But lawmakers have largely ignored the issue. Until now.
A House bill introduced Thursday would bar ICE agents and officers from wearing clothing that bears the label “police.” It also would affect agents and officers with U.S. Customs and Border Protection.
The bill’s author, Rep. Nydia M. Velázquez (D-N.Y.), argues that the practice is “deceptive” and could discourage people from reporting crime to their local police because of fears they’ll be reported to federal authorities for deportation.
“It could trick families into opening their doors to agents from ICE without a warrant,” Velázquez told The Washington Post. “There’s not going to be a lot of trust between the police and the communities.”
Sarah Rodriguez, an ICE spokeswoman, told CNN that “police” is “the universally recognized term for law enforcement.”
“Our personnel routinely interact with individuals from around the world,” she said. “In the often dangerous law enforcement arena, being able to immediately identify yourself as law enforcement may be a life-or-death issue.”
Velázquez, whose district includes Brooklyn, Lower Manhattan and Queens, acknowledged that the practice isn’t new, but she said it’s a problem now because of significant changes in deportation policies and the anti-immigrant rhetoric that has come out of the Trump administration.
“No one can dispute the fact that hate crimes and hate rhetoric have increased since Donald Trump made it to the White House,” Velázquez said. “You didn’t see that when Obama was in the White House. Yes, Obama deported a high number of undocumented people … but we didn’t see that kind of fear.”
Velázquez’s bill, which would amend a section of the Immigration and Nationality Act, comes as the Trump administration has empowered ICE agents to more aggressively pursue and detain undocumented immigrants. A February memo by Secretary of Homeland Security John F. Kelly details sweeping new guidelines to crack down on illegal immigration.
The arrests have caused heightened tension between federal and local officials, particularly in what are known as sanctuary cities.
In February, Los Angeles city leaders wrote a letter to David Marin, ICE’s deputy field office director, demanding that agents stop referring to themselves as police officers.
“In Los Angeles, the term ‘police’ is synonymous with the Los Angeles Police Department, so for ICE agents to represent themselves as police misleads the public into believing they are interacting with LAPD,” the letter states. “This is especially corrosive given that to advance public safety, LAPD does not initiate police action with the objective of determining a person’s immigration status.”
The letter was signed by Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, City Attorney Mike Feuer, and City Council President Herb J. Wesson.
In a statement about the letter, the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California said the practice “exploit(s) city policies that assure immigrant residents they can cooperate with the police without fear of deportation.”
ICE met similar criticisms in Hartford, Conn., another sanctuary city.
“All law enforcement officials, not acting in an undercover capacity, working in our community should be readily identified by the agencies that they represent,” Hartford Police Chief James Rovella said in a statement. “ICE agents should not identify as local police as it is misleading and can damage the important relationship with our local communities.”
The legislation was applauded by advocacy groups, including Make the Road New York, a local nonprofit organization that helps Latinos.
“Having the word ‘police’ on their vests is a central part of that strategy to enter people’s homes without warrants to tear families apart,” Javier H. Valdes, a co-executive director of the organization, said in a statement. “Not only does this lead to the violation of people’s rights and family separation — it also makes everyone less safe, as it reduces trust in local law enforcement when people think that the police are immigration agents.”
But Velázquez said she isn’t under any “illusion” that the bill will see the light of day in a Republican-controlled House.
“What I can tell you is that we need to bring attention and call the attention of the White House and Homeland Security that there are ways to implement immigration in communities without instilling fear,” she said.