ICE Launches Public Relations Push To Address Threats And Harassment Against Agents

Sep 27, 2019
Originally published on September 27, 2019 10:09 pm
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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

ICE has something to say, and it's not about the agency's latest crackdown on illegal immigration. Officials at U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement have launched an unusual public relations push. They're worried about what they call a toxic atmosphere in which ICE agents are threatened and harassed for doing their jobs. ICE critics say the agency brought this on itself and protesters have every right to speak out. NPR's Joel Rose reports.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Sunday, July 14 - 30 seconds.

JOEL ROSE, BYLINE: When you work at ICE, sometimes you get voicemails like this one.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Yeah, I'd just like to say you should probably quit your job because otherwise you're a Nazi [expletive] who just, like, is evil as [expletive]. And by the way, my tax money pays you, and you are a [expletive] monster. Just saying.

DAVID MARIN: I would get those type of calls regularly.

ROSE: Dave Marin now works at ICE headquarters in Washington. He says he got voicemails like that a lot when he was the head of ICE field operations in Los Angeles. Marin says he would report them to security. Beyond that, he didn't give them much thought.

MARIN: Never really thought about, wow, I wonder if these people ever were to get my address, and I wonder if they were ever to come to my house. But we never thought about those kinds of things. But now when we get those type of calls, it's very concerning for us.

ROSE: Marin says voicemails like that seem scarier these days. What's changed is that the debate around immigration has gotten uglier. Protests are getting more personal, targeting ICE agents when they're off duty. And sometimes ICE is the target of violence. Officials point to an incident this summer near Seattle where a man was shot and killed by police after throwing flaming objects outside an ICE detention center, and in San Antonio someone fired shots into two ICE offices late at night. No agents were injured in either case, but ICE leadership is worried that somebody could be. Here's acting director Matthew Albence in an interview.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MATTHEW ALBENCE: Our workforce are being subjected to threats and harassment and protests at their houses merely for enforcing the laws that Congress has authorized us to enforce and expend $7 billion a year for us to enforce.

ROSE: ICE has offices and detention centers all over the country, and that makes the agency a convenient focus for protesters. There's been a movement to abolish ICE for years, but under the Trump administration that movement has suddenly caught fire, and protests at detention facilities have gotten bigger and more frequent.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)

ROSE: That's led to clashes like this one in Rhode Island, where an employee at a detention facility that works with ICE drove his truck into a crowd of protesters last month.

(SOUNDBITE OF SCREAMING)

ROSE: Protesters say several people were injured. The driver of the truck resigned a few weeks later.

SARAH SALDANA: Emotions are at an all-time high. I don't think we can argue with that.

ROSE: Sarah Saldana is a former ICE director under President Obama. She says she's faced many protests outside the office where she worked, and she understands the desire to correct the record about what ICE does and what it does not do.

SALDANA: Let's get our facts straight. The agency is involved in interior enforcement. When you say something like abolish ICE, I think you ought to know what you're talking about.

ROSE: There is a lot of confusion out there. You can see that in angry posts on social media. That, along with the protests, is what prompted ICE officials to launch their PR offensive - pushing their narrative in the media, writing open letters to the public, even releasing some of the angry voicemails they get, and making sure people don't confuse ICE with the Border Patrol, which has also come under fire for holding migrant kids in cages and separating families at the border. Acting Director Matthew Albence wants to make it clear - that is not ICE.

ALBENCE: The trouble is that people continue to try to conflate what the Border Patrol stations are, where these individuals are being held on a very temporary basis while they're being processed, with ISIS detention facilities, and that's two wholly different things.

ROSE: But ICE's critics say they know exactly what the agency does, and they don't like it. ICE is detaining more immigrants than ever - an average of more than 55,000 immigrants per day in August; more than half had not been convicted of a crime. And government watchdogs have repeatedly chastised ICE over conditions at some of its facilities. Former ICE Director Sarah Saldana says the agency's latest PR push fails to acknowledge all this.

SALDANA: There is no recognition that there is a reason underlying these protests - not one that excuses violent behavior, but certainly why people are very upset. And there's no reference to the actions of the administration that I believe have horribly fueled these emotional fires.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting) Abolish ICE. Abolish ICE. Abolish ICE. Abolish ICE.

ROSE: Back in July, a few dozen protesters gathered on the sidewalk in front of a house in Southern California. That house belongs to the current head of ICE's LA field office.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER: He is committing crimes against humanity by taking children from their parents, and that's called kidnapping - kidnapping.

ROSE: The protesters have been back several times and so have the local police, though the protests have always been peaceful. They're organized by a local activist named Maria Estrada, the daughter of Mexican immigrants.

MARIA ESTRADA: If they have no problem coming after us and our families, then the least I can do - the very least I can do - is make his family uncomfortable.

ROSE: ICE officials say officers have a right to privacy when they're off duty with their families, and protesting at an officer's home is crossing a line. Estrada doesn't see it that way.

ESTRADA: I'll be honest with you - I don't give a [expletive] if his wife is offended. I don't care if his family's home. I want them to be uncomfortable. I want him to move. I want him to quit his job, and I want him to move out of our neighborhood. That's what I want.

ROSE: Estrada says she's planning another sidewalk protest next month.

Joel Rose, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF SIOUXSIE AND THE BANSHEES' "HALL OF MIRRORS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.