On January 6, a right-wing mob took over the U.S. Capitol with relative ease. Among many things this made clear—including the continued threat of far-right violence, reinforced by movement misogyny—the coup attempt also demonstrated the significant difference between law enforcement’s reactions to different perceived threats. Since the summer of 2020, social justice protests across the country have often been greeted with overwhelming police force. By contrast, the January 6 insurrection was met, in some instances, with nearly open arms: some Capitol Police officers posed for selfies with insurrectionists, while others reportedly provided directions to individual lawmakers’ offices. The politicization of law enforcement at all levels, supercharged under the Trump administration, has contributed to these dynamics. Federal immigration law enforcement has been particularly susceptible to this politicization, and the result of that will likely figure heavily in the Right’s broader response to the Biden administration’s immigration policies.
In 2016, the unions representing Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and U.S. Border Patrol agents endorsed a presidential candidate for the first time in their history: Donald Trump. In 2020, the National ICE Council and the National Border Patrol Council (NBPC) doubled down, again endorsing Trump. For two bodies that had never previously weighed in on presidential politics, the endorsements illustrated the increasing stridency of federal immigration enforcement officers in supporting draconian anti-immigrant policies. And as the incoming Biden administration attempts to reverse some of Trump’s most harmful immigration positions—including by reasserting and expanding deportation relief for immigrant youth and those with Temporary Protected Status, increased refugee resettlement, and eliminating some Trump-era asylum restrictions—they can expect opposition not just from right-wing media and the anti-immigrant movement, but also the ICE and Border Patrol unions.
During the Obama administration, both the ICE Council and NBPC began waging more public opposition to such policies. Leaders of both unions strayed from their traditional roles of advocating for agents on issues such as salary and benefits and began opining on immigration news of the day and current policy debates on outlets such as Fox and Breitbart News, enmeshing themselves in the same right-wing media ecosystem that gave rise to Trump. After four years of the White House implementing and promoting their requested policy changes, the unions are now an integral part of the anti-immigrant movement’s broader messaging operation and very likely to figure into opposition efforts against the Biden administration.
The organized anti-immigrant movement was well positioned to assist the two unions. The Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR) and Center for Immigration Studies (CIS)—two leading anti-immigrant organizations founded by the late White nationalist John Tanton—wielded significant influence over the Trump administration’s immigration policies, serving both as outside advisors and establishing a presence within multiple federal agencies. In early 2017, former employees of FAIR and CIS assumed roles advising leadership of Customs and Border Protection and ICE. Under their advisement, ICE created a new agency office to perpetuate fear-mongering narratives about immigrants and crime, refugee resettlement plummeted, and an “invisible wall” was created within the immigration bureaucracy to halt or dramatically delay many standard immigration processes.
These organizations are poised to remain influential. Some anti-immigrant movement officials who joined the immigration bureaucracy under Trump may remain in government positions under a Biden administration, due to the Trump administration’s embrace of “burrowing,” or hiring political appointees into civil service positions. Others may return to or accept new positions at anti-immigrant advocacy organizations, such as Trump’s first acting ICE Director Thomas Homan. An Obama-era appointee, Homan rose through the agency’s ranks and was selected to lead Trump’s ICE during its first 17 months of escalation and increased aversion to oversight. After leaving ICE in 2018, he became a senior fellow at FAIR’s legal arm, the Immigration Reform Law Institute.
The anti-immigrant movement’s clout within the Trump administration followed its efforts to actively influence multiple levels of law enforcement. Over the last decade, FAIR has worked to cultivate connections with local sheriffs, working with the National Sheriffs’ Association to dramatically increase ICE’s reach into communities through local cooperation agreements. In 2020, FAIR boasted of having “great relationships with local Border Patrol officers and county sheriffs, who give FAIR inside access to the truth about what is happening on the ground in border states.” The anti-immigrant movement’s increased efforts to influence law enforcement officials is a deliberate attempt to add more credibility to an agenda with little public support and to consolidate power within existing government institutions. History suggests leaders of both the ICE Council and NBPC will continue that effort under a Biden administration.
