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Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand — and ICE agents themselves — join the call to overhaul immigration agency

The call by activists to overhaul the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency got a boost from a United States senator, Kirsten Gillibrand of New York — and from 19 supervisors in the agency itself, who wrote to Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen last week that the emphasis on deporting illegal immigrants detracts from efforts to combat cross-border crime and terrorism.

The letter, signed by a majority of the special agents in charge at ICE’s Homeland Security Investigations (HSI), said the deportation and detention activities of the agency’s Enforcement and Removal Operation (ERO) section have made it difficult for them to investigate national security threats. ICE is overseen by the Department of Homeland Security.

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand at a press conference calling for an end to forced arbitration on Capitol Hill on Dec. 6, 2017. (Photo: Aaron P. Bernstein/Reuters)

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand at a press conference calling for an end to forced arbitration on Capitol Hill on Dec. 6, 2017. (Photo: Aaron P. Bernstein/Reuters)

“HSI’s investigations have been perceived as targeting undocumented aliens, instead of the transnational criminal organizations that facilitate cross-border crimes impacting our communities and national security,” read the letter.

The ICE supervisors called for separating into two agencies — just as the FBI and DEA work separately while they are both part of the Justice Department. One would focus on investigations and the other on the controversial deportation and detention tactics. “Many jurisdictions continue to refuse to work with HSI because of a perceived linkage to the politics of civil immigration,” the agents said.

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) Assistant Field Office Director Jorge Field, 53, left, arrests an Iranian immigrant in San Clemente, Calif., in May 2017. (Photo: Lucy Nicholson/Reuters)

Gillibrand became the first senator to call for the agency’s abolition in its present form, during a Thursday night interview on CNN.

“We believe that we should protect families who need our help, and that is not what ICE is doing today,” Gillibrand said. “And that’s why I believe you should get rid of it, start over, reimagine it and build something that actually works.”

Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., said on Sunday that “We need to probably think about starting from scratch” in terms of immigration enforcement, changing her position from the one she expressed earlier this year, in which she defended ICE’s existence. Both Gillibrand and Harris are considered to be potential 2020 presidential candidates. Another potential contender, the independent Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, declined to call for the organization’s elimination when asked by CNN on Sunday.

Four Democratic members of the House have come out against ICE, and Rep. Mark Pocan of Wisconsin announced this week that he plans to introduce legislation to abolish the agency. The movement to abolish the agency drew national attention on Tuesday night, when Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez defeated Rep. Joe Crowley in the New York Democratic primary. Ocasio-Cortez had been an outspoken opponent of the agency throughout her campaign.

“Every single indication shows us that ICE as an agency is out of control, and the deep systemic issues cannot be fixed with a little bit of legislation,” said Ocasio-Cortez in a statement to Yahoo News before her victory. “I don’t see how anyone who learns of the terrible moral injustices that ICE has perpetrated would not call for its absolute and total abolition. This agency is set up to be unaccountable, is a moral outrage, and an embarrassment to America.”

Demonstrators protest detaining and separating immigrant families outside the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) headquarters in Washington, D.C., on June 27. (Photo: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Ocasio-Cortez is a heavy favorite to win her seat in November, as is Deb Haaland of New Mexico, who won the Democratic primary there for a safe blue seat. Haaland has also called for the abolition of ICE, telling Yahoo News “This is not America, and this is not how I feel about the way we should be treating our friends and neighbors.”

ICE is the successor agency to the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS), which was disbanded in 2003 with the passage of the Homeland Security Act. INS had been largely tasked with securing the border, while ICE was focused on enforcing immigration laws within the 50 states. While President Trump and other Republicans have charged that calling to abolish ICE amounts to a call for “open borders,” enforcement at the border itself is the responsibility of Customs and Border Patrol.

ICE has drawn criticism from immigration advocates for years, but scrutiny has increased under President Trump. In the last month, the agency detained a delivery driver who was bringing a pizza to an Army base in Brooklyn and arrested a legal resident of Mexican origin over a decades-old misdemeanor charge that had already been resolved. As ICE makes arrests outside schools, courthouses and hospitals, some medical facilities are developing plans to protect their patients from agents. There have been accusations from detainees that they were sexually assaulted, and last year, ICE’s acting director was confronted at a town hall meeting by a Holocaust survivor over the agency’s tactics.