ON 30th April, Thomas Homan, the Acting Director of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency (ICE), the federal agency charged with enforcing American immigration law, announced his retirement. Mr Homan was nominated by President Donald Trump to lead the agency last November, but the administration had not submitted the necessary paperwork to the Senate. That may be in part because his confirmation process would have been contentious; Mr Homan has been a zealous champion in Mr Trump’s battle against undocumented immigrants. Under his leadership, ICE has embraced enforcement strategies that target long-time, low-risk migrants alongside the potentially dangerous offenders that have been the focus of the agency’s attention over the past six years.
Although the flows of undocumented workers into America have slowed, ICE has been detaining more people. While arrests near the country’s borders carried out by the Border Patrol fell by 25% in 2017—to their lowest level since 1971—internal arrests by ICE agents climbed by a similar proportion. ICE has moved beyond a focus on removing undocumented convicted criminals already in jails, to “at large” arrests in workplaces and homes across the country. In the past few months, its agents have raided a meat packing plant in rural Tennessee—the largest workplace raid in a decade—and Seven-Eleven shops in 17 states. An increasing number of those arrested have no criminal conviction. ICE categorised 26% of those arrested for removal in 2017 as non-criminal, up from 13% in 2016. Of those convicted, an increasing proportion involve minor crimes including traffic violations or loitering. Recent ICE detainees include Syed Jamal, a teacher and father of three arrested after 30 years in America because of a speeding ticket, and Amer Adi, an Ohio businessman and 40-year resident married to his current wife for 30 years, who was accused of “marriage fraud” by his previous spouse.
Mr Homan, who started his immigration enforcement career as a border patrolman, was given an award by the Obama administration in 2015, in part for his success in implementing the “worst first” policy of targeting serious criminals. He has since embraced the new administration’s tougher line. In a congressional hearing last year the tough-talking Mr Homan was blunt about what his agency hoped to achieve. “You committed a crime by entering this country…you should look over your shoulder and you need to be worried,” he said. Talking about “sanctuary cities” that have passed laws limiting local law enforcement cooperation with his agency, Mr Homan suggested prosecuting mayors and council members. He has recommended that Kirstjen Nielsen, Secretary of Homeland Security, adopt policies that would involve the separation of children from parents at border crossings. He put in place a policy allowing for ICE arrests at courthouses.
Mr Homan has noted that his agency doesn’t make the laws, it simply tries to enforce them—and ICE officers are “unfairly vilified for simply doing their job”. Certainly, attempts to round up low-risk undocumented workers predate Mr Trump. In the early years of the Obama administration, Pew Research suggests arrests of non-criminal undocumented workers were much higher than those reported during the first year of the Trump administration.
Nonetheless, recent ICE enforcement actions under Mr Homan’s leadership appear ill-timed and capricious. While the undocumented population has been falling since 2007, it is still around 11m, with 8m in the workforce—about 5% of the total American workforce (and close to 9% in Texas). Two-thirds of adult undocumented workers have been in America for ten years or more. The economic and social costs of trying to expel all those people would be immense. And given that ICE managed to deport fewer than 82,000 people last year as part of its interior removals programme—less than 1% of the total undocumented population—it would also involve a much larger policing exercise than the current effort. Since that is unlikely to happen, it seems likely that ICE’s untargeted enforcement will remain an exercise in erratic excess, subject to political and bureaucratic whim. That is surely a poor basis on which to split up families and banish people to countries they may not have seen in decades; though Mr Homan is correct that many of the underlying issues rest with Congress, not the agency he will soon depart.