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Immigration agencies to assist law enforcement amid unrest

Two agencies — Immigration and Customs Enforcement and Customs and Border Protection — are sending staff, resources around the country

The Department of Homeland Security will send officers to help local and state law enforcement control crowds protesting the  death of George Floyd.
The Department of Homeland Security will send officers to help local and state law enforcement control crowds protesting the death of George Floyd. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)

The two biggest immigration enforcement agencies at the Homeland Security Department confirmed Monday they will deploy personnel and resources to support local, state and federal law enforcement in U.S. cities where civil unrest over police brutality continues to simmer. 

Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the DHS agency that deports undocumented people from inside the United States, confirmed to CQ Roll Call that it would add to the boots on the ground nationwide.

ICE “fully respects the rights of all people to peacefully express their opinions,” Danielle Bennett, an agency spokeswoman, told CQ Roll Call via email. 

“In light of civil unrest taking place across the country, ICE personnel and Special Response Teams have been deployed to protect agency facilities and assets in support of the Federal Protective Service and assist local, state and federal law enforcement partners, as needed,” Bennett said.

The announcement comes after the death of George Floyd, a 46-year-old black man who died May 25, as he was being pinned down by Minneapolis police officers.  The main officer involved now faces charges of third-degree murder and manslaughter.

This and other similar incidents sparked demonstrations across the United States — and around the world — in recent days. As protests grew, so did the force applied by state and local police, and some National Guard units, to control the crowds. 

Bennett said ICE policy limiting immigration enforcement at “sensitive locations” such as protests, hospitals and schools, “except when there is an imminent public safety or national security threat,” would still be in effect. 

Customs and Border Protection also threw its weight behind law enforcement. CBP “continues to assist our law enforcement partners in supporting peaceful protests,” acting Commissioner Mark Morgan said in a tweet Sunday. “But as we have seen, these ‘protests’ are anything but peaceful.”

Morgan noted that an officer with Federal Protective Services, the security division within DHS, was shot and killed while guarding a federal courthouse in Oakland, Calif., amid a protest. The motive behind the shooting was not clear, however.

[Photos: A weekend of reopening in DC ends in chaos]

On Friday, as the protests in Minneapolis escalated, CBP informed congressional staff via email that one of its surveillance drones had been “preparing to provide live video to aid in situational awareness at the request of our federal law enforcement partners in Minneapolis.”  

“After arriving into the Minneapolis airspace, the requesting agency determined that the aircraft was no longer needed for operational awareness and departed back to Grand Forks,” N.D., the agency liaison said in the email. 

Neither ICE nor CBP addressed questions over how many agents and assets would be deployed in this new effort to help law enforcement — or how this move may affect their regular immigration-related duties. 

“It would not be appropriate to disclose law enforcement operational specifics which could jeopardize operational security,” said Stephanie Malin, a CBP spokeswoman, in an email Monday to CQ Roll Call.

“This deployment is about supporting the efforts of our federal, state and local partners, not about carrying out CBP’s immigration enforcement mission.”  

CBP typically patrols borders and operates checkpoints and roving patrols within 100 air miles of the U.S. contiguous boundary to detect people who may have crossed without authorization. In this wide swathe of land that includes populous cities like New York, Washington D.C., and Philadelphia — an estimated two-thirds of the country’s population — the agency has extended stop-and-seizure powers. The agency also has some general law enforcement authority, although it’s limited in scope. 

Malin told CQ Roll Call that the agency “routinely” assists other law enforcement entities at their request or as part of a special multiagency task force. The agency’s Border Patrol Unit joined U.S Marshals to manage hostile crowds during the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s. The agency also deployed personnel amid unrest following the Los Angeles police beating of Rodney King in 1991, at airports following after 9/11, and in disaster recovery efforts after Hurricane Katrina.

ICE, on the other hand, operates inside the country and regularly seeks local law enforcement assistance in carrying out its operations but does not typically assist with local law enforcement, but also has been accused of violating civil rights. 

The American Civil Liberties Union raised concerns Monday about CBP’s involvement, saying the agency has a history with the use of excessive force and civil rights abuses.

“Our topline concern is that CBP is the largest and least accountable law enforcement agency in the country and they have a long track record of abuse,” said Shaw Drake, policy counsel at the ACLU Border Rights Center. Injecting the agency into an already tense mix of protesters and militarized police forces is “a real recipe for further disaster.” 

Advocates have been criticizing the lack of oversight over CBP and ICE long before the Trump administration, but have lamented that the Trump administration has further unshackled the two agencies and allowed them to operate without accountability.

“As we support those across the country who are protesting violations of human rights at the hands of police and other government actors, we also condemn the Trump administration’s use of the Department of Homeland Security, including Customs and Border Protection officers and equipment, to surveil protests and militarize cities around the country in recent days,” said Mary Meg McCarthy, executive director of the National Immigrant Justice Center.

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