ICE and the Banality of Spin

ICE and the Banality of Spin

How the Trump era’s most controversial government agency uses press releases to paint anti-immigrant policies as a heroic fight against crime.

The press release is a curious and unique mode of messaging. The typically short, formulaic communiqué, written by public relations professionals to mimic hard news, is one of the few forms of writing created with the express intent of being copied in full. (The world’s first modern press release, for example, was written in 1906 by Ivy Lee, on behalf of Pennsylvania Railroad, to preempt difficult questions about a train crash that killed 50 people; it was published verbatim in the New York Times.)

The majority of the public never encounters or reads a press release: the documents live primarily on the websites and blogs of corporate businesses, non-profits, government entities and the occasional industry site that reproduces them in full. But press releases are familiar to journalists such as myself, especially those of us on whom certain industries want to make an impression; we encounter them daily in our email inboxes, where PR professionals hope to influence our thinking and, therefore, the narratives we help put out into the world.

A few months ago, as news of family separations at the border dominated media coverage and the #AbolishICE movement gathered steam, I decided that I needed to understand the agency called ICE, or Immigration and Customs Enforcement, in its own words. Founded in 2003 as an outgrowth of the Department of Homeland Security and the War on Terror, ICE has come to symbolize, for critics and supporters alike, the Trump administration’s policies on immigration. I figured that going directly to the source—or, rather, to the source’s public relations professionals—would help me to understand how the agency’s administrators and workers see themselves and the immigrants that they often target. How did ICE agents justify their actions, I wondered, and how did the agency’s worldview, in turn, affect public opinion?

In November 2018, I signed up on ice.gov/news to receive ICE press releases by email. As the releases trickled into my inbox—sometimes a few a week, sometimes a few a day—I was struck by the contrast between the agency’s efforts to demonstrate its own humanity and its dehumanization of the people it targets. This past December, for instance, the holiday season was celebrated not with the puns and dad jokes of several years ago (“’Tis the Season to Avoid Holiday Scams, Hoaxes” reads one ICE press release from December 10, 2014) but with announcements about the work of criminal non-American miscreants (“ICE arrests 63 criminal aliens and immigration violators in 4-day enforcement surge”). In fact, all but two of the agency’s releases from December 2018 were related to criminal activity, with half of those focused on crimes committed by immigrants or aliens in particular.


There are 3,457 press releases organized into 22 categories at ice.gov/news/all, covering the period from 2014 to 2018. (The entire archive goes back to 2008, but I chose to focus on the past four years because of the high number of deportations under both the Obama and Trump administrations—and the contrast in tone between the two, despite this similarity.) “Enforcement and removal,” which covers the detentions and deportations most associated with the agency, is the most active category overall, with some 271 press releases (so far) from the Trump administration and 125 from the final two years of Obama’s. (During those final two years, the designation “enforcement and removal” was used less frequently than “child exploitation,” at 388, and “narcotics,” at 144.)

Many of the categories within ICE’s archive of press releases—as well as individual releases such as the lighthearted 2014 holiday missives—emphasize the work of Homeland Security Investigations (HSI), the ICE directorate that carries out transnational investigations. In fact, if one were to read the press releases alone, it would appear that HSI is responsible for the bulk of the agency’s work, when in reality, ICE is staffed with a roughly equal number of employees (around 8,500) from Enforcement and Removal Operations (ERO), the directorate responsible for deportation. (In addition to the HSI and ERO, which received $4.8 billion, or 65 percent of the agency’s $7.5 billion 2018 budget, ICE oversees directorates like the Office of the Principal Legal Advisor, where government lawyers litigate immigration cases, and the Office of Professional Responsibility, which investigates employee misconduct and oversees ICE adult detention facilities—of which there were 1,478 known, as of November 2017.)

