WASHINGTON — Federal agents from Homeland Security Investigations say they have been kicked out of joint drug operations, shunned by local police departments and heckled at campus career fairs. Their parent agency, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, carries a stigma that is undermining their investigative work across the country, the agents said in an internal report.
The agents say they face a backlash in liberal “sanctuary” jurisdictions where authorities strictly limit contact with ICE but also in some Republican-led states where politicians are vocal in their support for the agency. And the toll on HSI agents is “getting worse,” according to the report that was prepared by a working group of agents formed by HSI to consider changes to the agency’s place within the Department of Homeland Security.
The HSI agents assembled dozens of these examples to convince DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas that they should leave ICE. They say their affiliation with ICE’s immigration enforcement role is endangering their personal safety, stifling their partnerships with other agencies and scaring away crime victims, according to a copy of the report provided to The Washington Post.
“Separating HSI into its own standalone agency is not simply a branding preference,” agents said in the document, which was circulated in a Sept. 16 internal email. “HSI’s affiliation with ICE significantly impedes investigations and HSI’s ability to fulfill its mission.”
While a breakup would require congressional approval and seems unlikely, the report is one of the most detailed accounts of the extent to which the ICE acronym has become a scarlet letter for the agents tasked with targeting terrorists, former Nazis, human traffickers, drug smugglers and purveyors of stolen antiquities.
Though they sometimes work together, the agents emphasized in the report that HSI’s work is distinct from ICE’s Enforcement and Removal Operations (ERO), the branch that performs the detention and deportation role for which the agency is best known.
As DHS’s main investigative agency, HSI has more than 10,000 employees assigned to 250-plus offices in the United States and 50 countries worldwide. The agency has a broader focus on transnational crime, and agents arrest unauthorized immigrants and U.S. citizens alike.
ICE’s 6,000 ERO officers have a much narrower mandate: To arrest noncitizens for civil violations of federal immigration law, such as overstaying a visa.
But in the 18 years since the creation of ICE in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, HSI agents have struggled to establish a distinct identity, lacking the prestige of the FBI or the visibility of the U.S. Border Patrol. ICE became a lightning rod for criticism and Democratic anger when President Donald Trump lavished the agency with praise and exhorted its officers to deport “millions.”
HSI agents say the backlash against ICE has left them increasingly isolated and unable to work with state and local law enforcement agencies, particularly in jurisdictions where elected officials don’t want police officers helping anyone with the agency’s lettering on their jackets and business cards.
In Minnesota, HSI agents had to change the placards on their cars because local activists labeled them “immigration vehicles” on social media, according to the agents’ account. Police departments and local governments have shunned them in Georgia, Texas, Pennsylvania, Washington, California, Florida and elsewhere, the agents said.
In a statement, ICE spokeswoman Paige Hughes said the agency “relies on close working relationships with its state, local, and international partners,” but she did not elaborate on the details of the report. She added: “ICE refrains from discussing deliberations publicly with its partners to maintain operational security and in recognition of the sensitive nature of many of our activities.”
HSI agents floated the idea of a separation in 2018 under Trump, who mostly touted ICE’s deportation division and the affiliated labor union that endorsed his political campaign.
The idea went nowhere until HSI agents brought it up again this year as Mayorkas toured the nation to hear employees’ ideas for the agency, DHS spokeswoman Marsha Espinosa said in a statement. HSI formed a working group to develop the proposal, she said.
“The Secretary has read the proposal and looks forward to continued workforce engagement on this topic and other workforce ideas,” she said.
But she added: “There is currently no plan underway to separate HSI and ERO.”
At Mayorkas’ request, HSI agents considered the possibility of remaining under ICE, with a different internet and email address to distinguish it from immigration enforcement. Splitting up would require congressional approval, the agency’s own Senate-confirmed director, and administrative costs of dividing staff and budgets, according to a report by the Center for a New American Security, a Washington think tank.
But HSI agents, who are not part of a union, argued that “the issues are too numerous and pervasive to solve piecemeal.” In the report, they cited 77 examples of how the agency’s affiliation with ICE erodes partnerships with state and local law enforcement, colleges and universities, and community organizations, making it difficult to recruit employees and rescue victims of crime.
Agents attended a career fair at Kent State University outside Cleveland in 2020, but student protesters blocked the table and heckled them until they gathered their materials and left, the report said.
A campus media report said the protesters papered the table with fliers that said “Abolish ICE.”
Crime victims, including some overseas, have refused to come forward, the report said. In 2019, HSI was unable to interview an allegedly exploited child overseas because of “strong pushback” from authorities and the wariness of the child’s parents.
“The public perceives ICE to be solely focused on immigration enforcement,” the report said.
HSI agents in Nashville said they asked a local police department last fiscal year to provide office space for a joint “internet Crimes Against Children Task Force” in an area where they investigate nearly 60 child-exploitation cases a year. Police declined, the report said, because of the “affiliation with ICE.” The report did not identify the police department.
Other localities have limited ICE’s access to records or government buildings to conduct interviews, or refused to provide squad cars or uniformed officers to back up the plainclothes agents during investigations, agents said.
“You put the agents in danger when they have to work in that kind of environment and with those restrictions,” said Jerry Robinette, former special agent in charge of HSI in San Antonio. “That’s like having a doctor saying, ‘I’m going to do surgery but I’m not going to let you look at the X-rays.’ “
Some agencies challenged the HSI account in the report, which says it had difficulty obtaining government records from New York’s Department of Motor Vehicles and Michigan’s attorney general and unemployment agency. Officials in New York and Michigan said they had no evidence to support those claims.
“We are not aware of any DMV data access being denied to Homeland Security Investigations,” Tim O’Brien, a spokesman for the New York DMV, said in an email. “Any HSI official who lacks the data they need to do their job should contact their data access coordinator for NYS data to resolve any confusion.”
Thomas Warrick, former DHS deputy assistant secretary for counterterrorism policy and director of the “Future of DHS Project” at the Atlantic Council, said splitting up the agency would be too disruptive at a time when the entire system is in flux.
Over the past year alone, DHS contended with record apprehensions at the U.S.-Mexico border, disasters such as the tornado that ripped across Kentucky this month, and conflicting public and political pressures over immigration enforcement.
“DHS has so much that it needs to be doing that the disruption caused by a reorganization would not be advisable for the next several years,” Warrick said. “This is not what ICE needs right now.”
The agency has gone five years without a Senate-confirmed leader. In April, President Biden nominated Ed Gonzalez, the sheriff of Harris County, Texas, to be ICE director, but a vote has not been scheduled.