ICE Council President Chris Crane has worked directly alongside the anti-immigrant movement before. Crane rose to prominence on the anti-immigrant Right by vociferously opposing the Obama Administration’s immigration efforts, including the so-called Gang of Eight reform legislation—which, among its many enforcement and militarization provisions, would have provided a path to citizenship for some undocumented immigrants. The bill passed the Senate in 2013, but never came to a vote in the U.S. House, thanks in large part to Crane, who became conservatives’ primary witness against the reforms, speaking at events alongside some of the bill’s main Senate opponents and appearing in congressional hearings three times during debate over the bill. Before 2013, Crane had already been an outspoken anti-immigrant voice, serving as the lead plaintiff in a lawsuit challenging Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) deportation relief program. Anti-immigrant organization NumbersUSA funded Crane’s lawsuit, and he was represented by future Trump advisor Kris Kobach. (Kobach sought to leverage his relative proximity to the president into higher office, running unsuccessful bids for both Kansas governor and the U.S. Senate during the Trump administration.) Although the lawsuit was dismissed in 2015, DACA has been legally contested throughout the Trump administration, and another review of the program is pending before a federal judge in Texas who previously ruled against expanding the program. Regardless of the outcome in that case, Crane surely sees opportunity to again become a prominent opponent of the Biden administration’s efforts—particularly as one of the defendants in his 2013 lawsuit, former Director of United States Citizenship and Immigration Services Alejandro Mayorkas, is Biden’s nominee to lead the Department of Homeland Security.
Crane’s counterpart at the Border Patrol union, NBPC President Brandon Judd, took a less litigious, but no less partisan path to prominence on the anti-immigrant Right. Prior to Judd’s election to the post in 2013, the NBPC website described the construction of border walls and barriers as ineffective and “wasting taxpayer money.” But after Judd became union president, he reversed the group’s position and declared a border wall “an absolute necessity.” The change underscored the NBPC’s strident turn under Judd’s leadership, which was also evident in its alignment with right-wing media. In 2015, the union’s podcast, “The Green Line,” was elevated after it entered into a sponsorship deal with Breitbart. In 2016, Judd joined the Trump campaign’s presidential transition team, and continued defending the administration in myriad media appearances—including nearly 70 appearances on Fox News during Trump’s presidency, according to Media Matters for America. During a January 2020 appearance discussing border barriers, Judd simply stated, “The critics are absolutely wrong.”
Trump reciprocated Judd and Crane’s support, acknowledging the two in a speech at the Department of Homeland Security shortly after signing several immigration-related executive orders during his first week in office, saying the union leaders would “play a very, very important role going forward.”
What followed, of course, was four years of violent and blatant abuses carried out by both agencies, including family separations at the border, forced sterilization of detainees, increased militarization of interior enforcement actions, and general impunity, as disciplinary systems within the agencies remain woefully inadequate.
The NBPC’s latest collective bargaining agreement, signed in 2019, provides the union even more resources for advocacy and opposition. Reportedly approved at Trump’s urging, the agreement increased the number of union officials, who can engage in partisan activity, nearly tripling the number of work hours they can devote to union activity. The agreement went into effect mere weeks before the administration sharply curtailed the amount of time other federal workers can devote to union activities. The agreement also creates a structural advantage for the NBPC, allowing it to devote a disproportionate amount of time to political activities while fostering a false impression of union support for anti-immigrant measures, as other labor movement advocates point out.
“It’s extremely unfortunate that these organizations are taking those sorts of positions that are extremely destructive to the working class and antithetical to what the labor movement ought to stand for,” United Electrical Workers Western Region President Carl Rosen told In These Times in 2018. “I think it is important for the labor movement as a whole to stand up on the side of justice and condemn organizations taking those positions.” Much as local police unions have played an outsized role in protecting officers from accountability for police brutality and misconduct, the ICE and Border Patrol unions have lent their considerable support for continued marginalization of immigrant communities and upholding systems of abuse and social control.
Reversing the Trump administration’s most harmful and egregious policies is imperative, but simply returning to Obama-era policies—as many expect Biden to do—is insufficient. Advocates will rightly point out the flaws of a so-called “felons, not families” framework, which keeps most of the mass deportation apparatus in place. At the same time, the incoming administration needs to address the politicization of law enforcement, which has reached a fever pitch, with officers traveling from across the country to participate in the January 6 riots, and threatening to erase the distinction between state power and far-right social movements.
Our current era of “Back the Blue” backlash to social justice movements has been fostered by years of right-wing, anti-immigrant outreach to law enforcement, reinforcing reactionary beliefs and perceived victimization at all levels. Even modest reform proposals from a centrist administration will invite torrents of opposition from virtually all sectors of the Right. Recognizing the role law enforcement will play in those opposition efforts, repressing social justice movements while bolstering their reactionary allies both within and outside the state, is necessary for any effective response.
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