This week, Immigration and Customs Enforcement announced changes to its management structure, conceived as part of a strategy to “re-brand” the agency to the public. According to the Washington Post, ICE Assistant Secretary John Morton describes it as part of an “image makeover” intended to emphasize ICE’s criminal investigations over its much-scrutinized immigration enforcement work.
Going forward, ICE will be divided into three new directorates focusing on criminal investigations, civil immigration enforcement and management.
It’s true that ICE has a bad reputation; immigration advocates, journalists and lawyers have recently been scathingly critical of the agency’s policies and practices. But this criticism isn’t unfounded. At the end of the day, ICE is responsible for enforcing our broken immigration system. It’s laughable to think that a PR campaign and “new reporting alignment” will distract anyone from this reality.
Even more laughable: “To burnish the agency's image, ICE officials are considering a strategy that has helped the FBI for years: the aid of Hollywood and other venues of popular culture.” Does this mean we’ll be seeing ICE agents in next summer’s big-budget action flick? Let’s hope not. Glamorizing our federal immigration agency will do nothing to change the fact that immigrants are being deported by the hundreds of thousands each year, the majority for non-criminal offenses.
Ultimately, ICE doesn’t have an image problem, it has a policy problem. The agency will only be viewed more favorably when its programs focus on targeting dangerous criminal aliens, instead of deporting immigrants for petty offenses like fishing without a license.
But it seems that these bureaucratic shifts won’t meaningfully affect how ICE enforces our immigration laws. A message from Assistant Secretary Morton to employees notes that “the realignment is not a restructuring and will not alter any congressional appropriation or authorization…The realignment does not alter ICE’s mission or its priorities.” So the changes won’t affect the agency’s structure, how it spends resources, or how it carries out its mission. This sounds like it'll be business as usual over at ICE.
The announcement also comes on the heels of a new ICE agreement with the Corrections Corporation of America to make its vast network of detention facilities less restrictive for detainees held on civil rather than criminal immigration charges. But these changes are also superficial; immigrants waiting for deportation may now be able to play bingo, watch movies or wear their own clothing. These changes will do nothing to improve the flawed federal enforcement programs that got them there in the first place.
As Congress continues to put off overhauling our immigration laws, the agency in charge of enforcing them has become more aggressive than ever. This is part of why the public is so frustrated and probably won’t turn down the heat—no matter how much ICE tries to amplify its work targeting counterfeiters or drug smugglers. In the absence of new legislation, ICE can and should ensure that immigration enforcement is more rational and more humane. This may require a bit of re-alignment, but it will certainly require a lot more reform.