The Origins Of ICE NPR's Scott Simon talks to Bo Cooper, former general counsel for the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service, about the origins of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

The Origins Of ICE

The Origins Of ICE

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NPR's Scott Simon talks to Bo Cooper, former general counsel for the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service, about the origins of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).


ICE, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, come under sharp criticism as stories have spread of the chaos and heartbreak of migrant families separated at the border. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, Democrat of New York, became the first U.S. senator this week to directly call to eliminate ICE. And this morning, President Trump tweeted his defense of the agency, writing, you're doing a fantastic job of keeping us safe by eradicating the worst criminal elements - so brave. The radical left Dems want you out. Now, ICE was created out of the old INS, the Immigration and Naturalization Service, in 2003. We're joined now by Bo Cooper. He was general counsel for the INS under Presidents Clinton and Bush. Thanks so much for being with us, Mr. Cooper.

BO COOPER: Good morning.

SIMON: Remind us of the era. This was not long after 9/11. Why was it thought they had to reorganize border security and immigration?

COOPER: Yeah. This was a response to the 9/11 attacks. And immigration had been carried out by the old INS, as you mentioned. And INS was responsible for the whole basket of immigration issues - border security, interior enforcement, asylum, immigration benefits. But there had long been a view, inside and outside government, that INS was not fully up to the task. And in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, there was a reconsideration of the issue and a view that that all of the agencies that had Homeland Security responsibilities ought to be gathered under one roof and their missions viewed through that common lens of Homeland Security.

SIMON: But let me ask you, has - does ICE need to be called to account for what's happened along the border?

COOPER: Well, that's a complicated question. In the first place, it's important to understand that it's not just ICE that carries out the immigration function. It's divided up in Homeland Security within three different entities - Border Security - Customs and Border Security, ICE and U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. And all ICE - all immigration policies are - really implicate the range of agencies. So for example, take the family separation policy that's so gripped the country over the last couple of weeks. If you object to that, you have to understand that it's not just ICE that's even at the center of it. And there has been, you know, unprecedented level of objection to the way that policy has been carried out. But it's not really been ICE. That's been an outgrowth of a consequence of the decision at the Justice Department to have this zero-tolerance prosecution policy. And it's CBP, actually, the border officials who present people, who apprehend people coming across the border and present them for prosecution. So ICE isn't even at the center of that issue. I guess the bottom line is that if you want to abolish agencies as a response to that policy, you'd have a lot more abolishing to do than just ICE.

SIMON: So - but have they broken it up into smaller parts to be more efficient but, at the same time, created more of a thicket of bureaucracy on an issue like this?

COOPER: I think that's fair. It's - the idea was that each of these entities could more effectively carry out its purpose if it only had that purpose to carry out. The idea was that there was a bit of a Jekyll-and-Hyde role for the INS if it was supposed to be dispensing benefits on the one hand and throwing the book with the other. But when you do that, when you separate those entities out, you lose a coordination function that's very important in the immigration context because every issue in immigration is so closely intertwined with the other. And I think we've seen the consequences of that.

SIMON: I don't know what you make of a recent letter some ICE special agents sent to Homeland Security Secretary Nielsen asking that the branch of ICE that deals with counterterrorism and drug trafficking, not deportations, be split off from the agency because of all the ill will.

COOPER: Yeah. I have seen that. That was - that's an interesting consequence of another change that was made at the time that DHS was formed. In addition to splitting up the immigration entities, they also blended in the customs function. And so ICE is Immigration and Customs Enforcement. The same is true at the border. And that was a little bit of a shotgun marriage between the customs folks and the immigration folks that has not fully worked itself out. The customs people think that they have these - you know, they've got a separate set of responsibilities that are impeded by the immigration function.

SIMON: Former INS general counsel Bo Cooper, thanks so much for coming in and joining us, sir.

COOPER: Thank you very much.

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