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Top ICE agents seek to split agency, separate investigations from deportations

Agents leading most of the field offices for Homeland Security Investigations, a part of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, have asked to be split from the part of the agency that focuses on detaining and deporting immigrants. 

In a four-page letter sent to Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, agents running 19 of the agency's 26 field offices — including A. Scott Brown, special agent in charge of the Phoenix field office — argued that the controversial actions of Enforcement and Removal Operations, the office which regularly conducts immigration raids and arrests, have hampered the investigations of HSI agents. 

"HSI’s investigations have been perceived as targeting undocumented aliens, instead of the transnational criminal organizations that facilitate cross border crimes impacting our communities and national security," the special agents in charge wrote in the letter first reported by the Texas Observer. 

While ICE has often been controversial, the hardheaded response of acting director Thomas Homan, coupled with massive raids across the country, and the contentious separation of children from their parents as part of a widespread "zero tolerance" policy, have given ICE opponents the traction they need to seek reform or even "abolish" the agency. 

On Monday, U.S. Rep. Mark Pocan, a Democrat from Wisconsin, followed up a trip to the U.S-Mexico border in Texas by announcing he would introduce legislation that would "abolish ICE" and "crack down on the agency's blanket directive to target and round up individuals and families." 

Abolishing ICE was also a major part of the platform of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a 28-year-old "Democratic Socialist" political newcomer who beat a political veteran in a New York congressional primary Tuesday. 

Last summer, ICE's Homan argued that the agency was not doing sweeps, but that no population is "off the table," dismissing Obama administration efforts to prioritize criminals over parents and children. 

"If you’re in this country illegally and you committed a crime by entering, you should be uncomfortable, you should look over your shoulder, and you need to be worried," he said.

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ERO and HSI were created out of the dramatic reshuffling of agencies following the 9/11 attacks when in Congress created the Department of Homeland Security. ICE was formed out of whole-cloth from parts of the U.S. Customs Service and the Immigration and Naturalization Service. The previous agency, Deportation and Removal Operations was rolled into the new ERO, while the investigative powers were gathered, and then latter spun out to other agencies.

While ERO has become "very effective and efficient at detaining and removal illegal aliens" under the ICE umbrella, the disparate and independent nature of the two agency's priorities and structure has made it harder for HSI to thwart "transnational criminal organizations" which includes organized crime, drug smuggling and human trafficking, as well as trade fraud and financial crimes. 

In Southern Arizona, HSI agents have been at the center of wide-range of investigations, stemming attempts to smuggle weapons and ammunition into Mexico, the purchase and illegal export of drone components to the Pakistani military, and the indictment of a former Border Patrol agent for possession of child pornography. 

"The two sub-agencies have become so specialized and independent that ICE's mission can no longer be described as a singular synergistic mission; it can only be described as a combination of two distinct missions," they wrote. 

"Furthermore, the perception of HSI's investigative independence is unnecessarily impacted by the political nature of ERO's civil immigration enforcement," the agents wrote. "Many jurisdictions continue to refuse to work with HSI because of a perceived linkage to the politics of civil immigration. Other jurisdictions agree to partner with HSI as long as the 'ICE' name is excluded from any public facing information." 

"HSI is constantly expending resources to explain the organizational differences to state and local partners, as well as Congressional staff, and even within our own department—DHS," they wrote. 

The special-agents-in-charge noted that HSI has 65 overseas offices and partners with foreign law enforcement offices in 14 countries, and manages six task forces, including one centered around border security, while others emphasize financial crimes, trade, and document fraud. 

While other agencies have their own focus, HSI is tied with another agency with an independent mission, resulting in a unique situation among federal law enforcement agencies. The agents likened HSI's situation to the FBI being paired with the Bureau of Prisons, or DEA. 

They also argued that the "ebbs and flows of ERO detention priorities" have directly impacted HSI operations because in at least three years, money earmarked for HSI was instead given to ERO, limiting the investigative's agency's ability to hire personnel and purchase equipment. 

In the 2016 fiscal year, this meant that $34.5 million was shifted from HSI to ERO, the agents wrote. 

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TucsonSentinel.com's original reporting and curation of border and immigration news is generously supported in part by a grant from the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation.

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ICE

Special agents from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement's Homeland Security Investigations arrested more than 100 people at meat processing plant in Salem, Ohio, on June 19.

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