ICE officers who endorsed President Trump in 2016 now say he has failed to follow through on his get-tough promises, saying catch-and-release of immigrants living illegally in the U.S. is not only still happening, but has gone into “overdrive.”
Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers say they’re being roped into such mundane tasks as opening the doors on vans to release immigrants already caught by Border Patrol agents. That’s dragging the officers from their usual duties of nabbing fugitives, or scouring local prisons and jails for immigrant criminals who lived illegally in the U.S. ready to be deported.
The shell game is all the more “ridiculous,” the officers said, because Border Patrol agents could fill out paperwork and open the doors themselves, but the agency’s leaders don’t want to be part of catch-and-release.
“Hundreds of man hours are wasted each day at a time of crisis on the border,” the leaders of the National ICE Council, the union that represents ICE officers, said in a letter sent directly to Mr. Trump on Monday.
The letter was sent just hours before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee voted to approve Mr. Trump’s pick, Ronald D. Vitiello, to be the new director of ICE.
Committee Chairman Ron Johnson waved a copy of the ICE Council’s letter during the vote and called the accusations “troubling.”
“We’re going to get to the bottom of this,” he told reporters afterward.
In the letter, the ICE Council said its president, Chris Crane, personally told Mr. Trump about the situation in a January meeting, and the council was disappointed nothing has been done.
“You frequently speak publicly of the great public safety work ICE is doing under your leadership. To be direct Mr. President — the rhetoric doesn’t match reality and we hope that this letter shows you the complete and total nonsense that is really taking place under the Trump Administration on the southern border,” the ICE officers said.
The White House did not respond to a request for comment.
The letter comes as the situation at the southwestern border has grown out of control for Homeland Security.
Some 160,000 migrant children and family members have been encountered at the border over the last five months, shattering previous records.
Most are arrested by the Border Patrol, though 10-15 percent are encountered by Customs and Border Protection officers trying to come through a border crossing without permission.
Because of the overwhelming numbers, lack of bed space and court rulings, Homeland Security usually processes and quickly releases most of them, with the vain hope that they’ll come back for hearings and eventual deportation.
That’s been dubbed “catch-and-release,” and Mr. Trump took office promising to stop it.
Instead the rate has increased, and it’s spurred the bureaucratic sparring.
Mr. Crane says Border Patrol agents have the power to fill out the release paperwork and to do the releases on their own, but they don’t want to face the embarrassment. So they make ICE officers fill out the release paperwork, and when they drive the immigrants to bus stations to be dropped off, they make an ICE officer actually open the van doors.
Homeland Security responded to the letter in a statement blaming the overwhelming numbers at the border and lack of solutions from Capitol Hill.
“We have repeatedly sounded the alarm with Congress as resources are being stretched across DHS as agencies work to contain this historic surge,” the department said. “ICE and CBP are fully engaged on a coordinated response and continue to update Congress on the challenges faced by our agents and officers at the border.”
ICE officers countered that while Congress could change some of the big policies, the “utter nonsense” decision to make ICE come along for the van rides is something Homeland Security could stop on its own.
The ICE Council said officers are being taken from terrorism task forces, fugitive operations and the Criminal Alien Program to do paperwork and van-opening.
One field team reported being moments from arresting felons, only to be told to back off. That wasn’t as high a priority as opening the van doors, or filling out the Border Patrol’s paperwork, the letter says.
Mr. Crane said one ICE office in Texas spends perhaps a third of its manpower facilitating CBP’s catch-and-release.
The ICE officers blamed both Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen and Mr. Vitiello, a former Border Patrol agent who’s been serving since last June as acting director at ICE.
Mr. Vitiello has been nominated to become full director.
The Homeland Security Committee approved him on a 7-5 vote Monday evening. He still must go through the Judiciary Committee before an eventual floor vote.