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Fact Sheet: Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE)

Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) plays a large role in how the U.S. immigration system operates. It is a relatively new agency and with media attention on family separation, worksite raids, well-publicized enforcement actions, and poor detention conditions, there is growing controversy over the agency.

What is ICE?

ICE is a federal law enforcement agency that carries out immigration enforcement and other activities. Taking over many of the enforcement functions of the former Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) upon the creation the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) in 2003, ICE focuses on enforcement in the interior of the U.S. Created by the enactment of the Homeland Security Act of 2002, which was signed into law by President George W. Bush following the events on 9/11, ICE has three main functions: immigration enforcement, investigation of illegal movement of people and goods, and the prevention of terrorism.

What is ICE’s focus?

In recent years, ICE’s activities have increasingly focused on interior immigration enforcement. In fiscal year (FY) 2009, ICE made 297,898 arrests for violations of immigration laws and the number declined each year through FY2016 – until the trend reversed between FY2016 and FY2017, where arrests climbed from 110,104 to 143,470.

The number of individuals apprehended without a criminal record has been increasing under the Trump Administration. On average, 4,143 undocumented immigrants without a criminal record have been arrested each month since January 2017, more than double the 1,703 per month average during November and December of 2016.

ICE also detains immigrants through its management of the nation’s civil immigration detention system.

In addition, ICE works with other agencies to carry out the detention, enforcement, and placement of undocumented children and adults. The agency works closely with Customs and Border Protection (CBP), whose officers enforce immigration law at the borders and ports of entry specifically. ICE also works with the Department of Health and Human Services’ (HHS) Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR), which assumed responsibility of detaining and caring for unaccompanied migrant children after INS was restructured.

How big is ICE?

Currently, ICE has more than 20,000 employees with 400 offices around the U.S. and abroad. Since the agency’s creation, the number of ERO officers alone has doubled from 3,000 to 6,000 while HSI currently consists of 8,500 employees. The ICE budget at its inception was only $3.3 billion and, as of FY2018, has increased to $7.5 billion.

What are the sub-agencies within ICE?

ICE has four sub-agencies, along with a Management and Administration directorate:

  • Enforcement and Removal Operations (ERO) – $4.8 billion budget
    • Mission: “To identify, arrest, and remove aliens who present a danger to national security or are a risk to public safety, as well as those who enter the United States illegally or otherwise undermine the integrity of our immigration laws and our border control efforts.”
    • ERO is the ICE sub-agency that carries out most of the high-profile immigration enforcement activities that have been the subject of political controversy, including large-scale enforcement actions and the management of detention centers, which have been recently found by the Office of the Inspector General (OIG) to not meet basic standards.
  • Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) – $2 billion budget
    • Mission: To “combat criminal organizations illegally exploiting America’s travel, trade, financial and immigration systems” by serving as an investigative arm of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS).
    • HSI has broad legal authority to enforce a diverse array of federal statutes, allowing the agency to investigate crimes such as human smuggling and trafficking, transnational gang activity, and financial crimes.
    • Citing the political nature of ICE’s recent enforcement posture, and the negative impact that has had on HSI, a recent letter by nineteen special agents in charge of regional offices for HSI asked that their division be separated from ICE.

Does ICE prioritize which immigrants should be targeted for removal?            

Not currently. Under President Trump’s January 2017 executive order on interior enforcement, priorities for removal are set out as several categories of equal priority, including open-ended categories such as “committed acts that constitute a chargeable criminal offense” and “pose a risk to public safety or national security” in the subjective judgment of an immigration officer. Taken together, a “prioritization” of the entire undocumented population is in effect, regardless of threat level to public safety.

The policy of “prioritizing” the entire undocumented population is a departure from previous enforcement policies that differentiated between “high-priority” immigrants who posed a threat to public safety based on previous criminal convictions and “low priority” immigrants who did not pose a threat.

Even when ICE agents carry out a targeted enforcement action against a targeted individual or group, they regularly arrest non-priority, non-criminal undocumented people they may encounter in the vicinity as a “collateral” arrest.

What is the sensitive locations memo?

In 2011, former ICE director John Morton released the sensitive locations memo, which established restrictions for enforcement actions. The memo explicitly barred ICE officers and agents from engaging in enforcement actions at schools, hospitals, churches, funerals, weddings, and public demonstrations.

In 2017, ICE clarified that the sensitive locations memo is still in effect. However, the agency interprets the memo narrowly, carrying out enforcement activities at sensitive locations not explicitly covered by the memo, including a church-affiliated hypothermia shelter, at courthouses, and at school bus stops.

What’s ICE’s role in incarcerating immigrants?

Within ICE, ERO is responsible for the managing and overseeing the immigrant detention system, including both adult detention and family detention. This includes managing detention centers and individuals released from custody as part of ERO’s “nondetained” docket. Both “detained” and “nondetained” cases are under the management of ERO as they move through immigration court proceedings.

Unique among federal law enforcement agencies, Congress requires ICE to maintain a specified number of detention beds through the federal appropriations process. For FY 2018, Congress set that number at 40,520 detention beds. As of November 2017, ICE held immigrants in 1,478 adult detention facilities in every U.S. state, including federal facilities, county jails, hospitals, and even a handful of hotels. The majority of ICE detainees are held in private prisons operated by federal contractors. Remaining detainees are held in local jails under Inter-Governmental Service Agreements or U.S. Marshal Service Intergovernmental Agreements, contractual arrangements between federal authorities and local governments. These local jails regularly subcontract with private, for-profit companies to operate the facilities.

What’s ICE’s role in worksite enforcement?

HSI, a sub-agency of ICE, conducts worksite enforcement. The agency investigates worksites, including employees and employers, and apprehends those found in violation of federal law. Though this initiative is heavily focused on punishing employers who are knowingly violating the law, it is common for undocumented immigrant workers to be placed in deportation proceedings upon apprehension if they are found to have entered the country illegally.

Worksite enforcement has since increased drastically during the Trump administration. In October 2017, former ICE acting director Homan, pledged to quadruple the number of raids. As of May 2018, the number of enforcement investigations was already double that of last year.

What’s ICE’s role in addressing gang violence?

HSI works to combat transnational gang activity through the operation of its National Gang Unit (NGU) and initiative such as Operation Community Shield. This strategy forms partnerships between federal and local law enforcement to “combat the growth and proliferation” of transnational gangs. Most notably, HSI has concentrated its efforts on MS-13, a Salvadoran gang that is associated with targeting and recruiting in immigrant communities. HSI reports it made over 4,800 gang-related arrests in FY2017, including 555 criminal arrests related to MS-13 specifically.

Can ICE be abolished?

Like any government agency, ICE can be abolished, but it is unlikely that it will be completely eliminated any time soon. Instead, it is more likely that ICE would be reorganized, restructured, and/or renamed. As a law enforcement agency, ICE has many functions that are pertinent to public safety and national security, such as HSI and its investigations into transnational crime, as well as ERO’s interior enforcement and detention functions. Each administration sets its priorities for enforcement, emphasizing various functions over others, consistent with existing law. A reorganized ICE may see its responsibilities limited, clarified, or handed off to another agency, but its core enforcement functions are likely to remain.


The National Immigration Forum would like to thank Sydney Cerza, policy intern, for her extensive contributions to this fact sheet.

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