Increasingly, advocacy groups across the US and Democrat elected officials are publicly getting behind the call to #AbolishICE. As the call gains popularity, however the rift among groups and organizations about what exactly that call means also appears to grow.
For many of the undocumented-led groups that have been championing the call to abolish ICE for several years now, it means a radical transformation of the immigration system, which would entail, among other things, a stop to deportations.
For others, it seems to signify a reformation of existing agencies. Among those favoring a reformist approach, there are some who have suggested replacing the existing agencies with presumably more transparent and accountable agencies. Some public figures, such as progressive Democrat candidate Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, have suggested an “updated INS-like structure,” referring to the predecessor immigration agency that overlooked administrative and as enforcement matters between 1933 and 2003.
But reports from the INS era demonstrate that the old immigration enforcement agency was not much different from ICE in terms of allegations of abuses and violations against people living in the US. For this piece, we looked at reports from El Cuhamil, the newspaper of the Texas Farmworkers Union that was active in the 1970s and 1980s.
On May 16, 1978, Maria Contreras was returning from Mexico, when she was questioned by immigration officials at the International Bridge between Nuevo Progreso, Tamaulipas, and Progreso, Texas. The domestic worker, who was a US resident, was returning home after working in Mexico for a few weeks. But the immigration officials did not believe her and proceeded to interrogate her for several hours.
Contreras’ daughter, Rosalinda, would later tell El Cuhamil that her mother was “pressured, maltreated, and insulted” while questioned. As the questioning ensued, Contreras, who was eight months pregnant, began to fall ill. She was having a heart attack. Her family begged for medical attention, but bridge officials failed to respond in a timely manner. Contreras and her baby would die that day, while under the custody of immigration officials.
When news of Contreras’ death spread, local communities were enraged. “The killing of Maria Contreras, is nothing more than another murder in the countless list of killings, harassments, incarcerations, deportations, and beating by la migra against the Mexican workers from both sides of the border,” El Cuhamil wrote in their July 1978 edition of the newspaper. An investigation by a local immigration agency determined that officials acted in a “routine manner.”
Refusing to allow Contreras’ death to be forgotten, they demanded justice from immigration officials and then Commissioner of Immigration, Leonel Castillo. On May 27, 1978, according to El Cuhamil, over 900 people marched on the International Bridge in Progreso to demand justice for Contreras. Just a few days later on May 31, 1978, another 200 people protested in front of the federal courthouse in Brownsville and marched to the International Bridge between Brownsville and Matamoros, demanding the same accountability and justice, while also addressing harassment and other types of abuse from immigration officials, including the Border Patrol.
On June 10, 1978, amongst enraged pleas to “stop all deportations” and to “bring justice to the family of Maria Contreras,” 400 people swarmed the immigration office at the Reynosa-Hidalgo bridge, effectively taking it over. When their occupation ended, protestors refused to show their identification at the immigration checkpoint.
In the late 1970s, the story of Contreras elicited tremendous local outrage. Today, however, it is one of many stories of abuse perpetrated by immigration enforcement officers operating in the Rio Grande Valley and elsewhere across the country. Although they may have never heard of Maria Contreras’ case, for many people across the nation, the names of US immigration enforcement agencies, Immigration Customs Enforcement (ICE) and Customs and Border Protection (CBP), are synonymous for abuse, especially following the aftermath of the Trump administration’s zero-tolerance policy of family separations.
Maria Contreras’ story is relevant today because the agency that refused to believe her and which neglected her medical care was was not ICE or CBP; It was INS, the immigration agency some progressives are calling for to replace ICE.
Lisa Brodyaga, an immigration attorney who’s been practicing immigration law in the Valley since the 1970s, told Neta that she believed that in some ways there was less abuse under the INS. “It’s not that it wasn’t happening then, but it wasn’t happening to the extent that it’s happening now,” she said.
Some things she said have always been the same, regardless of whether the custodial agency was INS, ICE, or CBP. The abuse of people once detained then, she noted, is pretty much the same.
“There have always been problems of sexual abuse of the women,” she said. “That sort of thing happened probably as much back then as it does now.”
Throughout, striking similarities between INS and ICE abound. And as El Cuhamil publications detail between the 1970s and 1980s, Maria Contreras’ story of abuse at the hands of INS was far from unique.
In 1976, there is the case of 19-year-old Jorge Lemos Calixto, who was shot in the back of the head by INS Border Patrol Officer Donald D. Hendrickson, who claimed his pistol was accidentally discharged when he was grabbed by someone from behind. El Cuhamil reported that Lemos was shot “four to five inches from his skull.” Although it was never found, Hendrickson would also claim to have seen Lemos with a butcher knife.
In 1980, there was the case of 6-year-old Estela Salazar de la Cruz and 55-year-old Jose Anselmo Rodriguez. El Cuhamil reported that both of them died because the driver of the pick-up truck they were in lost control of the automobile when immigration agents shot at it.
