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On March 18, in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, ICE announced that it would continue conducting raids, focusing on “mission critical” targets. For ICE, such targets are  “public safety risks and people subject to mandatory detention due to criminal grounds.”  As the Department of Homeland Security (of which ICE is part) has evolved, ICE has increasingly invoked “public safety” to justify mass detention and deportation. In doing so, the agency has relied on longstanding justifications, a key one being that some people represent a perpetual threat and therefore are deserving of extremely punitive measures. Below is an updated foreword from our ICE raids toolkit, “Defend Against ICE Raids and Community Arrests.” The toolkit challenges the criminalization of non-citizens and  the hierarchy of  “worthy” versus “unworthy” immigrants; it also works towards dismantling ICE.

Shortly after winning the presidential election, Donald Trump reiterated his plans to rapidly deport “2 to 3 million” people. This was not surprising given that Trump had campaigned extensively on a sensationalist anti-immigrant platform.[1] Trump’s virulent anti-immigrant agenda, widespread human rights violations, and racist fearmongering have become a regular feature of the US political landscape, as has his repeated invocation of the threat of immigrant criminality.[2]

What makes Trump’s ethnonationalist agenda particularly dangerous, in part, is that he inherited the world’s largest exclusion and deportation policing apparatus—the Department of Homeland Security (DHS)—and a robust police-to-deportation pipeline. Also central to the power of his agenda is that he inherited the political justification for border policing and mass detention and deportation—the widely held consensus that the borders must be “secure” and that immigrants with criminal convictions are a worthy “national security” target.[3]

For social justice advocates everywhere, the first three years of the Trump administration have presented relentless challenges. But in order to fully address the challenges we face, we need to take stock of the conditions that make our current moment possible.

Today’s attacks on immigrants are the result of an ongoing cycle of expulsion, exclusion, and criminalization of those deemed “unworthy” of belonging. Since the founding of the country, representations of “dangerous outsiders” or “the enemy within” have been an integral part of nation-building and defining belonging in the United States. [4] Immigration laws have historically played a key role in social control and in reinforcing white supremacy, capitalism, heteronormativity, and the threat of “criminal” others who might destabilize the social order. But it wasn’t until the 1980s when the deportation of non-citizens with criminal convictions surfaced as a stated focus of the federal government. [5] The political climate of the subsequent years helped to realize this focus through various initiatives. These included the passage of harsh laws in 1996 that expanded the criminalization of immigrants and consequently, the government’s power to arrest, imprison and deport non-citizens on a massive scale.

The political focus on excluding, policing, and expelling immigrants got a huge boost with the founding of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) in 2003, which required a major restructuring of government agencies and priorities, along with a tremendous diversion of federal spending. At this time, DHS issued a strategic plan, Operation Endgame, to achieve “a 100% removal rate for all removable aliens,” a document which laid the groundwork for the current regime of ICE policing and raids. During the Obama administration, DHS increasingly focused rhetorically and materially on people with criminal convictions as a key threat to “public safety,” and the targeting of these people increasingly served as the justification for ICE’s mission. DHS under Obama successfully tapped into the logics and apparatus of decades of extensive criminalization targeting communities of color —including the vilification that drives racialized policing, discriminatory prosecution and sentencing, and mass imprisonment—which has significantly shaped the terms by which we continue to fight the deportation state today.[6]

Since the founding of DHS, the U.S. has deported over 5 million people — almost twice as many people than in the previous 100 years combined. The effective merger of the “homeland security state” and the prison industrial complex over the past 15 years has led to the normalization of mass deportation, one which relies heavily on the criminalization of immigrants. As a result, DHS — its underlying logic, the profound human suffering it has caused, its relationship with other agencies, and the political interests it serves — has not until recently received the kind of public scrutiny an institution of such magnitude and influence deserves.

Not only have millions of lives been irreparably disrupted, these policies are at odds with the current forward-thinking movement to reduce the harms of over-policing and mass incarceration. The success of this cruel system depends, in part, on the dehumanization of whole social groups, including strategically deploying labels such as “criminal,” “illegal,” or “felon” to shape public attitudes. At the same time, the government has incorporated and exploited the harmful ideologies and tactics of the so-called “War on Crime” and “War on Drugs” to escalate the racialized policing, mass imprisonment, surveillance, and excessive punishment of immigrants and other socially marginalized groups. The lines between the criminal legal system and immigration system have become dangerously thin.

It is no accident that ICE guides and trains its officers to use techniques that further the reach and harms of policing of communities of color. Much like other law enforcement agencies with documented discriminatory outcomes, ICE policies and strategies encourage and justify overly-aggressive policing tactics, widespread surveillance, and a disregard for constitutional and human rights. ICE’s unchecked zeal to target, arrest, and deport immigrants with convictions not only destroys families and communities, but also reinforces the inequalities of the criminal legal system upon which many of its policies rest.

Yet despite the enormity of this system, it is not without its weaknesses. A system that creates so much human pain, erodes fundamental fairness and human rights, and threatens the safety of millions is unsustainable. As the oppression grows, so too will the number of people who organize to reject its dehumanization, curb its growth, and uphold dignity and justice. We must continue to revisit key lessons, adjust our approach, support the leadership of communities on the frontlines, and expand our toolbox accordingly.

[1] Schultheis, Emily,President-elect Trump says how many immigrants he’ll deport,” CBS News, Nov 13, 2016

[2] In January 2017, Trump issued an executive order that laid out the administration’s mass detention and deportation agenda, which relies on expanding who is considered a “criminal alien.” “Executive Order: Enhancing Public Safety in the Interior of the United States,” 25 January 2017. The executive order also established Victims of Immigration Crime Engagement (VOICE) to highlight “victimization by criminal aliens.” John Kelly, then-secretary of the DHS, called for the reallocation of any DHS resources currently for advocating for undocumented immigrants to fund VOICE. Tal Kopan, “What is VOICE? Trump Highlights Crimes by Undocumented Immigrants,” CNN, 1 March 2017,

[3] Jane Coaston, “The Scary Ideology Behind Trump’s Immigration Instincts,” Vox, 18 January 2018; Doris Meissner et al., “Immigration Enforcement in the United States: The Rise of a Formidable Machinery,” Migration Policy Institute, January 2013.

[4] For example, the forcible removal and genocide of Native Americans, the control of movement of formerly enslaved people, the exclusion of the Chinese, the forced relocation of Mexicans during the Depression, the deportation of labor organizers and Leftists during the Red Scare, the internment of Japanese Americans – and the list goes on. See Daniel Kanstroom, Deportation Nation: Outsiders in American History (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007).

[5] Kandel, William A. “Interior Immigration Enforcement: Criminal Alien Programs,” Congressional Research Service, Sept. 8, 2016

[6] Some of preceding content has been adapted from following article: Aizeki, Mizue, “Mass Deportation under the Homeland Security State: Anti-Violence Advocates Join the Fight Against Criminalization”, S&F Online, October 2019

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