Between 1990 and 2002, the budget of the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS, previously the agency in charge of immigration services and enforcement) increased fivefold. After the creation of DHS and ICE, the budget for immigration enforcement went up even more quickly, doubling from $6.2 billion in 2002 to $12.5 billion in 2006.
Operation Endgame was not the final solution it promised to be. But ICE strengthened its position within the bureaucracy, reinforcing the immigrants-as-threat frame and further embedding it within local law enforcement throughout the country. By 2013, the United States was spending more on immigration enforcement than on FBI, Secret Service, the Drug Enforcement Administration and all other federal criminal law enforcement agencies combined, and holding more people in immigration detention than those serving sentences in the federal prison system.
The Obama administration later tried to re-prioritize ICE’s operations by focusing the deportation force on “felons, not families.” Yet this guidance not only rested on a false dichotomy (felons have families, after all) but also reinforced the fusion of immigration and “threat” in the public conversation. Although advocacy efforts, court challenges and public criticism pushed the administration to narrow its enforcement priorities in 2014 and resulted in a decline in ICE arrests, the deportation machinery remained robust.
Trump fueled his unlikely presidential campaign with anti-immigrant rhetoric, characterizing immigrants as menacing threats. Upon taking office, he signed an executive order that more than doubled the number of ICE officers, deputized more local police departments to track down immigrants, broadened ICE priorities, and limited due process and discretion. ICE agents under Trump feel that the “shackles” have come off, and morale at the agency is up.
As DHS secretary, John Kelly issued a memo authorizing ICE to take action against all “removable noncitizens” and although he later conceded that the vast majority are “not bad people,” they are targeted for deportation nonetheless. Operation Endgame’s goal of 100 percent removal has been resurrected, this time supported by a well-resourced agency now 15 years old, bolstered by continual attacks on and dehumanizing language about immigrants by top-level officials.
The turn toward securitizing immigration enforcement since the 1990s has made detentions and deportations seem normal and even necessary for national security. They aren’t. Our policies should recognize that no matter where we were born, all people deserve to be treated humanely.