ICE: A Bureaucracy of Terror

It sure feels like we’re witnessing an atrocity in real time

There’s a lot of threads flying furiously in the gale force winds of our horrifying moment, a lot of threads that belong to the same fraying fabric around the nexus of immigration and brutality and politics, with a very ugly pattern beginning to emerge.

It was a tweet, naturally, that caught my attention: someone had clipped parts of Thomas Homan’s remarks at the President’s weird sanctuary roundtable. There’s an entire hour of video, if you can stomach it, but you can skip to 32:18 to see what I saw, which is Homan, who cannot retire soon enough, getting emotional at how badly his ICE agents are treated in the mistaken impression that they aren’t helping the immigrant community, ICE is helping immigrants! He’s also aghast at how his agents are vilified, vilified, I tell you, in the media. Ok, even that 2 minute stretch might be too much to stomach.

The Orwellian double speak is palpable even before you begin to run down the litany of awful, frequently illegal, things that ICE has done just this past year. A federal judge rebuked ICE for making false allegations of gang associations against Daniel Ramirez, the “Portland Dreamer,” something that Slate article notes that has happened at least 3 other times, judges calling ICE liars — ICE has accused plenty more DACA recipients and immigrants of being gang members. Donald is doing it quite a bit himself these days. Immigrants who have been in the US for 40 years are being detained, many people are being arrested near schools, churches, and courthouses, all of which are supposed to be safe harbors. And of course there’s Jeff Sessions’ newly instituted policy of separating parents from their children at the border, a vast expansion of a policy that was already a problem no matter who was President.

I was disgusted and then moved on, one more example of the self-aggrandizing victimhood of old white men with immense amounts of power, possibly the defining feature of the Republican Party at the moment (arguably longer). Later that day, I found a long but illuminating piece by Dara Lind of Vox on the enduring legacy that Jeff Sessions is creating for himself and these immigration policies at Justice. Lind details how Sessions is building bureaucratic walls around the institutionalized cruelty that ICE is currently perpetrating and staffing key positions with immigration hardliners like himself. Lind is clear eyed about Sessions extremist philosophy, which has not become mainstream, including the dangerous but risible notion that there isn’t enough room in America for everyone who wants to come here. That notion is widely held by the grassroots, but so obviously and transparently false that I can’t even begin to comprehend how to shake people from that thought. The two most populous nations on Earth are both smaller than the United States and if that isn’t enough we’ve had 2 straight years of covering all the rural communities in America that are dying and mourning their loss. It’s absurd.

It’s absurd, but also still very real and wreaking havoc. That article got me to circle back on a Washington Post profile of Kirstjen Nielsen’s harrowing experience as Donald’s DHS Secretary. I avoided that article because I didn’t really feel bad for Nielsen, who can always resign, but it details some pretty intense verbal abuse, which no one deserves, and it also lays bare the burning need Donald feels to deliver red meat to the most ravenous of his admirers. He made impossible promises and lays into anyone who is forced to remind him that reality will not bend around some promise he made in front of his crowds. It is also in this article that we find that Donald is unhappy that DHS and ICE and CBP aren’t doing enough to break the immigrant tide. Their cruelty to families is intended to serve as a deterrent to families and immigrants in general from coming to this country. Donald cannot be made happy on this issue without extreme cruelty and he loudly insists on more extremely cruelty at every turn.

Twitter was also jolted awake to these issues thanks to the arrival of a harrowing transcript of court proceedings detailing how a child was actually separated in real life by ICE. This was my context for Donald’s now infamous “animals” remark, which has become a staple of his talking points, even making it to the White House’s official website at one point. That was the other thing that came out of that weird sanctuary roundtable thing, so here we all should be trying to make sense of it.

And then a Border Patrol agent shot and killed an unarmed 20 year old woman and in the ensuing uproar, I noticed several examples of a particularly potent analysis of language:

For the real atrocities to take place, you need to equip your followers with a mental framework for not thinking of their victims as people. Jose Antonio Vargas, quite successfully, argued that the phrase “illegal immigrant” is so much a problem that news outlets should stop using it. You’ll never guess which news outlets don’t agree with Vargas, himself an undocumented migrant.

