A break-down of immigration terms and agencies

Our immigration system: it has headlined the news steadily for over five years, with politicians rising on divisive and racist rhetoric while migration levels have swelled due to increasingly dire social, political, economic, and environmental crisis.  Yet, many parts of this system are obscure and an “alphabet soup” of agencies and actors can blur clarity on who bears responsibility for what. Part I of this two-part blog post is designed to provide a baseline understanding of key components of our current immigration systems to ground our ongoing dialogue and visioning of a more just system.

A good starting point for understanding our current immigration system is 9/11.  Responding to fear-mongering and xenophobia directed toward immigrants following the terrorist attacks, in 2002 Congress abolished the Immigration and Naturalization Service (then housed under the Department of Labor) and moved all immigration matters into three agencies under the newly established the Department of Homeland Security.  These agencies are: Customs and Border Patrol (“CBP” or Border Patrol); Immigration and Customs Enforcement (“ICE”); Citizenship and Immigration Services (CIS, or USCIS).

Customs and Border Patrol / CBP

CBP is charged with patrolling the border as well as the entire area within 100 miles of it.  Border Patrol agents are the “on-the-ground” officials apprehending immigrants who cross the border outside official Ports of Entry.  Many immigrants actually seek out Border Patrol agents after crossing in order to turn themselves in and formally request asylum, particularly now that the government has instituted a long waiting list to apply for asylum at a Port of Entry.  CBP has been criticized for its central role in the implementation of migrant family separation in 2018; its lack of oversight and screening of agents, enabling the abuse and sexual violence against migrants in their custody; and for illegally turning away asylum seekers by falsely telling them they have no right to apply for such relief.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement / ICE

ICE is the body responsible for detaining and deporting immigrants in violation of immigration law; it also investigates international criminal operations including the smuggling or trafficking of people or contraband into the U.S.  ICE is responsible for immigration raids in homes, workplaces, and in the general public. ICE has ballooned dramatically under Presidents Obama and Trump: the agency currently has a nearly $7 billion budget and detained an average 42,000 people per day in FY2018.  ICE also contracts immigration detention out to for-profit prisons (particularly GEO Group and Corrections Corporation of America/ CoreCivic), who detained 2 out of every 5 immigrants at a cost of $807 million in 2018.

The need for ICE’s existence has been questioned since its creation – even by the conservative Heritage Foundation think tank, which derided the agency as unneccesary after its creation in 2004.  However, the Abolish ICE movement has picked up steam in the past year with increasing criticism of the mass incarceration of immigrants and reports of ICE abuses, including but not limited to:

  • the deaths of 22 immigrants in ICE custody within the last two years tied to poor medical care and maltreatment (with no meaningful accountability), including the young children Jakelin Amei Rosmery Caal Maquin (7) and Felipe Gómez Alonzo (8), and Roxana Hernandez, a transgender asylum seeker;

  • its implication in the family separation crisis, including failure to track separated families and premature deportation of parents without their children;

  • frequent violations of civil liberties, including discriminatory policing, unreasonable searches and seizures, and disregard for due process;

  • the soaring detention and deportation of immigrants, including immigrants with U.S. Citizen families and no criminal records;

  • rampant allegations of sexual abuse, medical and mental health neglect, overcrowding, insufficient food and water, and abusive conditions for immigrants in ICE custody; and

  • ICE agents’ documented history of seizing cash and property for profit using the asset forfeiture laws

Citizenship and Immigration Services / CIS or USCIS

USCIS is responsible for adjudicating immigration petitions including citizenship and asylum applications, granting green cards and work authorization, and providing other immigration-related services.  It is a primarily bureaucratic agency, and unlike CBP and ICE, it is not a law enforcement agency.

Due to severe understaffing of USCIS, the backlog of pending immigration petitions has soared to 2.3 million cases as of March 2019 (more than double the amount in 2018), with substantial increases in case processing time.  The backlog and wait times for case processing form what is known as the “invisible wall,” a massive bureaucratic delay that has dramatically slowed immigrants ability to receive citizenship (and thus be able to vote), green cards, work authorization, family reunification, and more.

Immigration jargon extends to the local level as well. Philadelphia has attracted attention for its “sanctuary” policies, but there is no single law or policy that encapsulates what this means.  “Sanctuary” is a vague and non-legal term that has been used to refer to cities, policies, and entities — such as Philly being a “Sanctuary City” or someone “seeking sanctuary” in a place such as a church.  Sanctuary means different things in each of these contexts.

“Sanctuary City” and Section 287(g)

“Sanctuary City” is a term that generally refers to cities that have municipal laws putting limits on cooperation with the federal government (namely, ICE) to identify, detain and deport undocumented immigrants.  These laws don’t violate federal requirements, but limit the extent to which a city will go “above and beyond” to help ICE detain immigrants. One of the biggest examples of this is 287(g), a section of the Immigration and Nationality Act that enables counties to deputize state and local law enforcement officers to enforce federal immigration law.  Under this policy, a local police officer pulling someone over for speeding would also be empowered to review that person’s immigration status, report them to ICE, and hold them until ICE can pick them up and detain them.  As a self-proclaimed “sanctuary city,” the City of Philadelphia has not implemented such measures: the City’s current policy requires ICE to present a warrant signed by a judge in order for local police to turn an individual over to the agency, and local jails are not required to provide ICE with advance notice of their release.  However, being a “sanctuary city” does not necessarily mean that immigrants are safe here -- ICE is still empowered to conduct its own raids in the community, and being arrested by local police still carries great risks and consequences for immigrants.

“Seeking Sanctuary”

“Seeking sanctuary” typically refers to immigrants who seek refuge in a place of worship to avoid detention or deportation by ICE.  The sanctuary movement dates back to the 1980s, but this practice was reinforced by a 2011 ICE guideline designating a number of “sensitive locations” where raids and detentions should be avoided.  These “sensitive locations” include places of worship, schools, hospitals, and ceremonial events such as weddings, funerals, and parades. As a result, some immigrant individuals and families who are at great risk of detention or deportation have sought long-term refuge in places of worship while they fight their immigration decisions through legal appeals and community organizing.  However, ICE’s practice of respecting “sensitive locations” is only a guideline, not a formal law, and raids within sensitive locations may still occur if it’s believed that there are “exigent circumstances” to detain someone or if an enforcement action is approved by a higher official. Philadelphia has seen more immigrants trying to avoid deportation by taking sanctuary than any other major U.S. city; currently, there are at least three families “in sanctuary” in the city.

Stay tuned for Part II of this blogpost, which will discuss how all of these pieces work together and analyze the systemic oppression of our communities locally and nationally.

Maria ThomsonComment