Cross.

Photographer: HECTOR MATA/AFP/Getty Images

Immigration Agents Whistle Trump's Tune

Francis Wilkinson writes editorials on politics and U.S. domestic policy for Bloomberg View. He was executive editor of the Week. He was previously a national affairs writer for Rolling Stone, a communications consultant and a political media strategist.
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How disconnected is border policy in Washington from the border patrol agents who carry it out in Arizona, New Mexico, Texas and California? Last week, the National Border Patrol Council, which represents 16,500 of the nation’s more than 21,000 border patrol agents, endorsed Donald Trump for president. In case this obvious affront to the current president was insufficiently pronounced, the union’s press release took pains to spell it out, saying its members “selflessly serve this country in an environment where our own political leaders try to keep us from doing our jobs.”

The rest of the release -- “our first-ever endorsement in a presidential primary” based on Trump’s unique campaign -- reads like a Tea Party decree circa 2014.

QuickTake Immigration Reform

Immigration policy is immensely complex and, like other contentious political issues, subject to the variable weather of public opinion. But it’s also subject to a hefty amount of hostility from the federal agents who are tasked with carrying it out. In 2012, a group of Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents sued the Barack Obama administration, claiming the administration required them not to enforce the law. The lawsuit was funded by NumbersUSA, an anti-immigration group.

The affinity between some ICE agents, border patrol agents and anti-immigration groups is no secret. The Center for New Community, a Chicago-based nonprofit devoted to “countering the reality of racism and bigotry in America,” issued a 2015 report pointing out ties between border agents and anti-immigration groups.

“Most immigration enforcement agents that I know are good, hard-working people trying to do the best job they can,” said immigration attorney David Leopold, former president of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, via e-mail. “Unfortunately, the National Border Patrol Council is just another anti-immigrant group.”

If the union is even slightly representative of many of the agents it represents, you can see how Obama’s policy of prioritizing deportations, with a heavy de facto emphasis on leniency for the law abiding, could often go awry in the field.

In Vox.com last year, Dara Lind wrote:

Immigration agents have more power than anyone else in determining who gets deported — and, accordingly, have the responsibility to make sure that’s in line with the administration’s policy.

But rank-and-file agents have been fighting the administration for years over attempts from the White House to restrict agents’ ability to deport unauthorized immigrants.

In effect, many agents, along with employees of states such as Texas, which has sued the Obama administration over its plan to enable millions of undocumented immigrants to avoid deportation and obtain work papers, spend their working hours undermining federal immigration policies. It’s not unlike a bunch of firefighters wandering about town setting fire to abandoned buildings whenever the mood strikes them.

There’s a limit to what the White House can do about the situation. With the blessing of Congress, the border patrol has expanded aggressively in the past two decades. Border Patrol and ICE agents, not White House functionaries, are the ones out in field, patrolling the border areas and the interior, encountering undocumented immigrants and making decisions about what to do with them.

Like the anti-immigrant wing of Congress, they can be a hostile force, working at cross purposes to the executive under whom they serve. The Supreme Court, which will hear the Texas lawsuit against the administration this spring, can rule in Obama’s favor, enabling him to pursue his immigration policy via executive action. What it can’t do is make the agents in the field carry that policy out.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Francis Wilkinson at fwilkinson1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Jonathan Landman at jlandman4@bloomberg.net