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The Many Functions Of ICE, And How That Came To Be


Deportations are just one part of Immigration and Customs Enforcement's mission. ICE has been getting a lot of attention for its removal operations. Beyond that, the agency has more than 20,000 employees in the U.S. and 46 other countries. They fight human trafficking and drugs, financial fraud and more. Now some of the agents who run those operations say they want to be spun off from the rest of ICE.

To discuss how these different functions came to exist under the same umbrella, Doris Meissner joins us now. She was commissioner of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, which was the precursor to ICE. Welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.


SHAPIRO: First describe the structure of ICE. It's effectively two separate units.

MEISSNER: Yes, it is. It's made up of something called ERO, Enforcement and Removal Operations, and HSI, Homeland Security Investigations.

SHAPIRO: So now, as I mentioned, some of the people in charge of HSI, Homeland Security Investigations, say they don't like all the negative attention that the other part of ICE is getting. Nineteen ICE special agents in charge wrote a letter to the secretary of Homeland Security asking her to split up the agency. They wrote, many jurisdictions continue to refuse to work with HSI because of a perceived linkage to the politics of civil immigration. How serious a concern do you think this is?

MEISSNER: Well, it certainly is the case that the detention and deportation functions that are carried out by ERO, the - that part of ICE, have become very controversial particularly so in this administration, but it also predates this administration. I don't doubt that that is hurting the other part of ICE's work, which is criminal enforcement. And that criminal enforcement very much depends on good cooperation.

SHAPIRO: So if those agents who are involved in homeland security investigations but not Enforcement and Removal Operations are having a hard time getting people to cooperate because of the ICE label attached to them, do you think spinning this arm off is the best solution?

MEISSNER: No, I don't think so. I mean, the - it's always easy to go to issues of structure, think you can solve problems through organizational structure changes. This is very much an issue today of policy and oversight. These are agencies - and ICE particularly as an agency has duties that are very unpopular in many quarters. They're in fact very popular in many other ways of thinking or public opinion. So it's certainly an area that's controversial, but it is an area where the policies and the direction from both the Department of Homeland Security as well as the president as well as the Congress and Congress' oversight role are really the tools to use to address the problems that people might see in that enforcement.

SHAPIRO: At the same time, as you're aware, there is this movement to, quote, "abolish ICE." What do you make of that campaign?

MEISSNER: Well, it certainly is a campaign that is drawing attention to the issue, and it is a very simple rallying cry. But as a practical matter, first of all, this is an agency that was created by statute. The Congress would have to change it. Congress hasn't been able to change anything on the immigration landscape for quite some while. And again, whatever agency there would be or whatever mechanism there would be, deportation is part of our immigration system. So the issue really is one of how you use the resources, how you use the authorities. Abolishing ICE won't solve any of those problems.

SHAPIRO: Doris Meissner is former commissioner of the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service. She served under President Clinton. Ms. Meissner, thanks so much for joining us.

MEISSNER: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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