Agents Seek to Dissolve ICE in Immigration Policy Backlash

Agents from Immigration and Customs Enforcement during a raid in Riverside, Calif., last year. A group of agents in ICE’s investigative wing have proposed breaking up the agency, concerned that the Trump administration’s crackdown on illegal migrants has hampered their ability to tackle transnational crime.

WASHINGTON — At least 19 Immigration and Customs Enforcement investigators are seeking to dissolve the agency, concerned that the Trump administration’s crackdown on illegal migrants has limited their ability to pursue national security threats, child pornography and transnational crime.

In a letter sent last week to Kirstjen Nielsen, the homeland security secretary, the special agents proposed creating a stand-alone investigations unit and another agency to handle immigration detention and deportation. The request was sent as a growing number of Democrats and immigration-rights advocates have called for eliminating ICE.

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,” wrote the agents from Homeland Security Investigations, which is a branch of ICE. The Texas Observer first reported the letter.

The investigators said local law enforcement officials have questioned the independence of their agency, given the Trump administration’s aggressive policies against illegal immigration — including arresting undocumented workers for minor offenses, such as driving without a license.

At least two House Democrats — Representatives Mark Pocan of Wisconsin and Pramila Jayapal of Washington — are pushing to eliminate ICE. And Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who stunned the Democratic establishment this week with her upstart primary victory against Representative Joe Crowley of New York, made abolishing ICE one of the key planks of her campaign.

An agency spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment on Thursday. But a senior ICE official said there were “operational challenges raised in that letter that merit some discussion.”

Homeland Security Investigations is one of several divisions within ICE — the best-known of which is Enforcement and Removal Operations, which arrests, detains and deports undocumented immigrants.

The agents’ letter is rooted in longstanding tensions between the investigative and deportation divisions within ICE.

The child of a forced marriage between two defunct federal agencies — The United States Customs Service and the Immigration and Naturalization Service — ICE has long struggled to balance its dual roles of transnational criminal investigations and deportations.

Some agents in the investigations unit have said the Trump administration has prioritized ICE’s deportations mission. Thomas D. Homan, the acting director of ICE and former leader of its deportation unit, has been a vocal proponent of the administration’s immigration policies.

The more than 6,000 special agents assigned to Homeland Security Investigations focus on money laundering, drug trafficking, human smuggling, child exploitation and cybercrimes. The agents have been involved in some of the highest-profile criminal investigations in recent years, including the takedown of the Silk Road website, an online market where illegal drugs and fake identifications were sold.

The agency was also involved in the arrest and capture of drug lord Joaquín Guzmán Loera, better known as “El Chapo, who led the Sinaloa cartel before he was extradited to the United States last year.

H.S.I. is also the lead government agency for counter proliferation investigations, targeting individuals who illegally try to smuggle military and other high-tech equipment out of the country. The division has about 50 offices around the world.

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