Trigger warning: mentions of sexual assault and abuse
Immigration and the acceptance of new cultures is a core value that the United States has been built on for centuries. From the 19th century and earlier, citizens of other countries have come looking to the United States for a better life for themselves and their families. It's been given the nicknames "The Land of Opportunity" & "The Melting Pot" due to the United States being a safe haven for refugees, immigrants, and every foreigner in between trying to find a new home in the States.
However, is that sentiment still held? U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (also known as ICE) has centers within the US intended to protect the safety and integrity of immigrants and American citizens by detaining immigrants that are facing obstacles going through the naturalization process.
Many of these centers have stated that they only hold immigrants for under a month, but there have been numerous reports of detainees being held for years under unsuitable housing conditions. Lack of quality food and water as well as inadequate healthcare and overcrowding have been issues for years in these facilities. Since 2018, 46 immigrants have died under ICE detainment. With all of this being known, it begs the question, is it time to “melt” ICE? First, we need to unpack the origins of this organization.
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement was formed under the Homeland Security Act of 2002, a bill that was signed by President George W. Bush in direct response to the attacks that took place on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on September 11, 2001.
ICE's stated mission is to protect the United States from cross-border crime and illegal immigration that threatens American and public safety, and they are responsible for identifying and eradicating border, economic, transportation, and security risks. However, the organization has had issues since its inception.
News outlet The Intercept published a report by the DHS Inspector General revealed 1,224 sexual abuse complaints while in immigration custody that were filed between January 2010 and June 2017. Many of the women in these reports recounted being groped and harassed by male officers, and abuse of power was a theme that ran rampant. Officers would often exert their power to perform strip searches amongst other procedures on female detainees. In contrast to what ICE stated, only approximately 43 of these claims were investigated. In the expose by The Intercept, the article stated:
"ICE claimed that it investigates all complaints. Between 2012 and 2017, ICE found that only 160, or 12 percent, of complaints were “substantiated,” while 793, or 59 percent, were “unsubstantiated,” and 345, or 26 percent, were “unfounded.” Three percent of investigations remained open, ICE said."
Unfortunately, the well-meaning beginnings of this organization would be tainted by the continuous controversy that has plagued it.
In addition to sexual assault reports, many ICE detainment centers have faced claims of medical abuse and mistreatment, one example being forced sterilization. In September 2020, gynecologist Dr. Mahendra Amin was accused of performing nonconsensual and unneeded medical procedures (including hysterectomies) on women detained at the Irwin County Detention Center in Georgia. Later that year, a civil lawsuit was filed by the state of Georgia on behalf of 14 women.
The same year, ICE had also gotten into some hot water for alleged religious discrimination. CNN reported that Muslim detainees at a Miami detention facility were served expired pork and pork-based products. As a result of this, many detainees reported getting sick. Expired halal meals had been an issue for years prior to this point, but had been further worsened by the pandemic. When detainees made efforts to get religiously compliant meals, their chaplain allegedly said, "It is what it is." Moreover, when ICE was faced with these allegations by CNN, they made the following statement:
"ICE’s Performance Based National Detention Standards cover all aspects of detention, to include reasonable accommodation of religious dietary practices. Any claim that ICE denies reasonable and equitable opportunity for persons to observe their religious dietary practices is false.”
However, ICE was no stranger to allegations of religious discrimination. A year before these claims were made public, ICE was also accused of interfering with prayers and refused religious articles. Furthermore, ICE has separated close to 3,000 illegal migrant children from their families, as part of the Donald Trump administration's 2018 "zero tolerance policy", which was implemented to help deter the occurrence of illegal immigration while attempting to illegally cross the U.S-Mexican border and placed them in detention camps. Many news outlets compared the detention camps to prisons. 16 out of 34 of the centers based in Texas had been cited by Texas officials for more than 150 health violations.
In addition to this, detained children were also put up for adoption, with many of them being placed in foster homes without the notification of their parents. The agency Bethany Christian Services, an agency that facilitates the care of foster children in Michigan, had gained controversy for trying to endorse the adoption of migrant children, instead of trying to reunite them with their families.
These issues and Trump's zero tolerance policy led to the Abolish ICE movement that gained traction during 2018. On May 17, 8-year-old Anadith Danay Reyes, a citizen of Panama, died in U.S Border Patrol custody in Texas. She died in a Harlingen, Texas, hospital a mere eight days after her family was taken into custody by US Customs and Border Protection in Brownsville, Texas.
She reportedly was treated for the flu and medically assessed on May 10. The girl was again assessed by medical personnel after she and her family arrived in Harlingen on May 14.
CBP commissioner Troy Miller said “we are deeply saddened by the tragic death” and announced a series of actions intended to “reinforce existing policies" and continue to ensure appropriate care for all medically fragile individuals, yet little has been done in terms of holding someone responsible for the death.
Finally, an issue that ICE continues to be criticized for is repeated instances of wrongful detainment. From 2012 to early 2018, ICE wrongfully imprisoned 1,488 U.S. citizens, a majority of whom spent months or years in immigration detention. An investigation by California publication Los Angeles Times released in 2018 proved that faulty databases were the cause of these wrongful detentions. Within the span of a decade (2008-2018), ICE was sued by more than two dozen US citizens for false detainment, with some of the citizens being arrested more than one time. With all of this being public knowledge for years, nonsurprisingly, public backlash is expected. Human rights groups and many immigrants in the US have been speaking up for years about the abuse and mistreatment that ICE has put their detainees through, which leads into the next part of this article.
Mainstream success with abolishing ICE was first seen back in June 2018, with the Abolish ICE movement gaining momentum. Abolish ICE’s mission is to seek the abolition of immigration and Customs Enforcement as well as, at the time, denouncing the Trump administration's zero tolerance and family separation policies. There were many different reactions to the protests, with the most notable being the polarizing effect on the political world.
In 2018, the abolition of ICE was one of democratic socialist Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s main campaign issues. After she won her seat as representative of New York’s 14th congressional district, the position began to be widely accepted by more politicians. However, not everyone accepted this new change in opinion. In a 2018 Fox News interview, then-president Donald Trump spoke about ICE, saying,
"You know ICE, these are the guys that go in and take MS-13, and they take them out. Because they’re much tougher than MS-13, like by a factor of 10. And these are the ones — you get rid of ICE you’re going to have a country that you’re going to be afraid to walk out of your house."
Comments such as these stirred public outcry, and further pushed for the abolition or reformation of ICE. However, as polarizing as ICE is, what is the solution to ensuring humane conditions for all detained immigrants?
Is the solution to ICE getting rid of it? In my opinion, no. Reformation is the answer, not abolition.
ICE has many deep-seeded problems that have existed for years, but the first step is to acknowledge the issues that have been caused by systemic racism and misogyny for years. Reformation is a work in progress, so what are some alternatives? According to the American Immigration Council, "Alternatives to detention (ATDs) are defined as “any legislation, policy or practice, formal or informal, that ensures people are not detained for reasons relating to their migration status." This can include but is not limited to conditional release, release on bail, curfews, e-tagging, and assignment to a specific accommodation centers. This shows that there are more ethical alternatives to detention centers that continue to put the lives of migrants at risk. Americans need to continue to be a voice for those who need it, and together, we can melt the ICE. How many more families will be separated, how many more detainees scarred, and how many more lives will be lost before something is done? Bad things happen when good people sit back and do nothing. We can change things by changing the dialogue on this conversation, but it starts with us.