According to a former ICE public affairs officer, who asked to remain anonymous to protect his employment prospects, HSI’s frequent appearance in ICE press releases is due to the fact that its work, investigating transnational crime, is considered “more palatable” to the American public than that carried out by the ERO: deportations. Thus, HSI plays an important role in softening ICE’s overall image among the American public—though, to be clear, HSI doesn’t exactly benefit from its association with ICE. In June 2018, 19 HSI regional supervisors published an open letter to Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen requesting that HSI separate from ICE completely. ICE’s negative reputation, they explained, was making it difficult for them to work with potential sources, who confuse their duties with those of the ERO and are afraid of being targeted for removal. As of that June, the letter had not been publicly acknowledged.


Almost immediately after entering office, President Trump enacted new policies on immigration that significantly shifted the US government’s treatment of non-citizens. On January 25, 2017, days after his inauguration, Trump signed an executive order rescinding Obama-era guidelines that prioritized the removal of individuals deemed national-security threats, immigrants convicted of serious crimes, and recent undocumented border crossers. In their place, new guidelines demanded equal focus on all people who were unauthorized to be in the United States, and spurred the creation of a new entity, the Victims of Immigration Crime Engagement Office (VOICE), to track and highlight crimes committed by those people. The stated goal of VOICE, which was officially inaugurated on April 26, 2017, is to give voice to Americans who have suffered at the hands of “criminal aliens” and who, as then-DHS Secretary John Kelly said in an April 2017 ICE press release, “are casualties of crimes that should never have taken place—because the people who victimized them often times should not have been in the country in the first place.”

Though it was far from the first time that government officials had spoken disparagingly of immigrants and crime, the creation of VOICE marked an unprecedented effort to dedicate resources to demonstrating and publicizing that link. One way VOICE planned to communicate this supposed connection was through the publication of quarterly reports on the statistics for unauthorized-immigrant crime in the United States, though it has published only two since June 2018. (VOICE officials have given no explanation as to why they stopped releasing reports, though—as numerous media outlets have gleefully posited—the fact that the first report did not actually demonstrate a strong link between undocumented immigrants and crime may have played a role.)

How did ICE agents justify their actions, I wondered, and how did the agency’s worldview, in turn, affect public opinion?

In addition, for several weeks following the launch of VOICE, the office published a weekly list (now also inactive) of crimes committed by undocumented immigrants in so-called sanctuary cities such as Philadelphia and Washington, D.C. It also started a hotline for victims of immigrant crime to receive updates about their perpetrators’ cases. By VOICE’s own numbers, the hotline received 4,602 calls between April and September 2017, many of which involved complaints about aliens of the extraterrestrial variety, requests to book a room at the Trump Hotel in D.C., and efforts “to report Melania Trump, who is stealing caller’s taxpayer funds.” The phone number is still active.

DHS and ICE have since stopped publicizing VOICE, possibly because it has failed to draw clear links between immigrants and crime. But the former public-affairs officer I spoke to says that the office continues to work behind the scenes to encourage regular coverage of immigrant crime through agency press releases and the national news media. Since the beginning of the Trump administration, my source adds, ICE has increased its emphasis in press releases on “hurt or murdered Americans.” Thus, the December 2018 press release about the removal of the "Mexican national convicted of manslaughter in US,” and the one from August 2018, “Chinese nationals charged with operating global opioid conspiracy resulting in deaths," or the May 2018 announcement about the removal of a "Salvadoran MS-13 gang member wanted on murder, terrorism charges.”

John Sandweg, who served as acting director of ICE between August 2013 and February 2014, says that, under the Obama administration, the agency’s communications priority was to project efficiency. “What we were trying to convey was that we have transitioned to a sophisticated, smart, law enforcement–based approach to immigration enforcement,” he tells me. In contrast, he explains, the agency under the Trump administration aims to spread fear, with a much simpler message: “ICE is coming.”


That message may be resonating. As George Lakoff, a linguist, and Gil Duran, former press secretary to California governor Jerry Brown, explained last year in an op-ed for The Guardian, the repetition of negative messaging used by President Trump has a significant effect on public perception. “Language works by activating brain structures called ‘frame-circuits’ used to understand experience,” they wrote. “They get stronger when we hear the activating language. Enough repetition can make them permanent, changing how we view the world.”

