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In defense of the executive branch

ICE may be the first federal agency to provoke public ire as the new administration churns out executive orders, but it won’t be the last.

On Feb. 20, 2017, the Department of Homeland Security released a series of documents providing guidance on how the Trump administration plans to address its promises of increased immigration enforcement. Specifically, the documents detail expanded enforcement priorities for Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), reinstating such policies as the 287(g) program, rolled back in 2014. Having worked for ICE for six years, I know what comes next. In the upcoming weeks and months, photos of ICE arrests will be front-page news, and individuals’ deportation stories will provoke strong emotions. Many people will see those photos and think, “Look at those jackbooted thugs, kicking in doors and rounding up families – who do they think they are?” Before this all begins, I’d like to take a moment to tell you a little about the people in the headlines.

Leah Phifer

These bulletproof vest-clad giants are guys like my friend Mike, who spent countless days away from his family to investigate war crimes in Bosnia, ultimately deporting a war criminal living here under unlawfully obtained status. They’re deportation officers rushing out to execute a warrant, but stopping to shove dollars into the lobby’s pop machine to buy a root beer for a kid waiting on his parents in court. They’re the guys who lined up to shave their heads when one of our own was battling cancer. They’re the men and women who put on their boots every morning — even the morning after we buried one of our own, not once, but twice in the span of two years. When you open the newspaper, you will see raid jackets, Ray-Bans and crying families. I’ll see that too, but I’ll also see some of the strongest and most loyal individuals I’ve ever known.

There are a lot of misconceptions about why people seek out careers in law enforcement. Many people think it’s because we all want to carry guns and kick in doors. That couldn’t be further from the truth. I started a career at ICE after having spent several years abroad. I wanted to use my foreign-language skills to help undocumented immigrants through the deportation process – a very confusing and stressful situation often compounded by a language barrier. During my time there, I met some “bad hombres” – pedophiles, rapists and violent felons. Sometimes I met single mothers trying to build a better life for their children. In the latter case, I would study their background, their family history, the story of how they arrived here. I would look for anything that would qualify a hardworking parent for legal status in the U.S. and then make a referral to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. Sometimes I was able to help, and other times I wasn’t, but I never once forgot the delicate humanity of everyone I encountered.

Though I left ICE three years ago, I still work in national security and I’ve never once felt torn between a desire to help people and the pursuit of justice. We need to shed this idea that half the population chooses law enforcement over compassion, while the other half wants to let their bleeding hearts put our national security at risk. For the past 10 years, I’ve been both a proud bleeding heart and an ardent enforcer of the law. My friends represent a mix of brilliant immigration attorneys, as well as dedicated ICE officers. I support the ACLU. I’ve drafted Warrants of Deportation and shed tears of joy at a naturalization ceremony, often in the same day. No one side has the moral high ground here; we’re all devoted to upholding the law, even if we’re working on different sides of the issue.

ICE may be the first federal agency to provoke public ire as the new administration churns out executive orders, but it won’t be the last. During the next few years, I urge people on both sides of the aisle to remember that civil servants are trying to do the best we can with the orders we’re given. Like you, we want what is best for our country. Immigrants undoubtedly make our country better, but so do the individuals enforcing our immigration laws.

Leah Phifer, of Isanti, is a graduate of the Humphrey School of Public Affairs. She has been working for the federal government since 2008 and continues her national security career at the Department of Justice. 


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Comments (15)

  1. Submitted by Pat Berg since 2011 on 02/24/2017 - 08:41 am.

    Tell me again . . . .

