Richard Vogel / AP

Under Donald Trump’s administration, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, has arrested and deported undocumented immigrants in America with unprecedented zeal. Some Democrats have called for ICE’s abolition in response. But as the Atlantic national correspondent Franklin Foer argues in our new cover story, the same effect might be achieved by “not smashing the system, but returning it to a not-so-distant past.” Reforming immigration policy doesn’t require radical rethinking. In fact, only a few years ago the government didn’t primarily treat the nation’s 11 million undocumented immigrants as a policing problem.

Frank’s story, “How Trump Radicalized ICE,” went live this week. It’s a sprawling read that reflects the unspooled bureaucracy of its subject. We bring you annotations: a briefing on the current issues that define the agency, and a conversation with Frank about possible structural reforms.

The Masthead Briefing: ICE Under Pressure

By Karen Yuan and Caroline Kitchener

  • The Trump administration has called on Congress to grow ICE at a breakneck pace. The White House is pressing for more than $8 billion next year to fund just the part of the agency that works on deportations. That’s up from $2.8 billion in 2014. Budget increases support more enforcement personnel and faster deportations, but often at the cost of funding other programs such as disaster-mitigation grants and counterterrorism efforts that fall under ICE’s parent agency, the Department of Homeland Security. ICE’s rapid expansion has invited concern over hiring and training standards for ICE’s numerous new agents.

  • ICE agents have been empowered to operate more aggressively. Under the Trump administration, enforcement operations have targeted immigrants who have committed minor criminal offenses, as well as immigrants without criminal records. In total, arrests have more than doubled in the past year. The president has also taken important symbolic action, including pardoning Joe Arpaio, the former sheriff known for his harsh treatment of immigrant detainees. “The handcuffs are taken off of our individual officers,” said Henry Lucero, who directs Arizona’s ICE operations. “Now if we encounter you, there is a very great chance you’re going to be arrested.”

  • Democrats diverge on whether to “abolish ICE.” Earlier this summer, a small but vocal group of Democrats began rallying around the idea of abolishing ICE. Exactly what that proposal means depends on who you speak to, and ICE will loudly point out that it isn’t technically the agency separating families at the border. (That’s Customs and Border Protection, but both are part of an enforcement-oriented immigration system.) Still, the idea of abolishing an immigration agency immediately became a conservative vehicle for painting Democrats as “weak on law enforcement.” Several Democratic staffers told The Atlantic’s Elaine Godfrey that the movement to abolish ICE is “unrealistic.”

  • ICE has scrambled the ideological positions of the parties. Conservatives passed a largely symbolic resolution in early July lauding ICE agents as “brave” and “heroic.” Following the president’s lead, conservatives are backing ICE’s heavy-handed approach toward enforcement and regulation. That’s a shift from a more laissez-faire attitude toward governance that prevailed among conservatives not long ago. Meanwhile, Democrats critical of ICE have adopted the view that a lighter touch from government would be better for the nation.

ICE Is a Bureaucratic Problem Child

Franklin Foer writes that ICE is a kind of Frankenstein’s agency. It was created after 9/11 by merging two government arms that never really wanted to work together in the first place. It contains an immigration arm, called Enforcement and Removal Operations (ERO), that was drawn from the former Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS). ERO is the part of the agency that manages deportations. But ICE also contains a wing to investigate customs issues, called Homeland Security Investigations (HSI). Formerly part of the Treasury Department, it is in charge of high-level transnational crime, among other issues. The two parts of ICE don’t get along.

We spoke with Frank about this dysfunction. Here is a selection of his answers. If you want to go deeper, you can read the full transcript of our conversation.

Karen Yuan: The public often views the two arms of ICE as one and the same. Some HSI agents have petitioned Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen to split their agency off from ERO. What would separating them accomplish?

Franklin Foer: HSI deals with transnational crime, such as child pornography and terrorism investigations. The guys who work there don’t like being lumped together as part of ICE, because they have nothing to do with the excesses that ERO is supposedly guilty of.

In the bureaucratic pecking order, HSI sits above ERO. They have a higher classification in federal law enforcement, and they’ve had a more favorable pay structure for a long time. One thing that rankled ERO was that HSI agents were able to take their cars home. Those little things mattered. Arguably, if you took HSI out of ICE, then maybe ERO wouldn’t feel a sense of resentment or inferiority, and maybe that would have some sort of impact on the culture of the organization.

But I think at this stage, so much resentment is baked into the way that ERO thinks of itself. It’s hard to see that being quickly solved.

Caroline Kitchener: There are so many people in the country who really believe in what ERO is doing. Where did this perception as the lower-status organization come from, and why did it stick around?

Frank: The job is extremely hard. There’s not a whole lot of glamour to it. The powers of ERO officers are constrained because of the way the job descriptions are written into federal regulations: They don’t have the power to execute a search warrant. ERO officers aren’t trained to do something as basic as evidence collection. That inferiority is part of the bureaucratic structure of the organization.

Most other federal law enforcement jobs require applicants to have a college degree. ERO only requires a high-school education. It’s perceived as an entry point into federal law enforcement, but not necessarily the place you would seek a career.

In a lot of ways, the demands of the immigration system, which is civil, are not perceived to be as complicated as the demands of the criminal-justice system. You’re not building complicated cases that require years of preparation. An immigration case is usually much more straightforward: Is this person in the country illegally or not? It’s not like you need to be able to track bank records.

Caroline: You write that the solution doesn’t lie in abolishing ICE or “smashing the system,” but in returning it to the “not-so-distant past.” So after all of your months of research, what do you think a truly effective immigration-policing policy might look like?

Frank: Before there was ICE, the immigration agency we’re talking about largely resided in INS, which was part of the Department of Justice. It wasn’t an amazingly functional organization, but there were virtues to the way the structure had been set up. Just look at the words in the title: immigration and naturalization. Part of the agency was devoted to turning immigrants into citizens. The policy that came out of INS, I think, was much more holistic than the policy that’s made at the Department of Homeland Security.

Now that whole process has been disaggregated and separated into different agencies. As part of DHS, ICE is focused on national security. I would argue that weighting the mission of the agency so heavily in one direction creates assumptions about immigrants that gets transmitted all the way down to the people on the front lines.

There needs to be immigration reform. Two-thirds of the country’s 11 million undocumented immigrants have been here for a decade or longer. They are Americans, I would argue, and so the system needs to take them out of ICE’s sight. Stripping the system of millions of targets will end up curbing, almost inherently, the worst abuses. To me, that should be the highest priority. I understand why people rhetorically focus on the abolition of ICE, but that seems to me misguided.

Today’s Wrap Up

  • Today’s Question: Got an unpopular opinion that you’d like to discuss in a productive conversation? Reply to this email with it. We’re planning our next Masthead debate.

  • What’s Coming: On Wednesday, the Atlantic newsroom weighs in on the Masthead summer-book-club picks, Timothy Snyder’s The Road to Unfreedom and Tara Westover’s Educated.

  • Your Feedback: Click the button below.

We want to hear what you think about this article. Submit a letter to the editor or write to