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Immigrants Will Continue to Die as Long as Agencies Like ICE and CBP Exist

A humane immigration policy is not possible under these hyper-militarized agencies that came out of the “war on terror.”

Activists gather for a "Reunite Our Families Now" rally in Los Angeles, California, on March 6, 2021, to protest continued deportations under President Joe Biden, urging that ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) be abolished and calling for the closure of camps where immigrants are being held.

Part of the Series

Just hours after inauguration, President Biden departed starkly from the violent anti-immigrant rhetoric and attacks that have characterized much of these past four years under Donald Trump. After issuing a slew of immigration-related executive orders, including a 100-day pause on some deportations, Biden’s actions faced almost immediate retaliation.

On February 23, a federal judge in Texas banned Biden’s deportation moratorium indefinitely, siding with state Attorney General Ken Paxton, the same individual who is also currently suing to end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program.

While Biden has begun the extensive process of undoing some of Trump’s cruelest anti-immigration policies, under his administration, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has continued to operate unhinged, deporting over 26,000 people, many of whom are Black immigrants, since Biden took office. With or without a moratorium in place, immigrant communities remain under constant threat as long as agencies like ICE and Customs and Border Protection (CBP) exist.

In order to truly prioritize the safety of everyone in this country, we need immediate action to protect immigrants currently facing harm. This starts with President Biden using every available means to fight back against Paxton’s lawsuit by appealing the judge’s decision while simultaneously making a long-term commitment to overhaul our unjust, inhumane immigration system and rebuild with values of humanity, dignity and fairness at the core.

If the recent moratorium ban has revealed anything, it’s that temporary protections will always leave immigrant communities vulnerable to attack by politicians hellbent on deporting us.

ICE and CBP in Context

Born out of George W. Bush’s “war on terror” in 2002, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and its two main enforcement arms — ICE and CBP — were created as hyper-militarized counterterrorism agencies.

In the wake of the devastating September 11 attacks, many Muslims, Black immigrants and other immigrants of color experienced firsthand how DHS’s “counterterrorism” efforts led to increased racial profiling, xenophobia, detention and deportation, as secret deportation hearings and detention of immigrants deemed of “special interest” became commonplace. One of the programs created post-9/11 included the National Security Entry-Exit Registration System (NSEERS) which was designed to collect fingerprints and other information to track immigrants in the U.S.

Between September 2002 and September 2003, over 83,500 immigrants were registered in NSEERS, of which nearly 13,800 were moved into deportation proceedings. Not one was ever charged with any form of terrorism.

Immigrants who enter the U.S. — particularly those who arrive through the southern border — are immediately shuffled into detention centers where roughly half are likely to remain detained anywhere between two to four years.

Racial profiling, racist quotas and the criminalization, mass detention and deportation of Black and Brown immigrants have always been core to the very creation of ICE and CBP. Yet, these already dangerous and inhumane agencies grew even deadlier and more weaponized when Trump took office.

An Even Deadlier Weapon

In late June 2019, The New York Times published a story with the photo of Óscar Alberto Martínez Ramírez and his 23-month-old daughter, Valeria, lying face down in the Rio Grande River. The photo of the father and daughter who died in their journey from Mexico to the U.S. sent shockwaves across the country, with people across social media expressing the sadness and hurt they felt after seeing the picture.

After campaigning on the promise to use every available means — including violence and abuse — to bar Black and Brown immigrants and asylum seekers from the country, Trump hyper-weaponized ICE and CBP, cranking up enforcement along the southern border. Unlike the Canada-U.S. border, thousands of enforcement agents were sent to patrol the region between Mexico and the U.S., apprehending migrants who Trump, time and again, referred to as “invaders.”

In tandem with his efforts to hyper-militarize the border, Trump signed over 400 executive actions against immigrant communities over the course of his time in office. These spanned from a ban on immigrants and asylum seekers from Muslim-majority and African countries, to the “Remain in Mexico” policy which forced immigrants, regardless of their country of origin, to stay in Mexico while their claims were adjudicated in the U.S.

