Gregory Bull /Associated Press
In this July 8, 2019, file photo, a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officer looks on during an operation in Escondido, Calif. Starting in September, the agency's Chicago field office will host a six-week citizens academy to train and inform participants about how the agency handles deportations.
Gregory Bull /Associated Press
The agency in charge of deporting immigrants is hosting a citizens academy for the first time in Chicago — and immigration activists are not happy about it.
The Enforcement and Removal Operations (ERO) Chicago Citizens Academy is a six-week program modeled after similar trainings held by other law enforcement agencies. The U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) will select 10 to 12 participants for the training, which is set to start in September.
ICE Field Director Robert Guardian said he was surprised to learn that the agency was feared in Chicago.
"I realizedthere was a sentiment of fear against ICE that I hadn't experienced in my career or even growing up along the Southwest border," said Guardian, who has worked in the agency for 22 years.
Guardian said he wants the community to learn more about the agency. He said ICE is here to protect the community. He described two arrests the agency has made in the last two weeks, including one of a 32-year-old immigrant from Lebanon who Guardian described as a terrorist.
"He was initially arrested by the FBI after he placed a backpack he believed contained an explosive device near a trash can on a crowded street corner in Chicago," the agency said.
Guardian also mentioned the arrest of a 40-year-old immigrant from El Salvador who was convicted of criminal sex abuse.
"What I realized when I got to Chicago," Guardian said. "Everyone was telling our story besides ICE. There's no other side. No one is telling our story."
Guardian said he's started to tell the agency's story by being out in the community, and the academy is part of that effort.
Many Chicagoans have received letters inviting them to apply. During the program, according to the letter, "participants will gain insight into the many facets and responsibilities of ICE/ERO operations, and hopefully an awareness and appreciation of the issues our officers face every day in the performance of their duties."
But immigration activists aren't buying the story ICE wants to tell. They say there's no room for this academy in Chicago.
"I think it's outrageous that they are trying to do this in Chicago. This is a sanctuary city that we've fought so hard for," said Ald. Rossana Rodriguez, 33rd Ward.
Rodriguez read the letter and said she was concerned about the language in the letter, which reads, in part, "attendees will participate in scenario-based training and exercises conducted in a safe and positive environment, including, but not limited to defensive tactics, firearms familiarization, and targeted arrests."
"What it sounds like to me is a vigilante academy," Rodriguez said. "We need to be educating the community so that they don't sign up for it. I think the city needs to speak out against this programming. This isn't welcomed in Chicago."
The academy will be held every Tuesday from 2 to 6 p.m., and it will start Sept. 15, 2020, at the Chicago field office (101 W. Ida B. Wells Parkway, Suite 400). Chicagoans interested in participating will have to fill out a detailed application form that includes several essay questions. Applicants also have to pass a background check.
"It's very alarming that ICE is organizing this propaganda," said activist Rey Wences, with Organized Communities Against Deportation. "What we know, from the work we've been doing for years against deportation in the city, is that ICE is very violent."
Wences said ICE has done enforcement raids and used other tactics to terrorize the undocumented immigrant population.
"ICE lies, and they use these tactics," he continued, "and they have gotten more resources — from money to technology — to target and surveil the immigrant community."
Wences said ICE is not to be trusted.
María Inés Zamudio is a reporter for WBEZ's Race, Class and Communities desk. Follow her @mizamudio.