What Does ICE Do?

By , J.D.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) is a component of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS), primarily responsible for enforcing federal immigration and customs laws. Its powers include investigating, apprehending, arresting, detaining, and removing aliens within the United States. This is all part of the U.S.'s efforts to protect national security and public safety and prevent terrorism.

ICE History and Statistics

Immigration and Customs Enforcement was formed in 2003 as part of the federal government's response to the September 11, 2001 attacks. It represents a combination of interior and investigative agencies that existed before 9/11, namely elements of the United States Customs Service and the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS).

Headquartered in Washington, DC, ICE currently employs more than 20,000 people in the United States and worldwide and has an annual budget (as of 2013) of close to $6 billion. After the FBI, it is the largest investigative agency in the federal government. The director of ICE is appointed by the President of the United States and reports directly to the Secretary of Homeland Security. ICE is responsible for enforcing more than 400 U.S. statutes aimed at keeping the United States safe and secure.

ICE oversees several hundred detention centers nationwide, which typically house upwards of 30,000 aliens. It also arranges for the deportation (removal) of more than 500 aliens each day.

ICE Responsibilities

ICE is responsible for enforcing federal laws, both criminal and civil, that encompass border control, customs, trade, and immigration. ICE agents have been given broad investigative authority, and rely on undercover agents, surveillance, confidential informants, and cooperating defendants.

If you hear a news story about an immigration raid on a U.S. company; an arrest of an undocumented immigrant or human rights abuser within the U.S.; the detention of a criminal immigrant following release from prison; or the denial of a U.S. visa to a terrorist, an ICE operation was likely behind it or involved in it.

How ICE Is Organized

Other than its administrative functions, ICE has two principal operating components:

Homeland Security Investigations (HSI)

The HSI office conducts criminal investigations of the illegal movement of people or goods into, out of, or within the United States. HSI agents investigate a broad spectrum of crimes that have to do with trade, travel, immigration, and finance, including human trafficking, drug arms, and contraband smuggling, money laundering, cultural property crimes (art and antiquities theft and smuggling), cybercrime, and terrorism.

HSI agents also investigate potential crimes against critical infrastructure industries that are vulnerable to sabotage or attack. In addition, HSI oversees ICE's international affairs operations and intelligence-gathering, operating in close to 50 countries around the world.

Enforcement and Removal Operations (ERO)

ERO is devoted to the enforcement of U.S. civil immigration laws. It is responsible for identifying "removable aliens"—that is, aliens who are subject to deportation—detaining them, and making sure they leave the United States. (An alien is a foreign-born person who has not become a U.S. citizen, even if the person has a visa, green card, or other status in the U.S.) ERO's first priority is to arrest and deport convicted criminals, people who pose a threat to national security, fugitives, and people who have recently entered the country illegally.

ERO also has "fugitive operations teams" that find, apprehend, and remove aliens with outstanding orders of deportation who have failed to report to ICE or depart the U.S., or who have returned after removal.

ERO detains people who arrive at the border without proper documentation and fear persecution in their home countries and request political asylum in the United States. Although detention of such aliens is mandatory under U.S. law, ERO's failure to separate asylum seekers from criminal aliens, or to expedite processing of their cases, has drawn criticism from human rights observers.

ERO's immigration enforcement officers and agents operate a detention system and oversee transportation and deportation of undocumented or criminal aliens. ERO is also responsible for a program that identifies removable aliens in jails and prisons within the United States.

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