How Trump Radicalized ICE

There are, of course, genuine public-policy rationales for ice’s contracting with private companies for detention facilities. The principal alternative is to rely on county jails, where ice reportedly rents beds for $130 a night. The detention system is supposedly encoded in civil law, but jails are inherently rooted in the criminal system. Many of the immigrants detained in jails wear brightly colored jumpsuits and live surrounded by bars and wires. Many of these jails, unlike the private facilities, have no capacity for handling non-English speakers.

Still, the private facilities are run with the explicit goal of profit—a motive that can come at the cost of the well-being of detainees. Several are in remote, rural areas, where land and labor come especially cheap. One of the primary private facilities in the South is in Lumpkin, Georgia, on the Alabama border, 140 miles from Atlanta. Civil detention is explicitly not meant to be punitive—merely a necessary step in the administrative process of deportation—but the distance to some facilities makes regular visits from relatives extremely difficult. Immigration lawyers told me that they tend not to take cases in such facilities, because access would be so difficult. Marty Rosenbluth, a lawyer from North Carolina, relocated to Lumpkin. “I’m currently the only attorney doing defense against removal cases, that I know of, between Lumpkin and Atlanta,” he told me. “I actually opened up a one-room B&B in my house to try and lure attorneys down here, since part of their excuse for not taking cases here is that the nearest hotels are an hour drive.” Even with his presence, a 2015 University of Pennsylvania Law Review study found that only 6 percent of detainees in the facility have a lawyer. Nationwide, the figure isn’t much better: 14 percent. And without a lawyer, their chances of victory in immigration court slump from slim (21 percent) to nearly hopeless (2 percent).

Private detention companies’ contracts with ice stipulate that they uphold a set of rigorous standards, but they of course seek to tamp down costs, which means that they may skimp on basic care for detainees. Take the CoreCivic facility in Elizabeth, New Jersey, which a group of lawyers and health professionals assembled by Human Rights First toured last year. What they discovered on their visits were reports of maggots in the showers and raw food served in the cafeteria, not to mention drinking water described as “pure bleach.” Several detainees said they avoid asking for dental care because the dentist at the facility only performs extractions, even when a filling would do. Mental-health treatment commonly includes “bibliotherapy”—the assignment of self-help books—despite the obvious fact that prolonged detention can bring stress and depression. CoreCivic maintains that Human Rights First’s report contained “numerous false and misleading allegations.” But these aren’t merely the stray observations of an activist group. In December, John V. Kelly, the acting inspector general of the Department of Homeland Security, issued a comprehensive report based on a series of surprise visits to detention facilities. His findings read: “We identified problems that undermine the protection of detainees’ rights, their humane treatment, and the provision of a safe and healthy environment.”

Where immigration is concerned, Trump has installed ideologues with a deep understanding of the law-enforcement machinery they now control.>

Like many bureaucracies, ice strains for growth. When the agency was created, it employed just over 2,700 deportation officers, roughly the same number of employees as the San Diego police department. That workforce has since doubled, and the organization’s ambitions have ballooned. Beyond its own budget and its network of private contractors, ice has availed itself of a provision in an immigration law signed by Bill Clinton in 1996. That provision empowered the federal government to partner with state and local police. In effect, this means ice can deputize police to enforce federal immigration laws. Not every jurisdiction has wanted to align itself with ice—indeed, most major cities have strenuously resisted, especially in the Trump era. But plenty of local police forces, many of them in suburban counties, have gladly taken up ice’s offer to collaborate.

Gwinnett County, in northern Georgia, once epitomized the old rural South, sparsely populated and largely white. But over the past few decades, its population has exploded in both size and racial diversity. Demographers say the county’s white majority is on track to be displaced by 2040. When Trump signed an executive order allowing ice to detain essentially any undocumented immigrants it encounters, the Gwinnett County police responded enthusiastically. The number of undocumented immigrants transferred to ice from local jails jumped by 248 percent during the first four months of Trump’s presidency, relative to the prior year. Gwinnett police weren’t rounding up dangerous gang members: When the Migration Policy Institute studied the new pattern of enforcement, it found that police were primarily arresting immigrants for traffic violations before handing them over to ice.

The early Trump era has witnessed wave after wave of seismic policy making related to immigration—the Muslim ban initially undertaken in his very first week in office, the rescission of daca, the separation of families at the border. Amid the frantic attention these shifts have generated, it’s easy to lose track of the smaller changes that have been taking place. But with them, the administration has devised a scheme intended to unnerve undocumented immigrants by creating an overall tone of inhospitality and menace.