    Tell me again how “sensitive” these ICE agents are:

    “ICE Agents Take Undocumented Mom With Brain Tumor From Hospital To Detention Center”

  2. Submitted by Edward Blaise on 02/24/2017 - 09:13 am.

    Spend a little…

    Time along our Northern border and see ICE in action. Or should I say inaction. Walk into the I Falls custom’s house and see 10 plus Kevlar wearing, hand gun toting clerk typists busily pecking away with no time to disengage and greet the citizen waiting at the counter. Read the reports of regular citizens being followed from their workplace to their homes on a steady basis: When asked why the response was “just practicing our surveillance techniques”. Personally, I had an ICE agent scream by me with lights flashing well over the speed limit. When I reached the next gas station he was filling up and calmly cleaning out his back seat. And, as soon as he got back on the road? Yes, the lights came back on and he sped off over the speed limit. After the ICE agent who killed a beloved Northshore Dr. while speeding in bad weather, one would think more universal caution would be applied. Our Northern border is grossly over staffed and over budgeted. Here are the entities one may encounter on a border waters lake:

    1. ICE
    2. US Border Patrol
    3. MN County Sheriff
    4. MN DNR Enforcement
    5. US Park Rangers
    6. US Coast Guard
    7. Canadian Provincial Police
    8. Canadian MNR
    9. Canadian Immigration
    10. Canadian Customs Enforcement
    12. Royal Canadian Mounted Police

    And that is just the folks in boats. Add in the helicopters, airplanes and drones for the full list.

    The US folks should be lined up and told to count off by ten and then numbers one thru nine given their transfer orders to El Paso. And number ten? Use a little common sense and be safe out there.

  3. Submitted by Dennis Wagner on 02/24/2017 - 10:00 am.


    Maybe we get it, but are just tired of doing what we consider stupid/ignorant things?
    Anyone got an ROI (return on investment) for ICE type spending? Isn’t that what running the Government like a business today is suppose to do?
    Sorry, not in total, but in general this looks like a bully beating up on the poor, desperate and vulnerable overall, suspect most of these “illegals” came from desperate situations, so lets put them in another desperate situation. Not sure anyone is talking the ICE folks directly, other than they are the tool by which the bullies (feels powerful) by terrorizing desperate and vulnerable people! This creation of enemies, from whole cloth, fascist behavior, is easily recognizable and a well worn path known through history.

  4. Submitted by Charles Thompson on 02/24/2017 - 11:17 am.

    ice humans

    First question – Did they vote for Donald Trump? He didn’t campaign as a humanitarian. Maybe it’s just the overtime.

  5. Submitted by Russell Booth on 02/24/2017 - 01:39 pm.

    They laughed, they cried

    and they exterminated 6 million Jews. Let us not forget their humanity, They were just following orders.

    Some had serious health issues but they still managed to help their neighbors in need while they rounded up Japanese-Americans and took them to internment camps as was their duty. Let us not forget their humanity.

    Etc. ad infinitum.

    Just following orders was and still is their job. Thank you, Leah, for writing this article. It is human to favor one’s own social attachments before, and sometimes without any regard to, those of others.

  6. Submitted by Constance Sullivan on 02/24/2017 - 04:42 pm.

    The comparison was to the slippery slope.

    To the way Germans made up excuses for the heinous things the Nazis did in the years prior to and during World War II. Not to ICE’s investigation of a 90-plus-year-old former concentration camp guard who was found living here peacefully all those guilty long years, and finally deported to die abroad.

    And I’m sorry to point out to the author that there are NOT that many pedophiles, rapists, and “violent felons” among the immigrant communities that ICE and border agents are now rounding up, or were. That’s a crock, and everyone knows that. A large population will have some felons, but overall the illegal immigrants from Latin America, at least, are a pretty peaceful bunch. Workers, not criminals.

    But you wouldn’t know that from what’s been happening most recently: Border guard thugs and angry Trump voters are taking out their venom on innocent immigrants whom they simply come across. They charge the immigrant with some crime just for the hell of it, arbitrarily, because it’s easier to deport them immediately than to figure out what their status is and where their family is and give them a chance to explain their reasons for coming here. The agents are now abusing pretty widely., inventing felons where they don’t find them. They’re acting like a paramilitary, and we don’t have to like them for their actions.

    These paramilitary border agents and ICE are just the first wave of Trump’s incipient police state. Next, it seems, will be all people who use marijuana, which is still outlawed nationally.

