Rebranding at ICE meant to soften immigration enforcement agency's image

(Eduardo Verdugo - AP)
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By Andrew Becker
Thursday, June 17, 2010

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement will realign its duties to promote criminal investigations over immigrant deportation, officials have announced.

By streamlining and renaming several offices, officials hope to highlight the agency's counterterrorism, money laundering and other complex criminal investigations and in the process "re-brand" ICE, turning the public -- and political -- spotlight away from its immigration work.

ICE Assistant Secretary John Morton said that immigration enforcement remains a top priority but that the intention of the image makeover is to show the agency's "true face."

"Public perception is dominated by civil immigration enforcement responsibilities, even though half of the agency is devoted to something else," Morton said recently after announcing the changes to ICE employees. "We're not going to get away from immigration. It's very important from a national security perspective."

The realignment also aims to address ICE's identity crisis, which the agency has struggled with for years. Morton said in an e-mail to employees that one of his priorities "was to give a clearer sense of identity and focus."

The agency will have a new reporting alignment with three main directorates: investigations, immigration and management. ICE will consolidate its civil immigration duties into a new Enforcement and Removal Operations division. The office, formerly known as detention and removal operations, took the brunt of criticism.

Immigration advocates have expressed skepticism about an agency trying to rehabilitate its image without first making substantive changes. They say ICE is stricter than it was under the previous administration with enforcement, and problems persist with immigration detention. Most of the $5.5 billion in discretionary funds for ICE's 2011 budget request pays for efforts to lock up and deport immigrants.

"ICE has more than a branding problem. You can't rebrand yourself out of a misallocation of resources," said Ali Noorani, executive director of the National Immigration Forum. Noorani hopes "ICE is doing stuff about stopping terrorists," he said, "but the public doesn't know about it. The public only knows ICE is going after immigrants."

Worksite raids and neighborhood sweeps that targeted illegal immigrants have helped shape ICE's image. The agency is hounded, too, by reports of poor treatment of noncitizens in ICE custody and allegations that the agency's rigid policies break up immigrant families. The agency has faced criticism over medical care for detainees, hiding the truth about deaths in detention and setting quotas for deportations.

In recent months, the White House has hosted several meetings with immigration advocates frustrated with ICE. The Obama administration has vowed to reform the nation's immigration detention system.

Efforts to overhaul the detention network, which locks up about 30,000 immigrants nightly in hundreds of federal, contract and local jails nationwide, have hit snags. Shortly after the reforms were announced last year, the first director of the new office to oversee the changes left the agency.

Moreover, there's a fundamental inconsistency as the administration pursues immigration reform while ICE still deports 1,100 people daily, said Marshall Fitz, director of immigration policy at the Center for American Progress

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