Immigration Reform

ICE: Who they are, what they do, and why people are organizing against the agency

ICE, which stands for Immigration and Customs Enforcement, came into the spotlight on July 6, 2020 for announcing that international students with nonimmigrant visas in the Student and Exchange Visitor Program would not be able to remain in the United States if their college courses were to be fully online in the fall semester.

The announcement created a whirlwind of uncertainty for international students across the country, suddenly confronted with a surprising and massive shift in their futures. Furthering the anxiety, their adjustments would be limited because many US colleges were still preparing or had completely finalized their decisions about whether to reopen in the fall.

In response, the world of higher education took action to protect international students. Two of the nation’s most prestigious colleges, Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, joined together to sue ICE and the Department of Homeland Security over the rule. Colleges and universities across the US were quick to support this move, with over 200 of them signing court briefs to back the lawsuit. ICE’s rule was successfully rescinded on July 14, 2020 to the relief of many students and higher education officials. 



In light of the immediate opposition with which institutions of higher education responded to ICE, many have pointed out that the intense drive to protect nonimmigrant international students is radically different from how colleges and universities treat immigrant students, especially students who are undocumented.

Three states, Alabama, South Carolina and Georgia, ban undocumented people from attending public universities. There may be some exceptions for people in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program in Alabama and South Carolina, in Georgia this isn’t considered whatsoever. 

Barriers faced by undocumented students in terms of higher education are certainly not limited to these three states, however. A majority of states demand that these students pay out of state tuition, putting higher education out of reach for many, especially because undocumented students are barred from applying for federal financial aid. 

These policies have a profound impact. The latest estimates show that about 98,000 undocumented students graduate from US high schools every year, but just 5-10% of all undocumented high school students are able to enroll in college. This percentage is not to be dismissed, however; it represents more than 454,000 current college students working towards their degrees.

While many undocumented students experience financial hardship that limits their ability to access higher education, there are more than 1 million international students who are currently pursuing degrees in the United States. Most of these students are also ineligible for federal financial aid, but this doesn’t usually prevent their access to higher education, since they tend to experience more economic advantages than undocumented students on average.

Over the last decade, deep cuts in state funding for higher education have put pressure on schools to admit more students who need less aid, which is why so many schools have come to put a lot of value on the revenue gained from international students. While it can be dangerous to discuss human beings in terms of the capital they are able to provide for institutions of higher education, it is still important to consider how socioeconomic status can affect one’s ability to receive protection from ICE.

ICE: A history

The Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency was created in 2003 in response to the 9/11 attacks on New York City and Washington DC. Part of the Department of Homeland Security, ICE was granted a unique combination of civil and criminal authorities to “better protect national security and strengthen public safety,” according to their website. 

However, many now recognize that during the agency’s 17 year history, it has diverged from its mission statement, instead instilling fear in the lives of people who are not a danger to national security or public safety, facilitating the separation of parents and children, keeping children in cages, illegally detaining children and adults in hotels, and being dismissive of the impact of COVID-19 health care concerns for people in detention centers due to overcrowding.


This graph shows the high positive COVID-19 test rate for migrants in ICE custody compared to several US states. Source: Center for American Progress.


In order to understand the agency’s impact, it is crucial to understand how they operate. ICE now has more than 20,000 law enforcement and support personnel in more than 400 offices in the United States and internationally. The agency has an annual budget of approximately $8 billion, primarily devoted to three operational directorates — Homeland Security Investigations (HSI), Enforcement and Removal Operations (ERO) and Office of the Principal Legal Advisor (OPLA). A fourth directorate – Management and Administration (M&A) – supports the three operational branches.

The Enforcement and Removal Operations (ERO) branch conducts deportation proceedings. The ERO manages identification and arrest, domestic transportation, detention, bond management, and supervised release, including alternatives to detention. Congressional interest in alternatives to detention has increased in recent years due to a number of factors, most importantly that ICE does not have the capacity to detain all the people who are apprehended and subject to removal, a total that reached nearly 400,000 in the 2018 fiscal year. 

Immigration and ICE in Chicago, Illinois

In July, ICE’s office of Enforcement and Removal Operations in Chicago came into the spotlight by announcing a 6 week “Citizens Academy” program on immigration enforcement that would begin in September. While not the first Citizens Academy to be put forth by ICE, this is the first to focus on the work of the ERO and would serve as a pilot for nationwide implementation. 

US citizens in Chicago that signed up for the program would “participate in scenario-based training and exercises conducted in a safe and positive environment, including, but not limited to defensive tactics, firearms familiarization, and targeted arrests,” according to the invitation letter sent out by Field Office Director Robert Guadian.

The Citizens Academy was met with strong opposition, especially given its local context. Chicago became a sanctuary city in 2006, meaning that the city government will not deny people services based on their immigration status. In 2012, Chicago added its Welcoming City Ordinance, stating that the city government chooses not to partner with ICE to deport undocumented individuals because “it would go against our mission to make Chicago the most immigrant friendly city in the country and turn ours into a community of fear for immigrants.” 


