Which federal law enforcement agency is an imminent danger to the U.S.? The answer, of course, depends on which partisan lens you apply to the inquiry.
Republicans in Congress and the White House are waging war against the Federal Bureau of Investigation, seeking to undermine the agency’s credibility in order to cripple its investigation into President Donald Trump and his campaign. In effect, many Republicans are concerned that the FBI is not only doing its job, but perhaps doing it all too well.
A similar fear reigns in many Democratic enclaves about a different federal agency - Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Under Trump, ICE, which is housed in the Department of Homeland Security, has aggressively escalated enforcement in the nation’s interior. (Border Patrol agents generally police the border regions.) Cities and whole states, including California, home to almost one in nine Americans, have declared themselves sanctuaries that resist cooperation with ICE on immigration matters.
Last week, the city council of San Gabriel, California, took its resistance up a notch. The city’s police force had struck a deal with ICE last summer to enable a San Gabriel detective to be designated a federal customs officer. The detective wouldn’t enforce immigration law, which state law forbids, but he would cooperate with ICE on a task force addressing more serious crimes, including human trafficking and fraud.
When some local officials later learned of the arrangement, they moved to end it. San Gabriel, a city of roughly 40,000 east of Los Angeles, has a median income within 2 percent of the U.S. national median. Its demographics, however, are a nativist’s nightmare. According to the U.S. Census, about 55 percent of the city’s population is foreign-born. (The comparable figure for the U.S. is around 13 percent.) The city police department looks out on a Chinese academy. The local public library down the block lends books in English, Spanish, Chinese and Vietnamese.
Last week, at a meeting marked by vocal protests against ICE, the city council voted 3-2 to end the agreement with the feds. ICE has become so toxic to California immigrant communities that the city is unwilling to have a formal cooperation agreement with the agency even on non-immigrant criminal matters.
The distrust in San Gabriel is far from unique. And it’s hard to contain. Last week, agents with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration were joined by the California Highway Patrol, the Santa Clara County Sheriff’s Office and police dogs in raiding a small business in downtown San Jose.
They weren’t looking for undocumented immigrants. But rumors to that effect swept through a nearby community center, prompting people inside to flee.
San Jose Police Chief Eddie Garcia has begun speaking at local churches to assure immigrant communities that the local police are their allies, not enemies. “We have to constantly assure them that although we are part of government, we are separate,” Garcia told the Mercury News. “Our role and mission is not to discourage or strike fear, but to embrace everyone, while keeping our neighborhoods free from crime and violence.”
That only works if Garcia can also assure locals that he will keep their neighborhoods free of ICE. Even American citizens get confused by the plethora of law-enforcement agencies that operate in and around cities; that single San Jose raid involved federal, state and local agents. As long as ICE is executing Trump’s maximal deportation agenda, it will continue to generate fear and opposition, and not just in California.
A Montana man who worked for the state Department of Labor and Industry said he quit his job last week rather than respond to a subpoena request from ICE for information on Montana employers. “There were going to be ICE subpoenas for information that would end up being used to hunt down & deport undocumented workers,” he explained on Twitter.
The country was plenty divided before Trump’s presidency, and the conflicting narratives of black lives and blue power had brought the conflict into police departments. But the rapid spread of distrust and polarization to national law-enforcement agencies suggests bigger troubles may lie ahead, with increased risk. A recent poll found Trump and his enablers had succeeded in driving down Republican voters’ approval of the FBI to 38 percent. Meanwhile, ICE has indicated it is gearing up for expanded raids in sanctuary cities.
Perhaps Democrats and Republicans will have separate police forces before this is over.
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.