The Theater of ICE

Image: AP

On Wednesday, Immigration and Customs Enforcement conducted a series of raids across Mississippi that resulted in the arrest of 680 people. It was brutal spectacle by design, almost cinematic—a swarm of 600 agents, a fleet of buses rolling across the state, a military hangar commissioned to serve as a makeshift processing facility. Raids are a means of mass-arrest and they are also state theater. They are meant to tell a story.

A story about raw power:

More than 600 ICE agents were involved in the raids, surrounding the perimeters of the targeted plants to prevent workers, mainly Latino immigrants, from escaping.

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About the arbitrary and all-powerful discretion of the state:

In an email Thursday, [ICE spokesperson] Bryan Cox said more than 300 of the 680 people arrested Wednesday have been released from custody. He says about 30 were released at the plants and about 270 others were released from the military hangar where they had been brought after the raids to be processed.

He did not say why they were let go except to say those released at the plants had been let go due to “humanitarian factors.”

And about fear:

John Sandweg, former acting director of ICE under the Obama administration, said Wednesday’s operation was massive in scope and would have a long-term impact on the immigrant community.

“This is a high-profile way to send a message and to create more fear in immigrant communities about ICE and about their ability to live and work in this country,” he said. “This burns an incredible amount of resources to apprehend people, few of whom pose any threat to the US. It’s for show more than for anything else.”

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But ICE at this level of cruel pageantry is also ICE at its most honest. The agency was founded in the spring of 2003 to do precisely what it is doing right now, which is using the full force of the state to mechanistically detain people who will, should the process play out as intended, later be deported. This isn’t paranoid speculation about state overreach or an ungenerous interpretation of the agency’s goals, it is an objective that the Department of Homeland Security laid out for itself just a few months after ICE first came into existence.

“Moving toward a 100 [percent] rate of removal for all removable aliens is critical to allow the ICE to provide the level of immigration enforcement necessary to keep America secure,” according to a 2003 department planning document titled ENDGAME. “Without this final step in the process, apprehensions made by other DHS programs cannot truly contribute to national security.”

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The ICE of a Wednesday evening marked by weeping children and desperate phone calls being made to family at home is the same ICE that operated with similar impunity under President Obama, and President Bush before him.

And so the matter of “reforming” ICE has always struck me as an odd thing, whether or not you like the agency and what it does. Reforming ICE would suggest that the agency in its current form—the agency that harasses and detains people in their homes, in courts, at work, in hospitals—is a perversion, when actually the opposite is true. This is ICE coming into itself, meeting its full potential. The Trump administration understands that well enough.

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