    And then, the “liberal activists” who are disrupting GOP Town Halls over the country and protesting GOP plans on Obamacare and Medicare/Medicaid, non-vetting of Trump’s incredibly unqualified Cabinet appointees, unfair tax “reforms” and removal of consumer-protective regulations in all agencies of the federal government. Trump had his own security forces to throw protesters out of his pre-election rallies. We’ll see that happening more. He has an “I have the power” mentality, and he’ll use it.

  7. Submitted by Scott Woodington on 02/24/2017 - 04:47 pm.


    As someone who’s a conservative and not much a Trump fan it is nice to know that some Democrats are not of the cloth rending hair on fire variety. Not everyone on the other side is a communist or Nazi. When it comes to ICE, these are the same immigration laws that have been on the books for years and largely uniformly enforced by Democrat and Republican administrations. If people don’t like the laws we have there is a legislative process for changing them. We would do well to remember that for a long time the U.S. was governed by reasoned debate and the building of consensus. Politics has always been somewhat rough and tumble but if more people would reasonably debate the issues rather than protest and call names, we may be able to return to the days where we could at least talk to each other.

  8. Submitted by Ambre Quinn on 02/24/2017 - 10:38 pm.

    All citizens should question and resist un-American, biased laws

    “We need to shed this idea that half the population chooses law enforcement over compassion, while the other half wants to let their bleeding hearts put our national security at risk.”

    This is true, beautifully said, and I agree…stereotypes do not serve us well. But understanding for law and immigration enforcement officials is not the issue at hand. The laws themselves are.

    Legislation and executive orders that are already coming down and will continue to be presented as bills in state and federal government are grounded in anti-immigrant rhetoric and sold to the people based on their ignorance and xenophobia. These laws and orders harm our system, they harm the officers enforcing the laws and they harm our communities.

    We know ICE officers are human and many are trying to do right. But they, like you Leah, should navigate the rhetoric better. You know better. You know the people whose lives are made or broken based on an immigration law decision. You know the majority are not criminals. You know immigration is not a black and white issue.

    Our issue is the policies themselves and the people who are just enforcing and not standing up to these unpatriotic, un-American orders and legislative bills…

  9. Submitted by Joel Stegner on 02/25/2017 - 08:18 am.

    Deciding what their job is

    America is highly dependent on undocumented workers to do the low pay, hard and dirty work of our society. Every employer who uses them breaks the law, and those who buy their services are encouraging them to come. Most countries have legal guest worker programs. People who come to work, but don’t citizenship rights. We don’t, the reason we have this huge problem.

    If we just hired legal guest workers, our refugee-immigrant issue would be manageable. We could actual better screen out the law breakers we want to keep out. Trump wants to not focus on criminals, but boot everyone, without doing the hard work of passing legislation. His ideas are weak and poorly defined.

    If you ask ICE agents to do something that makes no sense and doesn’t achieve the objective, you set them up to fail and look very bad in the process. It is all on Trump and the Republican Congress. If they really wanted to fix the problem, rather than pretend they are, different things would be happening.

  10. Submitted by Dennis Wagner on 02/25/2017 - 05:37 pm.


    “Two officials in Washington said that the shift — and the new enthusiasm that has come with it — seems to have encouraged pro-Trump political comments and banter that struck the officials as brazen or gung-ho, like remarks about their jobs becoming “fun.” Those who take less of a hard line on unauthorized immigrants feel silenced, the officials said.”

    Lets have “fun” destroying people lives, make it a “fun” job!

  11. Submitted by beryl john-knudson on 02/28/2017 - 07:51 am.

    Ther is so much more to this story…

    This is a hard spot to respond to and yes there are many questions here so will simply ask…what has happened at the Humphrey Institute lately if this is its standard narrative?

    Then too, am wondering about the kind gift to the boy; a root beer? Did he then ask the chi;d his name, rank on the family tree and assign the boy a serial number?

