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  • A protester holds a sign during a rally in front of the Jacob K. Javits Federal Office Building, New York City, denouncing I.C.E. raids, January 27, 2018.

    A protester holds a sign during a rally in front of the Jacob K. Javits Federal Office Building, New York City, denouncing I.C.E. raids, January 27, 2018. | Photo: Reuters

Published 14 February 2019

As an emergency response organizer at a community organization for Latinos and immigrants in Pittsburgh says, the matter isn’t so simple. 

The United States federal government is hurtling towards another potential shutdown barely weeks after a 35-day government shutdown -- the longest in the country’s history. Again, it’s about immigration, but this time it’s about funding Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), not a border wall between the U.S. and Mexico.

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Democrats in opposition to U.S. President Donald Trump’s agenda to erect a border wall (something that already exists) used budget negotiations this week to attack the administration’s aggressive deportation efforts, proposing to limit the number of detention beds made available for immigration arrests inside the country.

Freshman Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, representing the Bronx and Queens in New York City, where nearly 1.6 million immigrant residents live, said Thursday, “This is one of the most urgent moral issues and crises in America right now.”

“Now he (Trump) is asking for US$5 billion to continue to militarize and weaponize a force that has zero accountability,” she said in a press conference. “Not only will we not agree to fund that, but we’re here to say that an agency like I.C.E., which repeatedly and systematically violates human rights, does not deserve a dime.”

In the tax year of 2018, Homeland Security Investigators with ICE carried out nearly 7,000 workplace checks of businesses suspected of employing undocumented workers, compared with about 1,700 such investigations in 2017’s fiscal year, according to an ICE news release.

As part of these I-9 investigations, as they are called, the agency conducted nearly 6,000 audits of employers in 2018, including 2,300 worksite-related arrests. Audits had risen by 1,300 from the year before, and work-arrests by 2,000 -- eight times more than 2017.

In the ‘Steel City’ of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Laura Perkins works as an emergency response organizer for Casa San Jose, a community resource and welcome center for Latinos. She advocates for immigrants who are being processed by ICE agents.

While Pittsburgh isn’t an official ‘sanctuary city,’ the police do not cooperate with ICE. The real challenge comes from the more rural areas outside of Pittsburgh, Perkins said.

I.C.E. officers detain a man during a 'targetted enforcement operation' in Los Angeles, California, U.S. | Source: I.C.E. via Reuters

“Most frequently, I go down to ICE when a community member is detained to speak with the agent that detained them to get as much information as possible and see what the client’s options are,” Perkins said.

On average she visits the city’s ICE office roughly once or twice a week to advocate for clients, she says. In her experience, ICE has lacked complete transparency, and officers “never give their full names.”

“Two days ago, I had a bond officer lie to my face three different times during what should have been a straightforward bond payment,” she said. “This seems to be the norm and, to the extent that I've observed, it seems to be encouraged.”

“Most agents speak in broken Spanish, not conjugating verbs and mispronouncing most words,” Perkins added. “While this may work on a basic level, many of my clients are not native Spanish speakers, coming from indigenous regions of their home countries.”

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According to the PEW Research Center’s most recent data published in November, more than 40 million people living in the U.S. in 2016 were born in another country, accounting for about one-fifth of the world’s migrants that year. The majority, 76 percent, have legal status.

“More than 1 million immigrants arrive in the U.S. each year. In 2016, the top country of origin for new immigrants coming into the U.S. was India, with 126,000 people, followed by Mexico (124,000), China (121,000) and Cuba (41,000),” the report stated. The majority of immigrants in the U.S. are from Mexico making up 26 percent of the immigrant population.

“The demonization of immigrants, particularly Latinx immigrants, manifests itself in hate speech, bullying at schools, heightened racial profiling by police and other officials, more demands placed on ICE agents to respond to this 'crisis,' [and] an overburdening on the already thinly stretched immigration courts system (which was exacerbated by the government shutdown),” Perkins said.

Protesters in New York City march across the Brooklyn Bridge during a protest against family separations at the U.S./Mexico border.  | Source: Reuters
 

The United States Citizenship and Immigration Services, ICE, and U.S. Customs and Border Protection were officially formed in 2003, the same year the U.S. invaded Iraq in what then-President George W. Bush called a “War on Terror”.

“In those measly 12 years of existence, their unchecked power and reach have grown profoundly. US immigration policy functioned before ICE existed, and it can function after it is abolished,” Perkins said. “The billions and billions of dollars that USCIS currently misuses could instead be redirected toward refugee resettlement agencies and legal support at the border.”

“There are better ways for ICE to be spending the money they already have,” Perkins says. “It is clear, though, that the Trump administration's plan for more spending is vague, impractical, and aggressively based on xenophobia.”

Enforcement and Removal Operations make up the grand majority of ICE's Immigration Law Enforcement program spending budget. In 2016 and 2017 it remained roughly the same, around US$3.2 billion, then lept to approximately US$4.8 billion in the 2018 budget, the first year the Trump adminstration had a pass at the budget and a favorable U.S. Congress approved it. 

The U.S. president's proposed ICE budget for 2019 includes US$570.9 million "for an additional 2,000 law enforcement officers and 1,312 support personnel to process the greater workload that results from enhanced enforcement efforts," according to the agency's Fiscal Year Budget in Brief.

"Illegal immigration presents unknown risk to the safety and security of the American people and undermines the efforts of legal immigrants who worked tirelessly to assimilate into our great Nation," the report states.

The United Nations called on the U.S. to find alternatives to detention last June, saying that migrant children and their parents should not be treated like criminals. | Source: Reuters

While I.C.E. has been around for 16 years, the agency became the focal point of national and international outrage last summer when more than 2,500 children were separated from their parents at the border over several months during Trump's zero-tolerance policy on illegal entry into the United States.

An executive order was issued in June 2018 to halt the practice of separating families. However, despite that order and a federal judge’s ruling that followed, immigration officials have still allowed the separation of children and their guardians in certain cases -- such as in instances where serious criminal charges have been brought against a parent, where government officials have concerns over the health and welfare of a child, or if there are medical concerns.

In December, two children died in I.C.E. detention including Jakelin Caal, a seven-year-old girl from Guatemala who died of dehydration while in U.S. Border Patrol in the custody, and eight-year-old Felipe Gomez, a Guatemalan boy who died on Christmas while in U.S. government custody.

Between 2010 and September 2017, there were 1,224 sexual assault complaints against ICE agents by immigrants in the department’s custody, according to information obtained by a Freedom of Information Act request by The Intercept. Of those reported, 43 were investigated.

As a new government shutdown looms, the newly elected Congress which is now led by the Democrats is unlikely to grant Trump his wishes of expanding the budget of such a controversial department that has come under mounting scrutiny in recent months.

“Dangerous shortcuts are being taken," Ms. Perkins says." Rights are being taken away and replaced by fear. This is terrorism.”

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