As protests against police brutality sweep the U.S. and demands to defund police multiply, Immigration and Customs Enforcement is seeking thousands of new “conductive energy weapons” — what the general public commonly refers to as tasers — and training at a U.S. military base on how to use them.
According to a recent contracting request, the immigration enforcement agency is willing to pay up to $18 million for new gear and training to bolster its Enforcement and Removal Operations division, a wing of ICE tasked with enforcing civil immigration laws and conducting deportations. Advocates believe the request is an unsettling sign from an agency that has steadily grown increasingly politicized, militarized, and engaged in the ongoing crackdown on protests against police violence.
“Given the already violent and aggressive nature of ICE policing and arrests, it is troubling to learn the agency wants to add tasers to its arsenal,” Mizue Aizeki, deputy director of the Immigrant Defense Project, said in an email to The Intercept.
Posted last week, the contracting opportunity calls on interested vendors to assist ICE officers whose “mission includes the apprehension and removal of immigration law violators which requires officers to use non-lethal means of subduing a hostile, non-cooperating individual.” According to a June 4 work statement, ICE is particularly interested in multi-cartridge weapons with the ability to shoot up to 25 feet.
“Currently, DHS ICE ERO utilizes a single shot Conductive Energy Weapon (CEW) in the field,” the statement said. “The majority [of] CEWs in use are no longer covered under warranty if any repair is needed.”
In addition to a “modernization program that upgrades current arsenal to the most technology advanced CEW weapon,” ICE is also seeking annual instruction courses to be held at the U.S. Army’s base at Fort Benning. As a hub for many of U.S. military’s most elite units, the Georgia base also houses an ICE division devoted to firearms and tactical training.
Among immigration and border rights advocates, Fort Benning, which is named after a Confederate general, is infamous for its role in housing the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation, formerly known as the School of the Americas, which in the 1980s served as training ground for Latin American death squads.
The Intercept sent ICE a list of questions regarding the contracting opportunity on Tuesday morning, including whether U.S. military personnel would be involved in any of the training deportation officers would receive on the weapons; whether the timing of the request had anything to do with the waves of protest gripping the nation; and whether ICE’s taser training program would include instruction on crowd control or protest policing scenarios. ICE did not provide answers to those questions by publication Wednesday. The Intercept will update this story should the agency choose to do so.
As the deportation wing of ICE, ERO has been outspoken in its support for the president’s ultra-hard-line immigration agenda. On the campaign trail, Donald Trump spoke directly to the grievances of ICE’s deportation officers and received an overwhelming endorsement from the agency’s union: 95 percent of the union’s members identified Trump as their preferred candidate. Thomas Homan, the former acting director of the agency and frequent Fox News guest, who has argued that undocumented immigrants should live in fear of ICE, rose up through ERO ranks. The agency’s current acting director, Matthew Albence, who has previously described detention facilities for immigrant children as “summer camps,” is also an ERO veteran.
While the contract opportunity does not address crowd suppression or protest policing, the timing of the post is curious. ICE personnel were among the army of federal law enforcement called up by the Trump administration to put down demonstrations against police violence. In New York City last week, special agents with Homeland Security Investigations, ICE’s criminal investigative wing, were filmed attempting to assist the New York Police Department by detaining a man, reportedly at gunpoint; the man, a U.S. citizen, was later released.
ICE’s involvement in the policing of activists and activism is a source of serious concern for undocumented community members; last year, The Intercept detailed how the tweets of an undocumented Occupy ICE protester in Texas led to an arrest and deportation. But even outside of the realm of activism, ICE’s day-to-day enforcement of immigration laws has come under harsh criticism.
In New York City, where ICE routinely conducts operations in immigrant communities, a team of ICE officers shot a man in the face earlier this year. The high-profile incident was part of a pattern of what advocates see as increasing militarization of the immigration enforcement agency. Aizeki and her colleagues at IDP have tracked ICE tactics and operations in the city and surrounding area for years. Going into 2020 — an election year in which the Trump administration was expected to tout his record on immigration — the lawyers charted significant shifts in the character and pace of local ICE arrests.
“Before the COVID pandemic hit NYC, ICE massively escalated their raids — at a rate of 400% greater than the previous three months — with increasingly aggressive tactics, including shooting a bystander, pulling teenagers out of cars with guns drawn, and waving an assault rifle on a Bronx street,” Aizeki said. “The current, much-needed focus on the structural violence of racialized local policing sheds light on how ICE policing also functions to maintain inequality and an unjust status quo, nationally and globally.”