And as I discovered after immersing myself in the ICE press release archive, the agencies under Trump’s control are following his lead by using similar language and linguistic techniques to influence how we think. ICE isn’t just enforcing the administration’s anti-immigrant policies; by deploying a number of different rhetorical tactics that effectively dehumanize immigrants and aliens, it’s also reinforcing Trump’s entire anti-immigrant worldview. These tactics include the following:

 

• Coining evocative new terms

Lakoff’s “frame-circuits” are most effectively reinforced when ICE uses emotionally evocative new words or phrases, such as “criminal aliens,” “immigration fugitives,” and “fugitive aliens” (sometimes also referred to as “alien fugitives”). These terms are not defined in US law, though various US government communications provide their own definitions. According to ICE spokesperson Matthew Bourke, “fugitive alien” and “immigration fugitive” refer to a person who “has received a final order of removal from an immigration judge, and subsequently absconded and failed to meet the obligation of that final removal order.” (The agency has yet another term for this: “ICE fugitive,” which it defines using strikingly similar language in a Q&A introducing its Fugitive Operations Team: someone who “has failed to leave the United States based on a final order of removal, deportation, or exclusion, or who has failed to report to ICE after receiving notice to do so.”)

In an email statement to Topic, Bourke explains that the purpose of using the phrase “fugitive alien” instead of “ICE fugitive” is to distinguish between HSI “fugitives unrelated to immigration enforcement.” But there may be a linguistic explanation as well for the increase in frequency of terms like “fugitive alien”: collocation.  

Collocation

Collocation is the name given to words that are grouped together more often than expected by chance and, as a result, begin to take on each other’s meanings. In 2016, for example, Oxford Dictionaries was criticized for illustrating the word “rabid” with the phrase “rabid feminism,” thereby reinforcing a common negative association with the word “feminism.” (The example was eventually removed.)

Thus, “fugitive alien” is a collocation that reinforces the link between fugitive activity and aliens (any non-American, whether immigrant or visitor), while “criminal alien” is a collocation that suggests aliens commit crimes. In both cases, “fugitive” and “criminal” don’t just refer to illicit activity, but become associated with aliens unauthorized to be, or remain, in the United States. Such is the power of these individual words, “fugitive” and “criminal,” that they create a strong negative meaning for “alien.” An example of this can be seen in a December 2018 press release, “ICE arrests 58 in New England enforcement action,” which discusses “dangerous criminal aliens and other immigration violators”—equating an immigration violation, which is not a crime, with danger and, by implication, a threat of violence.

• True and False Names

Another technique of linguistic manipulation employed by ICE is what scholar Geoffrey Nunberg of UC Berkeley’s School of Information describes as “true and false names.” As Nunberg explained in a 2009 paper about obfuscating political language, “true names” clarify what a word means, while “false names” often take the form of euphemisms, terms that are left intentionally ambiguous, or inversions of a word’s actual meaning. (Famous examples of these include “friendly fire,” “senior citizen,” and “surgical strike.”)

This concept may be better-known under a different term: “doublespeak,” from George Orwell’s dystopian novel 1984. The phrases “enforcement surge,” “enforcement action,” and “enforcement operation,” all of which appear in the headlines of 26 different ICE press releases distributed between 2014 and 2018, are doublespeak for activities that would be more accurately deemed immigration raids. Also doublespeak: the “continued diplomatic efforts” referred to in a December 2018 ICE press release about the deportation of Cambodian nationals back to Cambodia. (A more accurate way of describing this would have been diplomatic pressure, or even coercion, given the US government’s successful use of visa sanctions against Cambodian officials to force them to accept Cambodian deportees.) Furthermore, the term “Cambodian nationals” obscures the individuals’ status as refugees granted asylum by the US in the aftermath of the Khmer Rouge genocide, many of whom had been legal permanent residents, and even eligible for citizenship, before their convictions had stripped them of their statuses.

 

• False Dilemmas

Another rhetorical technique used by ICE is the creation of false dilemmas, in which an author or speaker sets up an either/or situation that appears to have just two potential outcomes—though in reality there are more than are being presented.