By attacking programs like DACA and Temporary Protected Status (TPS) — which provides immigrants from specific countries with protections from deportations — Trump and his allies used every opportunity to put millions of undocumented people at risk of violence, detention and deportation at the hands of ICE and CBP.

These measures, in addition to mass deportations — which accelerated during the pandemic and included the deportations of U.S.-born children, and caused the highest death toll in ICE custody in the last 15 years — have come to define all too many immigrant experiences these past four years.

Yet, behind every headline about Trump’s latest anti-immigrant policy and every statistic about detention and deportation rates, there have always been real people; human beings such as Óscar and Valeria, whose pain, trauma and death are intricately tied to the militarization of ICE and CBP and the cruel enforcement of immigration policy.

Supported by an ever-growing budget, ICE and CBP have operated unchecked for far too long. Since DHS was created in 2003, ICE spending has expanded tremendously, growing from $3.3 billion to $8.3 billion today. Between 2016 and 2021, ICE and CBP’s budgets have grown roughly 40 and 30 percent, respectively. Annually, the federal government wastes more than $25 billion in taxpayer money on jailing, abusing and deporting immigrants in communities across the U.S.

Through partnerships with local law enforcement, including the 287(g) programs that cost the federal government roughly $24.3 million in 2018 to fund, ICE has continued to expand its reach to heartlessly raid and jail immigrants, among whom are mothers, fathers, children and other members of our communities who have lived in the U.S. for decades.

After news broke during the summer of 2019 that Trump was ordering ICE crackdowns in cities across the country, United We Dream’s “Migra Watch” Hotline received over 3,000 calls in just two months from community members fearful that their safety, and their family’s, was at risk. Many called to receive resources and information on how to support and protect one another from agents in their communities.

While the tragic and devastating photo of Óscar and Valeria shocked many, pain, trauma and death have been all too familiar realities among immigrant communities, including those who have called into our “Migra Watch” hotline. As history has shown us, racism and cruelty are the very bedrock of our country’s immigration system. As long as this system and agencies like ICE and CBP exist, immigrants, particularly Black and Brown immigrants, will continue to die.

Ultimately, we must move to defund and abolish these agencies altogether. Inherent to our communities’ calls for abolition is a vision of a world where we dismantle and eradicate systems of oppression and invest in a people-centered framework that prioritizes our full humanity.

Bold Reimagining

As our country tries to heal in the aftermath of the Trump administration, we cannot overlook the ways in which these past four years made the punitive, racist culture of our immigration system hyper-visible. To change culture, we need a deep transformation of values.

This transformation is well within our reach. As the country surpasses a tragic milestone of over 500,000 deaths from COVID-19, immigrant communities remain among the most vulnerable, with millions still excluded from federal pandemic relief and recovery efforts.

By reappropriating DHS funding, Congress has every opportunity to deliver even more vital resources to all communities. The federal government’s fiscal year 2018 budget alone could today help cover roughly 2 billion N95 respirator masks, 239,577 hospital stays for COVID-19 patients, and 200 million COVID-19 tests.

At this moment, we are at a crossroads in our history to begin this transformation. Individually, we must ask ourselves: Who and what makes you feel safe? It is likely that family, community, feeling love and compassion are among the first things to come to mind. We all deserve to feel safe. We deserve to live in a society where safety, humanity, dignity and fairness are not the privilege of a few, but a right for all.

Our reimagined values include demands to pass citizenship for all 11 million undocumented people, defunding ICE and CBP, expanding DACA and TPS, including all immigrants in vital COVID-19 relief and enacting a true moratorium on immigration enforcement.

President Biden, the House and the Senate have an abundance of legislative and executive power to begin repairing decades worth of harm. But to do so, they must listen to directly impacted communities and reckon with the cruel history of our country’s immigration system that has all too often targeted and killed Black and Brown immigrants.

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