Mackins also represents Sergio Quiroz, a 23-year-old college student whose mother brought him over the border from Mexico when he was seven months old. He hasn't returned since.

Quiroz ran into trouble with ICE after a fight with an ex-girlfriend in 2017. He says he threw and broke her iPhone during an argument. She called the police, and he pled to the misdemeanor of simple battery. It's not a deportable offense in itself, but it put him on ICE's radar. The agency then used a detainer to pick him up from county jail, move him to a federal detention center, and put him on track for deportation.

"That's why so many states and localities do not cooperate with ICE detainers," says Alex Nowrasteh, an immigration policy analyst at the Cato Institute. "They see ICE detainers as a way to cast a wide net to pick up people who should not be deported."

Despite policy changes designed to increase deportations, the Trump administration has yet to match the deportation numbers from the early years of the Obama administration, during which Barack Obama earned the moniker "Deporter-in-Chief."

Five days after being sworn in as president, Donald Trump signed an executive order directing ICE to begin targeting "all removable aliens" living in the country. The Department of Homeland Security released a memo rescinding much of the discretion that ICE agents, prosecutors, and judges were previously allowed to exercise.

"The administration has basically unshackled ICE, given it free reign to do what it wants, and basically said no group is off-limits," says Nowrasteh. "It's sort of an effort to roll back the clock, in a sense, to go back to the way immigration enforcement was during the first three to four years of the Obama administration."

The number of immigrants ICE has arrested and detained from the interior of the country has increased by about 30 percent between 2016 and 2017, but arrests at the border and the rate of deportations have slowed, while the backlog of pending cases has spiked. Mackins says that the lack of discretion emanating from the executive order and the DHS memo is causing a system overload.

"When you make everyone a priority, nobody is a priority," says Mackins.

Activists and a couple of prominent Democrats have called for the complete abolition of ICE. But Nowrasteh thinks such a move would do little in itself to solve the immigration crisis.

"The abolish ICE movement is mostly an optical one of propaganda and slogan," says Nowrasteh. "The problem is that if you abolish ICE now and do now change any of the other immigration laws that are on the books, another law enforcement agency is just going to do the same thing in about the same way, and you've really accomplished nothing."

Instead, Nowrasteh suggests abolishing criminal prosecutions of unauthorized border crossing, instead treating such an act as an infraction on par with something like a parking ticket. He would also abolish Enforcement and Removal Operations, a branch of ICE, and shift all interior enforcement to Homeland Security Investigations (HSI), which should be tasked to focus only on serious violent criminals and national security threats.

"One hundred percent of ICE resources should be focused on removing national security, violent, and property criminals," says Nowrasteh.

Sergio Quiroz and his mother continue to fight his removal order. As for Jose Garcia, he's back with his family but plans to finally obtain full citizenship to protect himself going forward.

"This is my country. I love it, and I want to stay here for as long as I can. I want to be buried here when the time comes," says Garcia.

Produced by Zach Weissmueller.

Camera by Paul Detrick, Lorenz Lo, and Weissmueller.

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