In the December 2018 release about an immigration raid in New England, ICE justified the raid by explaining that local law enforcement had ignored its detainers—the agency’s name for its own requests to detain an individual for an additional 48 hours after their release date, so ICE can decide whether or not to begin removal proceedings. As a result, the release claimed, ICE “has no alternative but to periodically conduct at-large arrests in local communities.” But these two choices—the idea that either local law enforcement complies with ICE, or ICE conducts raids—are not the only options. Other possibilities include the idea that local law enforcement would not comply with ICE, and that ICE wouldn’t conduct raids at all.

 

• Lost Performatives

It’s not always the intentional misuse of words that works to manipulate our perceptions; sometimes it’s the missing context that is key. In linguistics, “lost performatives” refer to statements or assertions that contain no actual evidence and therefore must be taken on faith—for example, truisms such as, “Everyone deserves a second chance” or “Boys will be boys.” Often, lost performatives present opinions as facts: “Immigrants cause crime.” If you could respond, “Says who?” and if the answer wouldn’t be obvious, you’ve got a lost performative.

That local law enforcement would comply with ICE, or that ICE would have no choice but to conduct raids, are not the only two options.

The ICE press release from December 2018 about the raid in New Jersey typifies the use of the lost performative. Describing the arrestees, the release reports that “most were previously convicted of a variety of offenses,” and goes on to list a series of crimes including possession of narcotics, DUIs, various forms of financial fraud, and aggravated assault. But the release provides no details that could allow a reader to evaluate the severity—or violence—of the crimes. Without more specific information, it’s natural that a reader’s mind might jump to the worst-case scenario, imagining only the assaults.

The December 2018 release about Cambodian deportations presents a similar example. In it, ICE’s Enforcement and Removal Operations’ acting executive associate director Nathalie Asher is quoted as saying, “This most recent removal flight took 34 criminals, many convicted of the most heinous possible crimes, off of our streets and made our communities safer” (emphasis mine). But Asher’s judgment of the Cambodians’ crimes as “the most heinous” plus her claim that their removal is “making our communities safer” is opinion, not fact. Not only that, but by attributing that strong, negative language to Asher herself rather than to ICE, the agency can distance itself from the sentiment, thereby maintaining the illusion of neutrality while Asher’s assertion conveniently reduces the arrestees’ entire life experience down to the specifics of their crimes.


Over the three months I spent submersing myself in the world of ICE press releases, I was somewhat surprised to find myself empathizing with the agency—which was, of course, the whole point. Alongside releases full of obfuscation and sleight-of-hand rhetorical strategies are stories and announcements that make the case that ICE employees shouldn’t be reduced to a faceless “deportation machine.” Rather, these press releases seem to say, ICE is a law enforcement agency trying to do its best to keep America safe in an ugly, dangerous world, with a workforce of heroic yet relatable Americans—such as Jill Brenny in San Francisco, who fell in love with and adopted a dog while on the job (the subject of a December 3, 2014, press release), or the playful public affairs officer behind the witty “’Tis the Season to Avoid Hoaxes, Scams” headline from the same month.

And though these human-interest stories about specific ICE officers make up a tiny percentage of the total number of press releases—I found roughly 65 between 2014 and 2018—they do stand out. Gone is the formal, bureaucratic tone of standard press statements and the subtle linguistic techniques that frame the conversation about immigrants. These press releases read as straightforward, casual, and warm—just like the all-American ICE officers and HSI special agents that they describe. Off-duty, they emphasize, ICE officers save people from burning buildings and plane crashes, organize book drives, volunteer with animals, and still bring their best to work every day. Hello, Captain America.

It’s all very effective. We naturally feel empathy for those with whom we identify and fear of those we do not. But through its use of humanizing details for ICE officers and sweeping, hyperbolic statements and subtle linguistic devices dehumanizing its non-American targets, ICE has not only set up, but underscored, a classic us-versus-them mentality. ICE agents are heroes. Refugees are “foreign nationals.” And all immigrants should be considered suspect, even criminal. For the Immigration and Customs Enforcement office, the assumption of humanity is only for Americans.

Share this story