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CIANA Explains: ICE, CBP, and Other Federal Immigration Agencies

In the years following the 9/11 attacks, the United States passed the Homeland Security Act which created the immigration enforcement system that operates today. The Act was responsible for the founding of numerous federal agencies within the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), including Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), Customs and Border Protection (CBP), and Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), all of which play unique roles in the application of immigration laws.

Prior to 2003, immigration matters were dealt with through the Department of Commerce and the Department of Labor. As the Department of Homeland Security took over many of these matters and expanded its control, the U.S. government’s approach towards immigration transformed as well. Although the government’s stance became more rigid on immigration in the decades prior to 2003, the creation of the various new agencies substantiated it considerably.

The DHS’s immigration agencies, particularly ICE and CBP in the last four years, have been subject to much public debate. There are growing numbers of reports which point to the agencies’ role in numerous human rights violations, excessive enforcement tactics, conflicting responsibilities, and an overall brutal approach. The Abolish ICE movement gained support in 2018 as news spread about the inhumane and cruel strategies, including family separations, employed to detain immigrants at the border and within the continental U.S. This movement sparked a nationwide discussion on if, and how, a reformed immigration enforcement system can be implemented. Or, perhaps, even the abolishment of the system as we know it today.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE)

In 2002, ICE was created with the mission “to better protect national security and strengthen public safety” in the United States. It is comprised of two main divisions. The first is the Enforcement and Removal Operations (ERO) division which enforces immigration laws, detaining and deporting those who violate them. The second is the Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) division which investigates international criminal operations such as the illegal trade of goods, weapons, and drugs, and the trafficking of people into the U.S. The funding of ICE has grown substantially over the past decade. When ICE was first created, Congress approved $3.6 billion in appropriations; in the latest budget, it increased to $6.9 billion. A study from the Center of Migration Studies notes that the average number of daily ICE detainees has gone from 21,000 in 2003 to 38,000 in 2017nearly doubling.

Customs and Border Patrol (CBP)

While ICE is responsible for enforcing immigration laws within the U.S., CBP is responsible for enforcing immigration laws at and around the U.S. borders. They control the 325 ports of U.S. entry and are the largest uniformed law enforcement agency in the nation. Prior to the creation of CBP in 2003, the borders were supervised by various organizations. Now, CPB has the complete jurisdiction to “detect and apprehend illegal aliens and smugglers of aliens at or near the land border.” Some of their main roles are to maintain traffic checkpoints along highways leading from border areas, conduct city patrol and transportation checks, and investigate smuggling cases. The pilot program, also known as the “El Paso program,” began in mid-2017. Under this new program, adults who crossed the Southern border without permission were detained and criminally charged. There was no exception for parents, and the children of these parents were taken from them with no promise of being reunited. There was no system in place to do so, and thousands of families were divided. Over 600 of these families have still not been reunited. Due to the mounting attention and resistance to the program, President Trump signed an executive order in 2018 directing DHS to stop the family separations, except in the case the parent poses a risk to their child.

Controversy and Public Advocacy

When President Trump was inagurated, the ICE’s acting director warned undocumented immigrants: “You should look over your shoulder, and you need to be worried,” paving the way for the anti-immigration and “zero-tolerance” sentiment that the federal government backed throughout Trump’s presidency. Early in 2017, Trump signed an executive order targeting undocumented immigrants within the U.S., regardless of criminal histories.

ICE then began adopting tactics like using decades-old misdemeanors as grounds for arrest of individuals who had been U.S. residents for a long time, focusing mainly on individuals from Latin American and Muslim countries. One Mexican national who had become a legal resident in California in 1988, for example, was arrested on his own front lawn due to a misdemeanor charge from 2001.

There was also a significant increase in ICE raids at workplaces, arrests at courthouses, and abuses of power by ICE agents. In 2017, ICE agents in Salem, Ohio arrested 146 employees at a meat processing plant. Only two weeks earlier, ICE had detained hundreds of workers at a nursery, leaving 100 children without their parents. The arrests at courthouses prompted many immigrants to fear calling the police or getting federal help for domestic violence situations. There have been recent reports in New York City of ICE agents impersonating the NYPD as a fear tactic, prompting Mayor Bill de Blasio to issue a statement asking them to halt this approach due to public safety risks.

The Abolish ICE Movement

Due to the increased use of these ICE strategies, the #AbolishICE movement has gone from a social justice campaign to a more firmly establish

ed political stance. Although the actual number of deportations has decreased following the Obama administration, the skyrocketing of migrant apprehensions at the U.S.-Mexico border and the 2018 family separations (although performed by CBP), have brought ICE to the forefront of debates on U.S. immigration and on human rights.

Numerous federal lawsuits in 17 different states were filed in response to the El Paso Program’s family separations. In the ACLU’s class-action suit, the judge issued a national injunction, requiring the reunification of thousands of immigrant families. Hundreds of parents had already been deported without their children when the DHS halted the El Paso program due to the public backlash, and the ACLU and other organizations are still working to reunite these families.

As the Brennan Center for Justice notes, the abolishment of ICE would mean that other parts of the government would likely take over their responsibilities, potentially splitting them between different jurisdictions. Wisconsin Representative Mark Pocan proposed anti-ICE legislation to “[examine] the agency’s functions to determine how some capabilities — like investigations of gang violence, drug and human trafficking, and organized crime (most of which fall to HSI) — could be transferred to other agencies.” The Vice President-Elect Kamala Harris has proposed a “complete overhaul of the agency, mission, culture and operations” of ICE; however, she has not been said to support a complete abolishment.

The Biden administration begins their term this coming January and has promised to reverse many of the current restrictive immigration policies. Joe Biden has promised to temporarily halt deportations, stop the border separations and reunite families, cease border wall construction, and end the travel ban from Muslim majority countries. He has also promised to begin the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program again and increase refugee admissions.

It will be a challenging course to undo the past decades of anti-immigration sentiment in The United States, but as the Migration Policy Institute’s immigration policy brief mentions, “The incoming administration faces opportunities to work with Congress to build a 21st century immigration system, one with an immigrant selection system that can flexibly respond to changing economic and labor market conditions, that creates a pathway to legal status for unauthorized immigrants who are contributing members of U.S. society, and that rethinks its visa categories to attract and retain desired global talent.”


For information on your rights during encounters with ICE, please visit


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