    There must be a more complete story beyond the root beer, like was he labeled a potential terrorist or what is the going I.D for a small kid, born here I assume?

  12. Submitted by Pat Terry on 02/08/2018 - 10:22 am.

    Dishonest and disgusting

    As someone who has done some immigration law and knows others who do it full time, I can tell you this article is riddled with falsehoods. There has been a lot of cruelty and jackbooted thuggery from ICE that has nothing to with policy.

    I’m writing a check to Rick Nolan today.

  13. Submitted by Wayne Nealis on 03/18/2018 - 09:46 pm.

    Only a true believer could write such ahistorical falsehoods

    Phifer appears to be a true believer in U.S. foreign policy. One wonders how in the 21st Century someone educated at the U of M could be so oblivious to what many American see as policies of imperialist economic and military aggression across the global. 800 plus foreign bases and counting. CIA stations by the dozens. This imperial infrastructure is used to subdue any hint of people organizing for democracy, freedom and justice.

    I am writing from Guatemala where I am studying Spanish, across the border in Honduras the people Phifer talks about serving our executive branch are complicit in backing a fraudulent election and the killing of dozens of people by military personnel trained and armed by U.S. national security forces and the FBI. My guess is Phifer supported the 2009 U.S. assisted coup that toppled the elected president of Honduras. An unfortunate outcome that Hillary Clinton and Obama said was the best option. Military aid continues and more assassinations. All in the line of duty to a corrupt oligarch our tax dollars’ support. Phifer’s misinformed world view would not be so concerning but she is run for Congress in Minnesota’s 8th district. I bet the Hillary right-wing faction of Democratic Party is backing Phifer. Wouldn’t be surprising.

    In Guatemala U.S. support for dictators and the arming of “bad hombres” in the 1970’s resulted in the killing of 250,000 people in the 1980’s, many from indigenous nations. Guatemalans rose up to fight for democracy, self-determination and against corrupt oligarchs. I have met people who lost family members and friends. These people were no threat to U.S. citizens. We did not need protection from them their uprising. No, those who were protected by U.S. covert and overt aid were those U.S. firms and corrupt Guatemalan officials who covet the minerals and cheap labor here.

    Phifer needs a history lesson. I suggest starting with the book “Killing Hope: US military and CIA interventions since World War II. By the way, in this part of the world the CIA, appropriately so, is called the Criminal Intelligence Agency.

    Those of us who know the bloodily history of US imperialism are not, as Phifer so arrogantly and condescendingly terms “bleeding hearts [that] put our national security at risk.” No, we peace activists and people of conscience who work hard to inform our fellow citizens about the true nature of US foreign policy. We want an end to wars for oil, like the invasion of Iraq, the dismemberment of Libya and the cruel, illegal sanctions against the people of Venezuela. In the last instance, Americans are once again being lied to.

    Voters would be wise to abandon Phifer. We don’t need more true believers in Congress, we need those who will challenge US foreign policies and support plans to end the wars. Including the big lie called the War against Terrorism.

    And lastly, Phifer, seems to revel in anticipation of more executive orders that will accelerate deportations. She warns us not to be upset “In the upcoming weeks and months, [as] photos of ICE arrests will be front-page news….” She goes on to say that she, ICE and FBI personal are “civil servants trying to do the best we can with the orders we’re given.” Sadly, this statement rings with the familiar mindset of a true believer, the kind of thinking that puts our nation at risk of being further isolated diplomatically and at being bankrupt by military and security costs.

    • Submitted by gary severson on 03/19/2018 - 09:38 am.


      Wayne, your excellent response to Phifer clearly reminds me of the “pole & periphery” theory of empire as described by Samir Amin. As you witness the imperial actions in the “periphery” of the US in Honduras we here in the “metropole” can see more clearly the relationship between our deportations of expendable Central Americans & the use of the “periphery” as a source, as you say, of cheap labor & resources. They are alien “deplorables” & their “peripheral” origins justify the abuse there that they try to escape from by coming to the “metropole”.

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