- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 31, 2022

ICE automatically installed a suicide prevention app on employees’ government-issued smartphones this week, staffers told The Washington Times, calling it a grim sign of just how far morale has sunk at the immigration agency.

The app poses a series of questions designed to spot troubling mental health and spur awareness.

In an email to employees, the acting deputy director at U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement urged employees to report any colleagues they believe are disposed to take their own lives.

“I think [it] is very telling about the morale of the agency,” said one ICE employee who found the app installed on their phone this week.

Other ICE employees said morale is as low as they can remember, and they expect things to get worse in the coming months.

One employee said the agency seems adrift, buffeted by political winds as the White House and the Department of Homeland Security order officers to curtail enforcement.

“There is just growing frustration being a political yo-yo,” the employee said. “[The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives] has a set of statutes to enforce. They go forward and do good things. Same with [the Drug Enforcement Administration] and almost all other agencies. That isn’t our case.”

ICE employees said they received an email alerting them that the app was coming.

It is called the DHS-Columbia Protocol app and is available for anyone to download on Apple and Android devices. It is a customized version of the Columbia Protocol, a suicide prevention tool developed by the Columbia Lighthouse Project.

The app quizzes users on whether they have had thoughts within the past month about killing themselves or “wished you were dead or wished you could go to sleep and not wake up.”

Those who answer yes are asked whether they have made efforts or plans toward that end.

The app then displays an evaluation of suicide risk with rankings of “low,” “moderate,” “high” or “imminent” and suggestions of further steps to seek help.

The questions are designed to be asked of oneself or another person.

“This application is designed to facilitate discussion and identify someone who might be at risk for suicide,” Patrick J. Lechleitner, acting deputy director at ICE, said in the email to employees announcing the forced installation.

He said use of the app is voluntary and no data would be collected.

One employee who tried to delete the app found that it automatically reinstalled on its own.

The Washington Times has reached out to ICE for comment.

ICE employees, particularly the agency’s deportation officers, have described frustration with the agency and say they feel under siege by critics of their mission.

Democrats on Capitol Hill have repeatedly tried to cut the agency’s funding. Vice President Kamala Harris, as a senator in 2018, compared ICE’s immigration officers to the Ku Klux Klan.

President Biden and his top aides have sought to constrain the agency’s ability to operate with rules that limit where and how officers can enforce the law, and on whom they can enforce it. One officer told The Times that they feel like they are being paid not to do their jobs.

ICE officers say the situation is about to get worse. The agency informed them that they may be pulled from their regular duties and shipped to the border to help release illegal immigrants expected to surge across the U.S.-Mexico boundary when the administration ends the pandemic border shutdown policy, known as Title 42.

Poor morale is endemic at Homeland Security, which oversees ICE.

The Government Accountability Office said in a report last year that Homeland Security consistently has the lowest level of engagement of all large agencies — a key indicator of overall performance and satisfaction.

Among the department’s agencies, ICE ranks near the bottom but isn’t the worst.

The Times reached out to Homeland Security, which didn’t respond until after this story was published.

In its statement, the department didn’t say whether any other agencies within Homeland Security have force-installed it on their employees’ phones in the manner ICE did. But it did say the app is available to all employees — indeed, anyone with an Android or Apple phone can download it.

“This evidence-based suicide prevention tool is one of many employee resources available to the DHS workforce. Other resources include those related to COVID-19 information, nutrition, other mental health services, and physical fitness,” Homeland Security said.

The department does maintain a webpage promoting suicide prevention awareness for employees and their families. That page also promotes the Columbia Protocol.

Suicide among federal employees is a growing problem governmentwide, according to a 2020 article for FedSmith.com. The article said the Bureau of Labor Statistics found 124 federal employee job-related deaths in 2018, and 28% of them were suicides.

Quartz, another publication, said Customs and Border Protection, ICE’s sister agency in immigration enforcement, reported that 115 employees died by suicide from 2007 to 2018. That put CBP’s suicide rate 28% higher than any other law enforcement agency, Quartz reported.

The publication said the agency “fostered a culture where seeking help is not only discouraged but punished.”

• Stephen Dinan can be reached at sdinan@washingtontimes.com.

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