Where immigration is concerned, Trump has installed a group of committed ideologues with a deep understanding of the extensive law-enforcement machinery they now control. One especially skilled participant is L. Francis Cissna, the head of the Office of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. Cissna is a longtime bureaucrat at the Department of Homeland Security who styled himself a dissident during the Obama years. In 2015, he temporarily left the department to work “on detail” for Republican Senator Chuck Grassley. An MIT graduate and the son of a Peruvian immigrant, Cissna began his career as a Foreign Service officer in Haiti and then Sweden. Over time, he became a policy savant; even his ideological opponents confess that he is more fluent in the immigration system’s intricacies than they are.

From his perch in the Trump administration, Cissna has repeatedly broadcast the agency’s new attitude toward immigration. In February, he rewrote its mission statement, erasing a phrase that described the United States as a “nation of immigrants.” He explained the change by stating that he wanted to emphasize the “commitment we have to the American people”—as if there were intellectual tension between the two sentiments. Then, in June, he announced the opening of an office that would review the files of naturalized citizens, reexamining fingerprints and hunting for hints of fraud that might enable the revocation of citizenship.

Cissna is part of a close-knit coterie of former Capitol Hill staffers whom Trump has placed in charge of the immigration system. Before Trump took office, the group clustered in the offices of the conservative politicians most committed to restrictive immigration policy, especially Senators Grassley and Sessions. Even in a time when GOP policy on immigration had swung far to the right, these staffers—Stephen Miller, now a White House senior adviser, is the most famous of the bunch—existed far outside the party’s mainstream. According to former colleagues, the offices of senators such as John McCain and Marco Rubio would lose patience with them because of their eagerness to detonate any viable version of immigration reform. “They are a little cabal,” one Republican staffer who dealt closely with them told me. They specialized in churning out missives to DHS that requested information about individual immigrants so detailed, they sometimes seemed intent purely on overwhelming the system. One letter signed by Grassley, Sessions, and their Senate colleague Michael Lee asked DHS to respond “in precise detail” to queries about 250,000 immigrants.

Aside from Miller, perhaps the most important architect of Trump’s immigration policy is another young Sessions acolyte, Gene Hamilton. In 2008, while he was a law student at Washington and Lee University, Hamilton took an internship at an ice detention facility in Miami. In 2012, he scored a job as an ice lawyer in the Atlanta field office. (Back then, Atlanta was known as one of the most aggressive cities when it came to immigration enforcement: The court there granted asylum to just 2 percent of the seekers whose cases it heard. The national average is about 50 percent.)

At the beginning of the Trump presidency, Hamilton joined DHS as a senior counselor to then-Secretary John Kelly. Last year, he left DHS to serve as a top adviser to Attorney General Jeff Sessions. The logic of the job switch was made apparent to me by one former ice official, who described Sessions as the “de facto secretary of homeland security,” given his comprehensive influence over immigration policy. Together, Sessions and Hamilton have instituted a highly insular, fast-moving enforcement operation.

The government doesn’t have the resources to remove the nation’s 11 million undocumented immigrants. But it can create circumstances unpleasant enough to encourage them to leave on their own.>

The work undertaken by Sessions, Hamilton, Miller, and their ilk is based to some degree on a theory first developed by Kris Kobach, the Kansas secretary of state. Over the past year, Kobach has emerged as a prime bête noire of the left because of his ferocious, ultimately doomed attempts to stamp out a phantom epidemic of voter fraud. But for many years, he served as a lawyer for an offshoot of the Federation for American Immigration Reform—the loudest and most effective of the groups pressing for restrictive immigration laws. In that position, he helped write many of the most draconian pieces of state-level immigration legislation to wend their way into law, including Arizona’s S.B. 1070.

Kobach set out to remake immigration law to conform to a doctrine he called self-deportation or, more clinically, attrition through enforcement—a policy that experienced a vogue in 2012, when Mitt Romney, campaigning for president, briefly claimed the position as his own. The doctrine holds that the government doesn’t have the resources to round up and remove the 11 million undocumented immigrants in the nation, but it can create circumstances unpleasant enough to encourage them to exit on their own. As Kobach once wrote, “Illegal aliens are rational decision makers. If the risks of detention or involuntary removal go up, and the probability of being able to obtain unauthorized employment goes down, then at some point, the only rational decision is to return home.” Through deprivation and fear, the government can essentially drive undocumented immigrants out of the country.

Once you understand that self-deportation is the administration’s guiding theory, you can see why immigration hawks might take satisfaction in supposed policy defeats. Even if putative fiascoes such as the initial Muslim ban and family separations at the border fail in court or are ultimately reversed, they succeed in fomenting an atmosphere of fear and worry among immigrants. The theatrics are, in effect, the policy.

The Trump administration made explicit its policy that every undocumented immigrant is unsafe with the executive order that Trump signed during his first month as president, repealing Obama’s policy of prioritizing the deportation of immigrants who had committed serious crimes. As Thomas Homan testified before Congress last year, “If you’re in this country illegally and you committed a crime by entering this country, you should be uncomfortable … You should look over your shoulder, and you need to be worried.”

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