The Biden administration might not need to abolish ICE. Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas has floated a plan to reorganize the federal deportation agency to the point where it’s not doing much arresting and deporting from inside the country anymore.
Mr. Mayorkas revealed his idea last week in a telephone meeting with agency personnel in Texas, according to several sources familiar with the conversation, who said he proposed taking members of the country’s 4,000-strong deportation force off the streets and converting them into criminal investigators.
They would no longer be focused on enforcing laws against illegal presence, which would have the effect of slashing arrests and deportations.
Deportation officers said it would be akin to a city police department converting its beat cops to detectives, leaving nobody to patrol the streets for basic crimes.
“This is an administrative abolishment of ICE as we currently know it,” one source told The Washington Times.
Mr. Mayorkas, in his telephone meeting, left many questions unanswered, such as whether the officers would have to go through new training and what the pay structure would be. He did say he felt the officers were in the wrong pay system now, according to the The Times’ sources.
Tae Johnson, acting director at U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, was also part of the conversation and agreed with Mr. Mayorkas’ direction, one source said.
What exactly Mr. Mayorkas is planning is not clear. He told those in the meeting that he thought deportation officers are under the wrong pay scale but did specifically promise a raise.
Asked for more details by The Times, the Department of Homeland Security said it “won’t comment on internal meetings.”
Deportation officers are labeled GS-1801 jobs in the federal government and are generally at the GS-12 pay scale. Criminal investigators are GS-1811 jobs and are on the GS-13 pay scale.
Mr. Mayorkas’ plan dangles what he sees as a promotion to officers, offering the rank of agent, to get them on board with his plan to sharply curtail deportation enforcement efforts.
But the officers who were part of the conversation expressed concern that they were being pushed out of the jobs they signed up for, one source said.
“It’s all spin,” the source said. “We’re not going to abolish ICE, but we really are going to abolish ICE as you know it.”
ICE officers figure they would lose what is known as administratively uncontrollable overtime and would instead have to take what is known as law enforcement availability pay. They said the pay cut would average about $9,000 a year.
Abolishing ICE has been a slogan for immigrant rights activists and some Democrats for several years, though what exactly it means in practice is tougher to pin down.
They usually aren’t talking about investigating smugglers, street gangs or child pornographers. Homeland Security Investigations, with its 7,000-strong force of GS-1811 criminal investigators, perform those duties.
What the “Abolish ICE” movement objects to is the branch known as Enforcement and Removal Operations, which handles arrests, detainments and deportations of people in the country without permission.
Most of those arrests come from deportation officers picking up people who end up in local prisons or jails. But some fraction are at-large arrests in the community — particularly in areas where state and local sanctuary policies block access to prisons or jails.
Only a tiny percentage of immigration offenders are prosecuted criminally, and most of those are border cases, said Jessica Vaughan, policy studies director at the Center for Immigration Studies, which advocates for stricter immigration controls.
That means most of ICE’s immigration enforcement is in the administrative sphere. Shifting deportation officers’ duties away from administrative enforcement means deportations will plummet without any need for complicated directives or a full abolition of the agency.
Ms. Vaughan said there are consequences.
“By eliminating the option of removing people on administrative charges, Mayorkas will be eliminating ICE’s ability to enforce immigration laws, and as a side effect, eliminating ICE’s ability to use its immigration authorities to target all manner of criminals, smugglers, gang members, fraudsters and any other illegal alien who is causing problems here,” she said.
When Congress wrote the blueprint for immigration enforcement, Ms. Vaughan said, the goal was to create a system that would be easy and cheap. That was a necessity given the massive number of people who go through the system.
Converting officers into criminal investigators undermines that system, she said, effectively “setting ICE up to fail in its mission.”
Even as it would allow more rank-and-file illegal immigrants to go free, it would increase criminal prosecutions, she said, which have long been complaints of immigrant rights activists.
ICE has more than 3 million people on its docket, and deportation officers made about 143,000 administrative arrests in 2019.
It’s not clear whether Mr. Mayorkas’ vision would need congressional approval or whether the move could be made through an administrative reorganization. That is one of the questions The Times asked and the department declined to answer.
The idea of splitting ICE apart has circulated within the agency before.
About 20 senior agents at Homeland Security Investigations signing a letter during the Trump years said they feared their work was being tainted by the detentions and deportations by the agency’s Enforcement and Removal Operations division.
One source said Patrick J. Lechleitner was one of those involved in that 2018 push. He is now serving as acting chief of Homeland Security Investigations in Washington.
Even without changing Enforcement and Removal Operations’ mission, ICE is already making changes that will likely cut severely into interior arrests and deportations.
Mr. Johnson, ICE’s acting director, issued guidance last week listing a limited set of priority cases for deportation. The focus was on national security threats, recent border crossers and those with serious felony records.
Other migrants can still be deported, but officers must file written justification with supervisors and get approval before making the arrest.