Sanctuary city sticker on Michigan Avenue on Feb. 7, 2017. Photo courtesy of Antonio Pérez from the Chicago Tribune.


To the efforts ICE wanted to put forth for September, US Representative Jesús “Chuy” García (D-Illinois) responded by stating that “These ‘academies’ are nothing more than taxpayer-funded PR stunts to improve the image of an agency that continues to cage migrant children in inhumane and deadly detention centers. The launch of a pilot Enforcement and Removals Office (ERO) Citizens Academy in Chicago directly contradicts the Department of Homeland Security’s claims of being too cash-strapped to carry out core components of their mission.” 

Rep. Jesus Garcia and Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Illinois) supported the move of Rep. Mike Quigley (D-Illinois), who presented an amendment to the Homeland Security funding bill for the 2021 fiscal year that denies funding for the program. The amendment passed along with the full DHS bill in the House, but has yet to be decided on in the Senate, as of now the Citizens Academy will take place this fall.

The House Appropriations Committee reached out to ICE to raise concerns about the ERO program, so ICE issued a statement to clarify that it will show participants how ICE agents make arrests, not how to make arrests themselves. However, many are still worried that its original ambiguous language will draw participants who are vehemently anti-immigrant.

Organizing against ICE

The deadline to apply for the Citizens Academy was July 30, but one organization didn’t let that slip under their radar. Never Again Action is a Jewish political action organization that uses nonviolent methods of civil disobedience to protest ICE and its detention centers.


Demonstrators take part in the Never Again Para Nadie protest, led by Jewish groups, against ICE Detention camps in Boston on July 2, 2019. Photo courtesy of Brian Snyder / Reuters.


The organization called for people to submit fake applications to the Citizens Academy, effectively prompting thousands of people to overwhelm ICE’s application process. It remains to be seen how the Chicago ERO office handles the fake applications.

ICE: The latest updates

Despite Harvard and MIT’s joint lawsuit being lauded as a grand victory against ICE, it turns out that the protection will only apply for current international students already studying in the US, not the incoming class. Harvard, which will conduct its classes remotely come fall, wrote to first-year international students to let them know that they will be unable to enter the US with a visa. The policy doesn’t look likely to be changed in time for the fall semester, so these students are being met with a profound rejection.

This is not the only challenge ICE is posing. The agency came into the national spotlight in July yet again for detaining migrant children and parents in a Hampton hotel in McAllen, Texas and forcibly throwing out the civil rights lawyers acting in their defense on July 23, 2020. 


This image was posted to Instagram by the Texas Civil Rights Project on July 23, 2020. Families inside the Hampton Inn Hotel were asking for help and stating they had no phones. Photo courtesy of Roberto Alejandro Lopez.


The Texas Civil Rights Project and the American Civil Liberties Union sued the Department of Homeland Security, ICE’s parent agency, in federal court for “stashing children in a hotel at the border, away from advocates and lawyers, in order to hurriedly expel them without hearings or any of the mandatory protections.” The suit was successful and unaccompanied children were transferred to the Office of Refugee Resettlement, but the calls for an investigation into the illegal tactic of secret detention are growing ever louder.

What can you do to help honor human dignity?

These examples of ICE’s activity shed light on the deeply disturbing manner in which the agency doesn’t serve to honor the dignity of anyone affected by it. When you hear calls for the abolition of ICE, you can take a moment to recognize why that movement has gained traction. 

You can also join more than 40,000 people who are urging Congress to investigate the illegal detention of people in hotels by personalizing this message from the Texas Civil Rights Project: 

Finally, you can consider that if over 200 colleges and universities can ban against the injustice of federal agencies deciding to kick out international students amid a pandemic, they also have the power to remove policy barriers for undocumented students pursuing their goals. If the mission of higher education is indeed to educate students, facilitate research and build a better future, it is imperative that every young mind have the opportunity to dream fearlessly in the educational system. 

The first step towards justice is by becoming aware of injustice, so we thank you for taking that first step today. We look forward to what you will do next.

Featured image: Photo courtesy of Abel Uribe from the Chicago Tribune.

Natalia Johnson | University of Minnesota
Natalia is a rising senior at the University of Minnesota, where she is pursuing a double major in Spanish and sociology. Although she was born and raised in the US, Natalia is a bicultural woman who has had the privilege of traveling to Costa Rica to visit her mother’s side of the family. She has used her Spanish language abilities working as a translator for the Volunteer Lawyers Network and as a National Asylum Help Line Responder at the Advocates for Human Rights, experiences that instilled in her a passion for social justice and immigrant advocacy. Natalia is a firm believer in empathy and the power of communication. As an Immigration Writer, she hopes to bring immigrant experiences into the national narrative and will use her platform to spotlight organizations that provide hope during these extremely difficult times.