U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement

Since its establishment, ICE has become an important aspect of federal immigration policy. However, in recent years, some have criticized the scope of the agency’s power as too broad.

Jun 23, 2022
| Published:
Jun 23, 2022
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The Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency (ICE) is responsible for detaining and deporting undocumented immigrants once they’ve made it into the United States (not at the border). As of June 2021, an estimated 10.3 million undocumented immigrants lived in the United States. Under the Obama administration, ICE arrests reached an all-time high based on a set of enforcement priorities in 2014. President Trump issued his own executive orders in 2017, which targeted a much broader group of undocumented immigrants. Even though ICE arrests rose 30% in the 2017 fiscal year, they remained at levels far below the peak reached during the Obama administration. When Joe Biden became President, he was quick to reverse many of Trump’s actions, causing ICE arrests to fall by more than 60%, compared to the last three months of the Trump administration.


Homeland Security Act (2002)

The Homeland Security Act of 2002 was introduced in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks and subsequent mailings of anthrax spores. The act was co-sponsored by 118 members of Congress and signed into law by President George W. Bush in November 2002. The Homeland Security Act created the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and the new cabinet-level position of secretary of homeland security.

ICE Foundation (2003)

In March 2003, one of the new Department of Homeland Security component agencies was the Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, now known as U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement or ICE.

ICE was granted a unique combination of civil and criminal authorities to protect national security and strengthen public safety in response to the deadly attacks perpetrated on 9/11. Since then, ICE has become a powerful federal law enforcement agency.

Early ICE Statistics

  • Detention and Removal Operations establishes the first eight Fugitive Operations Teams. They arrest 1,900 illegal immigrants.
  • Five of the agency’s “Most Wanted” criminal immigrants are captured by Detention and Removal Operations officers in less than a month.
  • The first special agent training graduation is held, marking the first class of special agents.
  • The Office of Investigations launches Cornerstone, an outreach initiative to identify vulnerabilities in financial systems through which criminals launder their illicit proceeds.
  • The Office of Investigations launches Operation Predator, an initiative to protect children from sexual predators by targeting child pornographers, child-sex tourists, and people involved in all levels of child pornography.
  • A tip line is launched to collect tips in support of Operation Predator.
  • The Office of the Principal Legal Advisor secures a removal order against Juan Emilio Aboy, a known Cuban spy.

Secure Communities Program (S-COMM) (2008)

S-COMM allowed ICE to place a “detainer” on an individual. A “detainer” is a request from ICE the jail to hold a person for up to 48 hours beyond the scheduled release date so that ICE can take custody and initiate deportation proceedings. S-COMM was piloted under the Bush administration, with 14 jurisdictions participating. In 2011, the Obama administration had expanded the program to 1,210 jurisdictions. ICE divided noncitizen prisoners into three categories:

  • Level 1: Those convicted of serious crimes, such as homicide, kidnapping, robbery, major drug offenses with sentences greater than one year, and offenses involving threats to national security.
  • Level 2: All other felonies.
  • Level 3: Misdemeanors and lesser crimes.

Priority Enforcement Program (PEP) (2014)

Following a record 1.18 million arrests in three years during President Obama’s first term, he enacted the Priority Enforcement Program (PEP). PEP focused ICE’s efforts on individuals convicted of significant criminal offenses rather than undocumented immigrants as a whole. This shift was intended to target those who threaten public safety instead of innocent immigrants. Of the immigrants deported in the first year of PEP, 92% were convicted of a crime. Strict adherence to the priorities by ICE agents and the use of prosecutorial discretion significantly reduced overall interior removals, from 224,000 in FY2011 to 65,000 in FY2016.


During President Obama’s first term in office, ICE arrests reached a record high: 1.18 million in three years. In 2014, he signed a series of executive orders – the Priority Enforcement Program – designed to target criminal undocumented immigrants (instead of innocent immigrants). His orders established a series of guidelines for the Department of Homeland Security to prioritize removing immigrants thought to be national security threats, immigrants convicted of serious crimes, and recent border crossers. 

(Bipartisan Policy Center)

In 2017, President Trump signed an executive order and DHS memo that rescinded all of Obama’s priorities for removal. The new priorities targeted a much broader set of unauthorized persons for removal: they empowered ICE officers with broad discretionary authority to apprehend and detain any immigrant believed to have violated immigration law. After President Trump signed these new priorities into law, ICE arrests rose 30% in fiscal 2017 but were still far lower than the total during President Obama’s first term in office.

President Biden has taken a different approach than either of his predecessors. During his first 100 days in office, he signed a record 94 executive actions related to immigration (compared to Trump’s 30), 52 of which have been targeted at undoing the Trump administration’s orders. On Inauguration Day, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) issued new, temporary enforcement priorities which limited the noncitizens that ICE officers could apprehend. The impact of these new priorities has manifested quickly: monthly ICE arrests have decreased by more than 60%, compared to the last three months of the Trump administration. For comparison, by Trump’s first month in office, ICE arrests increased by 26% above the average of the last three full months of the Obama administration.

(Pew Research Center)

Discussion Questions

  1. How much power should the federal government give to ICE?
  2. If arrests were at a record high under the Obama administration, how important is it for President Biden to take a different approach? 
  3. Which president’s approach do you agree with the most? The least?


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Left Narrative

The federal government must limit ICE’s power, thereby preventing the targeting of immigrants that has caused anger and fear in those communities. Instead of hunting down undocumented immigrants who seek asylum and forcefully removing them out of the country, separating them from their children and families, we should work to create a path to citizenship for them.

Right Narrative

Immigrants should wait in their country of origin or stay on a visa until they can lawfully immigrate to the United States. ICE officers play an integral role in removing those who have broken U.S. immigration law. If an individual wishes to return once deported, they should enter the country legally.

Bipartisan Narrative

Immigrants should wait in their country of origin or stay on a visa until they can lawfully immigrate to the United States. ICE officers play an integral role in removing those who have broken U.S. immigration law. If an individual wishes to return once deported, they should enter the country legally.


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