Homeland Security Investigations: The Most Powerful Agency You Never Heard Of

An op-ed

A photo of last month’s protest in downtown Portland against the HSI office at One City Center, posted on Facebook by the group Maine Immigrant Allies.

Soon after word got out that the 4th floor of One City Center in Portland would be home to a new Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) office, the community mobilized to show its opposition to an increasingly brutal immigration system and to show solidarity with the immigrant communities. On Nov. 4, at 5 p.m., the community will rally again, this time at Portland City Hall, in protest and solidarity.

In mid-October, the Portland Press Herald reported on the new office and the protests. Sadly, little was said about the post-9/11 George W. Bush creation, Homeland Security Investigations (HSI; the agency within ICE that will occupy the office space), beyond what was easily found on its website or said by officials. Nor did the article contextualize larger issues with the little-known agency, so readers could easily get the impression that HSI is benign and this is all the concern of a few activists.

Beacon, the online news site of the Maine People’s Alliance, ran a piece more sympathetic to the concerns of the immigrant community that quoted community members at length. “The immigrant community cannot do this on our own,” Portland City Councilor Pious Ali told Beacon. “This country was built on the backs of people of color.” The article also made more effort to explain to the reader the moral imperatives ICE creates, beyond simple slogans.

Unfortunately, the Beacon piece relied on claims made in the Press Herald article regarding the nature of HSI. So at this point, little has been reported in the Maine press about what HSI actually does, beyond the carefully crafted words of HSI spokesmen.

Local police departments have long used “kitten rescues stories” to burnish their image, and HSI has no lack of similar feel-good stories, ranging from returning stolen mummies to nabbing child molesters. But an engaged citizen should be skeptical of such marketing. (Maintaining skepticism may be difficult if one still thinks it’s a tough call whether or not to endorse torture.)

In such a fragmented country as the United States, it can be challenging to offer truly universal ideals. Nonetheless, I would argue there exists a commonplace notion of “we the people,” as well as what said people deserve from society. As such, one can view HSI’s operations as an effort to narrow who counts as people. They do this through workplace terror, taking property, stripping citizenship, and providing technology and funds to the more public deportation arm of ICE.

One Family’s Nightmare is Another Reporter’s Controversy

To start, let’s examine the potentially overlooked points of ideology and the uncontested statements in the Press Herald article, “New ICE office in downtown Portland draws protests.”

  1. The article frames those who oppose ICE as “activists.” Why not call them what they also are: “community members” or “neighbors”?
  2. The piece quotes at length a response from an ICE official that the HSI office is not involved with ICE’s Enforcement and Removal Operations (ERO). As we will see later, this is rhetorical sleight-of-hand.
  3. The paper characterizes recent ICE actions as a “controversial crackdown on illegal immigrants.” Amnesty International uses different language, calling the situation nightmarish.

The second point is the most obscuring. While the reporter did make some effort to interview a few sources of countervailing opinion, he ignored a wealth of reporting and articles that greatly contest the notion of HSI’s self-styled banality. The following sections examine the lesser-known aspects of HSI, the most powerful agency you never heard of.

Terrorizing Immigrant Workers

With today’s actual Pinkertons training your CEO how to survive a Mad Max climate scenario, who will pick up the slack of terrorizing workers on behalf of bosses? In the case of immigrant workers — who are, in fact, workers just like you or I — HSI is doing its part to fill the gap.

This past August, HSI conducted one of the largest public workplace raids in American history, involving nearly 600 agents. The Washington Post described it as follows:

“U.S. authorities strongly defended Wednesday’s mass immigration raids at Mississippi workplaces, saying the secretive operation to arrest undocumented immigrants was successful even as it led to images of weeping children arriving home to find their parents missing.”

That’s right. HSI might not be part of ERO, but it certainly is part of Workplace Enforcement. In the case of the enormous Mississippi raid, there is good reason to believe the employers targeted workers fighting for better conditions. There exist other instances of ICE targeting labor organizers. It’s also not uncommon for bosses to simply threaten to deport people.

To be clear, individual immigrants, not companies, bear the enormous suffering wrought by enforcement. From an Aug. 16, 2019 article in Newsweek, “Undocumented Workers Provide Employers With Little Risk, Large Reward”:

“[R]egardless of the difficulties in sustaining criminal convictions for companies, the data shows a clear focus within the Justice Department on prosecuting immigrants.