Between the mental work that Fox News and Breitbart have been doing for years and the constantly dehumanizing rhetoric coming out of the White House, along with the logistical legwork being done at DHS and the Justice department, the United States is primed to participate in another round of atrocities. The stream of news from the border suggests this is well under way. CBP are destroying and spoiling supplies that have been left for migrants, an act of deliberate cruelty. I think that I am not alone in feeling the moral urgency of obstructing and dismantling this system. I mean, as a regular citizen, many immigration advocates, particularly Sean McElwee, have been making this point for years, but it seems like regular folk are starting to see this system for what it is, even if that anger starts from misguided anger at HHS losing track of immigrant children. I am certainly ready to advocate for prosecuting many of these agents. It was a great big failure for the United States that we have not yet prosecuted the people responsible for and involved in the torture of terror suspects at black sites all over the world and there is a reckoning coming that front. We should not repeat that failure with ICE. Villains almost always believe they are doing a good thing, that’s what makes them so scary.

Being a German Studies major, or having been one in a past life, I am used to seeing Godwin’s Law, you know the one about how bringing up Nazis is inevitable in any discussion online that goes on long enough, validated every damn day and usually in cases where it is without merit. So I do not invoke the Nazi Period lightly.

After the election, I went out and bought Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem. Ok, I didn’t go out and buy it, I got it from Amazon. But still. The talk of fascism was in the air. Timothy Snyder, Masha Gessen, Amy Siskind and many others did a masterful job right after the election pointing out the threat and many of us identified this macro threat, like millions of us, but the horserace journalism and partisan back and forth that helped us lose the plot during the election has continued and Donald is a Tasmanian devil of incompetent malevolence, so there’s been a constant stream of controversy to keep us occupied. Every week is Infrastructure Week.

Arendt coined her now famous bon mot on “the banality of evil” as part of her reportage on Eichmann’s trial, which was originally published serially as it was all happening (which must have been grueling, if my current experience as a moderately online modern newshound is any guide). Homan’s remarks and Sessions work building a deportation machine made this phrase come to full life as I sit here and contemplate what is happening in this moment.

Many Republicans and regular folk resist and scoff at the notion of America becoming a fascist country. One of the many reasons the GOP became home for the alt-right is that so many voices of the right inured themselves against the belief that they could be fascist at all, that it was the left that was really fascist. #NeverTrumper Jonah Goldberg even wrote a book called Liberal Fascism with that exact premise (you can Google that one on your own). Until Goldberg and others face up to their role in this, conservatives will never emerge from the authoritarian shadows their “leadership” now cast. When the history of the Holocaust is taught, if it is taught at all, it is quite often through the lens of the concentration camp system at the height of its efficiency and brutality. People think of Auschwitz and all of the brutal images of boundless, unbridled cruelty inflicted as the defining shape of the Holocaust, to the point that in certain academic circles, it was more appropriate to call the program to exterminate the Jews after the camp than after the Greek word for “burnt offering.” But Auschwitz doesn’t just look like the charnel house of forced labor and human cruelty of the camp system. Auschwitz looks like current home of the Finance Ministry in Germany, which is a renovated structure of Goering’s old Air Ministry building.

Across the street from that building there is a set of ruins, that is completely remarkable in its history. There is a stretch of the Berlin Wall atop the site of the ruins of the Gestapo’s headquarters. It is now also a museum called Topography of Terror. My point and indeed one of Hannah Arendt’s points is that Auschwitz is rhetoric before it is mass murder. Auschwitz is logistics before it is mass murder. Auschwitz is someone’s day job in a city far far away before, during, and in many cases after it is mass murder.

In order to install a system where cruelty is a matter of policy and of principle, you must first dehumanize the people you will be cruel to. This rhetoric infects large portions of America’s electorate and it is specifically rampant in the group of people tasked with “protecting” our borders. Institutional cruelty has become synonymous with protecting our borders, as a matter of fact and public record (and quite possibly as director of the CIA, but that’s an essay for another time. The bureaucratic framework that implements and rewards cruelty as a matter of policy is in place. We don’t think of Obama’s immigration policy in the same universe as Donald’s, but that’s only because Obama picked fights with his border agents, not because ICE and CBP weren’t already organized in a way that would allow Obama to deport record numbers and the ACLU has issued a report on ICE’s abuses under Obama. That framework predates Trump and Sessions, even if Sessions is weaponizing it in a breathtaking way. They don’t have to be systematically murdering people who cross the border illegally to be committing an atrocity, there are many many levels of evil between us and Auschwitz and all of them are bad. The United States government has participated in or fomented crimes against humanity in the past (cf: SLAVERY and the genocide of indigenous people) and we cannot and should not erase that. But we also shouldn’t be adding to that list and it really really really feels like that’s what’s happening right now.



Theatre. Sports. Econ. Cocktails. General geekery. The usual.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store