Then there is the case of Manolo Anzalo. An 18-month-old U.S. citizen child who, in a 1981 El Cuhamil issue, was reported to have died as a result of not obtaining emergency medical care whilst in the custody of immigration officials after an entry into San Diego. In the same issue, there’s the case of Efren Reyes, a Mexican man who was shot dead while attempting to cross into Mexico. The agent who shot him claimed it was in self-defense, even though another agent later sent a written statement to the Chief of Police stating that “neither one of the two handcuffed men never made the slightest movement.” In relation to the case, Michael Walsh, an agent from the district attorney’s office, told El Cuhamil that such cases were difficult to try because they relied on the word of an immigrant versus that of a federal official. “Nobody fools anybody,” he admitted. “We all know this happens,” Walsh was quoted as stating.
In addition to cases of negligence and excessive force, stories by El Cuhamil also point to numerous allegations of physical and sexual abuse. In an Aug. 1981 issue, for example, a former INS officer that operated in McAllen admitted to El Cuhamil that they witnessed fellow officers shoot at undocumented workers on frequent occasions. A second INS officer, formerly based in California, also told the publication that in addition to the common practice of INS agents planting unregistered guns on immigrants who have been “accidentally” killed, the rape of young girls and women by INS agents was also a regular occurrence. That INS officer said he was “told not to worry [because] this happens daily.”
One 1981 article by El Cuhamil mentions the incarceration of “hundreds” of children in Texas and California who had allegedly been taken away from their parents to serve as “material witnesses” against smugglers.
“Some children are in prison with their mothers and some by themselves. Once they’re not needed they are deported to Mexico without their parents,” the El Cuhamil article stated. Before being deported, the story details children as young as 24 months being imprisoned for up to ninety days.
Another 1982 article penned by the Texas Farmworkers Union describes how workers were afraid to organize or to fight for their rights out of fear of losing their documents. The article goes on to mention how in Progreso, Hidalgo, and Brownsville “immigration agents have been known to confiscate these cards and destroy them without any justification threatening them with deportation.” For some, the scenario described then may not sound extremely different from the fears border residents often express or the situation currently unfolding in South Texas with the confiscation of passports of US citizens born through midwives and local obstetricians.
Although deportations were lower than some of the record peaks following the creation of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and the reorganization of ICE and CBP as separate sub-agencies in 2003, deportations were not low under INS. In its reporting, the Texas Farmworkers Union frequently compared the deportation activity they were experiencing in the 1970s and the 1980s to the Mexican Repatriation, which were the infamous mass deportations of the 1920s and 1930s that scholars estimate might have resulted in as many as 2,000,000 deportations. Official INS reports show in 1975 alone INS located over 875,000 undocumented immigrants.
Carlos Marentes, founder of El Centro de los Trabajadores Agrícolas Fronterizos and a former leader of the Texas Farmworkers Union, was one of the journalists covering immigration for El Cuhamil in the Valley at the time.
“En el sur de Tejas, esto no es nada nuevo.” In South Texas, this is nothing new, Marentes said when asked to compare what ICE is doing today to what INS was doing in the 1970s and 1980s. “Habido muchos incidentes de represión, de persecución, campaña de deportaciones,” They were many incidents of repression, of persecutions, and campaigns of deportations, he told Neta.
According to Marentes, raids at the workplace and public community spaces, like schools and churches, were commonplace. Throughout, reports of warrantless searches and other civil rights violations abounded. Prior to the checkpoints, Marentes says it was “foot patrols” people had to be careful with. He also recalls various examples during the 1970s, which he points out was a specifically dangerous time for Central American refugees escaping civil wars in their home countries.
One story Marentes recalls was a group of people who were deported back to El Salvador from McAllen, without the group having been heard or given the legal opportunity to apply for political asylum. News soon reached the Valley that the group was found tortured and dead near the airport in El Salvador shortly after their deportation.
People like Brodyaga and Marentes who closely witnessed the abuses of the INS do not believe the call to #AbolishICE and bring back INS is a favorable solution. In addition to civilian input on the matter of immigration enforcement, Brodyaga believes that fundamental legislative action needs to occur to repeal extremely punitive policies, including those established by the 1996 Illegal Immigration Reform and Responsibility Act which severely criminalized various immigration offenses. It was signed into law by President Clinton.
Marentes told Neta he would support the abolishment of ICE, but that a solution requires more than the closing of one agency.
“Hay que entender que ICE nada mas es solo el instrumento de una política clara del parte del estado norteamericana. Hay algo mal en esta política, para empezar ahí, una profunda raiz racista. Es que no es solo ICE, hay muchas instituciones.” We have to understand that ICE is nothing more but an instrument of a very clear politic by the North American State. There is something [inherently] bad in this politic. To begin with, a profoundly racist root. It’s not just ICE, there are many institutions, he said.
One thing is clear: To resolve the cruel and abuse-ridden US immigration enforcement system, the US will need to go far beyond a new set of initials or the resurrection of an agency that, in its own time, also sparked national outrage and pushback.