“While 11 individuals employing undocumented workers were prosecuted over a recent 12-month period, 85,727 immigrants were prosecuted criminally during that same period for crossing the border illegally, according to the TRAC report.

“During worksite enforcement operations in 2014, ICE subjected 541 undocumented employees to arrest for lack of lawful presence, setting off the process of eventual deportation for many. Two years prior, that number was over 1,000. The year of Barack Obama’s election, over 5,000 undocumented workers were arrested for this reason as a result of ICE’s worksite operations.”

HSI is not ancillary to America’s brutal immigration story, but rather the latest iteration of institutionalized terror that casts immigrant workers into a constant state of precarious fear and helps punish those that attempt to organize for a better life.

Not Exactly Al Capone: Seizing Assets for Profit

HSI has an incredibly sweeping mandate, and one of its many powers is the often-abused practice of asset forfeiture. HSI’s 71-page Asset Forfeiture Handbook acknowledges that property can be taken even when there’s not enough evidence for a criminal indictment. In reference to a property owner not officially implicated in a crime, it states, “Those situations generally occur when a property owner is not convicted of a crime but is also not an innocent owner. Under criminal forfeiture, that property owner would be entitled to the return of the property. Under civil forfeiture, however, the owner would lose his or her interest to the Government.”

In the Oct. 17, 2017 Intercept expose about the handbook, “Leaked ICE Guide Offers Unprecedented View of Agency’s Asset Forfeiture Tactics,” a former Justice Department attorney, Robert Don Gifford, comments on his experience: “I had one case where they wanted to do all these forfeitures, and I said absolutely not. I said I’d support it as long as it was not a retired mom and pop running a little flea market table on the weekend. But that was exactly who they were going after.”

While asset forfeiture is practiced throughout law enforcement, there is growing bipartisan consensus that it is wrong. From that linked article in The Appeal:

  • According to a poll taken by the Cato Institute, 84 percent of Americans do not believe that property should be taken from someone who has not been convicted of a crime. [Cato Institute Poll] A February 2017 poll by the group Right on Crime showed that 88 percent of people believe the government should not keep seized assets without a conviction. [Right on Crime]
  • A broad coalition of civil rights organizations, including the American Civil Liberties Union, Institute for Justice, and Concerned Veterans for America, sent a letter in July 2017 to members of Congress urging them to reform civil forfeiture laws. [American Civil Liberties Union Letter].
  • In November 2017, the Southern Poverty Law Center and Alabama Appleseed Center for Law and Justice held a forum for 11 organizations to discuss the potential for law enforcement abuse, the need for transparency, and the policy’s roots in the failed drug war. The forum included such diverse participants as the Charles Koch Institute and the Institute for Justice. [Southern Poverty Law Center]

Denaturalizing: Inflicting the Most Pain Possible

While raids and property seizure are very obvious tactics, HSI also engages in the slower torture process of denaturalization by abusing bureaucratic procedure and case law. The following excerpt from the Intercept aptly describes the HSI manual’s guidelines on stripping natural citizenship:

“It’s a manual for the worst outcome” with respect to investigation targets, said Alaska immigration lawyer Margaret Stock. … That’s not unique to ICE, Stock added — it’s how the entire U.S. justice system operates. “Their objective is to inflict the most pain as possible, as efficiently as possible,” Stock said. “They feel they’re doing their job correctly if the government wins — not if justice is done.” … “You don’t see a lot of, say, Canadians or Brits being denaturalized.”

Between the centralization of a process normally assigned to U.S. Attorneys in the local jurisdictions, penalization of immigrants over the most mundane and unrelated factual errors in their applications, and an as-usual desire for extreme secrecy, it’s hard not to concede that this process is designed to torture (brown) people trying to go through the system the right way, as many pundits like to put it.

Oiling the Deportation Machine

Technology can be used for good and it can be used for evil; it does neither on its own. For example, punch card technology largely grew out of the US Census’ need to collect citizen data. Capitalists at IBM, however, had no qualms deploying such technology to Nazis to help create a bureaucracy of murder. The corporation continued this relationship long past 1933, by which time 60,000 political prisoners had been entered into the concentration camp system. (It should be noted that ICE detains over 55,000 people in over 200 facilities. While these are not necessarily death camps by design, that generally is not the primary purpose of concentration camps, an American invention.)

In modern times, HSI serves as a force multiplier of libertarian Silicon Valley technology. For example, the CIA-funded company Palantir originally built a search system for ERO that catalogs numerous federal agency databases. Thanks to FALCON, a Palantir system built for HSI, ERO’s access now includes CIA records, exchange student records, and questionable gang databases. According to The Intercept, “FALCON will eventually give agents access to more than 4 billion ‘individual data records…’ and gives its users the ability ‘to follow target telephone activity and GPS movement on a map in real time.’”

As ACLU privacy expert Jay Stanley states in the same article, “Palantir Enables Immigration Agents to Access Information From the CIA,” such information sharing, while having plausibly justifiable uses, ultimately “ends up being used for all kinds of everyday petty enforcement.”

In the process of conducting research, HSI can not only scoop up information on a specific subject, but also tag people “material to a lead (e.g., family members and associates of a subject, employers, designated school officials (DSOs),” according to the National Immigration Law Center. Further, HSI can refer “leads” to ERO for enforcement. One can easily see how HSI research amplifies ERO enforcement.

To state the obvious, it should be assumed that systems built for HSI, regardless of stated intentions, will ultimately embolden and enhance the deportation regime of ERO. It should also be assumed that these agencies routinely share information. And, unfortunately, they also share other resources.

The media, and even some activists, might be tempted to consider HSI and the more visible deportation and detention practices of ERO as separate efforts, for the purpose of clarifying moral opposition to them. But former ICE-HSI supervisory special agent Jerry Robinette makes HSI’s shared institutional support for the Trump regime’s ERO immigration actions clear. The official distinction between HSI and ERO is a shell game. 

In a Jan. 8, 2019 article posted on investigative journalist Russ Baker’s site WhoWhatWhy, Robinette states: “The driving force in trying to separate the two [and institute] totally separate funding mechanism[s] is that every year towards the end of the year, the ERO side of the house wants [more] money, and the money comes out of the investigative [HSI] pocket. The money that you thought was going to be there for investigations — to conduce investigative travel, to buy equipment — is gone.”

By now it should be clear that letting PR spokesmen imply that there is a deep division between the deportation arm ERO and HSI is misleading, if not a blatant obfuscation of their actual relationship.

Nobody Can Do It Alone

For many young people, there is little waking memory of the time before the U.S. erected its enormous security state following 9/11. ICE and the larger Homeland Security apparatus seemingly emerged to defend us from everything in the world except Wall Street bankers and transnational corporations.

It’s not enough to just pull honest immigration history from what Orwell called the “memory hole.” What we do now together is the most important thing.

The office at One City Center is now the second ICE facility Dirigo Management Company is willing to lease and manage for the agency. (ICE’s Removal and Enforcement Office is located on Gannett Drive, in South Portland, down the street from the Press Herald’s headquarters.) A more honest headline in the daily paper would have read, “Local Real Estate Interests and Infamous ICE Expand Private-Public Partnership.”

Powerful interests — the militarized state, local real estate elites, etc — are not going it alone. They are banding together in common cause to enhance their enormous power. It’s about time that we — workers, immigrants, and all marginalized people — realize we too cannot do it alone, just as Councilor Ali said.

To remind us of the price of complacency to brutality, an author recalls their mother’s adage that nice people made the best Nazis: “My mother was born in Munich in 1934, and spent her childhood in Nazi Germany surrounded by nice people who refused to make waves. When things got ugly, the people my mother lived alongside chose not to focus on “politics,” instead busying themselves with happier things. They were lovely, kind people who turned their heads as their neighbors were dragged away.”

The community has been organizing against the new downtown HSI office and will hold another rally at Portland City Hall on Monday, Nov. 4, at 5 p.m. The protesters’ goal is succinctly stated: “Let’s make sure the Portland City Council knows we want them to #EvictICE!”

This is one eviction — in a city with seemingly no qualms displacing its working class nearly wholesale — that one can actually cheer for. Perhaps we are now witnessing the spark of a movement that will stop the marriage of militarized brutality towards immigrants and morally flexible real estate interests. Such a movement could easily go on to not only defend immigrant workers, but to help form a city where immigrants and the rest of the working class can live in peace, comfort, and solidarity.