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Former Acting ICE Director On Raids


This is the morning for ICE raids, as announced by President Trump well in advance. ICE is the Immigration and Customs Enforcement. And the targets are said to be immigrants with deportation orders not just for serious criminal offenses. Ron Vitiello is a former acting director of ICE under President Trump. And he's here with us in the studio.

Good morning.

RON VITIELLO: Good morning - great to be with you.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Can you remind us what kind of resources it takes to pull off simultaneous raids across the country?

VITIELLO: Well, let's start by talking about it as a raid. These are methodically planned operations, right? So the targets in this particular population that the president kind of previewed at the beginning of the month are - is a group of individuals who came to the border as families. We asked the Justice Department, while I was still in government, to put a docket together specifically for this population because we were getting crushed with the number of families and children coming to the border. It's out of control. It still is. It's a lot worse now than it was back in September when they...


VITIELLO: ...Put the docket together.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: But it's quite a complicated thing to pull off.

VITIELLO: The operation itself.


VITIELLO: Yeah. You got to find people who, you know, traditionally, are in the shadows, right? That's what we talk about in the media. That's what we talk about. So they're - it's typical. Like, if someone had to find you or me in society, you know, you'd probably have a house or a lease payment that you're making. You have a gas bill. You have a cellphone bill. You can pay private companies to give you that information.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: But this is much more complicated. I have a question. This is happening at a time when we've heard complaints about the stresses on ICE and the CBP and HHS. Mark Morgan, who was, until very recently, the acting ICE director, called it a breaking point. Is this the right use of resources at this particular moment in time?

VITIELLO: Well, I think since the beginning of this administration and before that even, while I was still in government, we were asking for congressional relief to close the loopholes in immigration law. Right now what happens at the border and why so many people are coming is because if you bring your child or send your child, you're eventually released into the country. So in September, we asked the Justice Department to put this docket together so we could expedite the review of the immigration cases of these families. They, in fact, did that. They heard thousands of cases before I left government. Most of those individuals, those families did not go to their immigration hearing - did not follow up on the same asylum claim that they made. And so at the same time that we're asking for congressional relief to close these loopholes, this is a way for the administration, ICE itself, to close the loop on the enforcement actions.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So why would you then jeopardize the operation by announcing when and where it was going to happen? I want us to listen to Leon Rodriguez, the former head of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services under President Obama, speaking to CNN yesterday.


LEON RODRIGUEZ: In the 30 or so years that I've been involved with U.S. law enforcement, I've never seen a situation where you had this level of advance warning from multiple senior administration officials about the fact that the raids are occurring in the first place.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So doesn't that make these raids more of a political show than an actual operation if you're saying that they're important? You've been planning them for a long time.

VITIELLO: Yeah. I'm not sure. What we wanted to do while I was there or, I think, what they're attempting to do now is to close the loop on the enforcement continuum. There is an important element of the public understanding what the goals are here. And so the president, you know, tweeting it out and telling people it was going to happen makes it political because he is a political figure. However, there is a balance here that you want the public to know what ICE is going to try to accomplish with these operations.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I spoke with Louis DeSipio. He's a poli-sci professor at UC Irvine who studies immigration. And he raised a point that I thought was interesting about the pressure on ICE agents by this announcement and the president's relationship with ICE. Let me play it here.

LOUIS DESIPIO: ICE wants to be stealthy in its operation. So announcing something in advance and then reinforcing that announcement by tweet is not good police work.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I mean, he says it might put them at risk. Apparently, we've seen ICE agents turned away because they don't have warrants over the weekend. There is no element of surprise. I mean, it doesn't seem like it might be the best tactic.

VITIELLO: Well, I've seen it go both ways. When there's not a significant public predicate for what is going to go on operationally, the public is rightly concerned. Cities and towns - there's a lot of jurisdictions out there that don't want to cooperate with ICE. And so I think it's different. It's non-traditional for it to be known publicly, but I also think there's a benefit for the public to understand what the government is trying to accomplish overall.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: What is the strategy, though? - because with an expected target of about 2,000 people. That's a tiny fraction of the overall population. What can be achieved with that?

VITIELLO: Well, every time, in my career, where we've ended this cycle where people get released into the country after entering illegally - every time you apply a consequence, which in the case of these families, is a deportation order - when you apply that consequence, you get less traffic at the border. And so if you can shore up...

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So it's a deterrent, you're saying.

VITIELLO: If you can shore up the enforcement continuum and apply a consequence to this illegal behavior, then you'll get less of it.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I must ask you, as someone who supports the president and worked to enact his immigration policies - this morning, he tweeted out that members of Congress should go back and help fix the totally broken and crime-infested places from which they came, talking about members of Congress who are people of color. Isn't that racist and, I imagine, damaging to people who are duty-bound to carry out the country's immigration regulations? - because it could support the view that this immigration policy is about keeping brown people out.

VITIELLO: No, I don't see it that way. In the sense of what happens at the border, we have to establish a rule of law. If anybody can come to our hemisphere and then make it to our border and cross illegally with a child and then allowed to stay for an indeterminate amount of time, that's not a border at all. That's not a sovereign nation at all. I think that's what he's trying to solidify. That's what this operation is designed to do. And every time in my career - we did it in 2007 under Secretary Chertoff. We did it in 2014 under Secretary Johnson. When we apply a consequence - meaning when people come into the - cross the border illegally, they're set up and held for their immigration proceedings and then removed - then less of them will come.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's Ron Vitiello, former acting director of ICE.

Thank you so much for joining us.

VITIELLO: Glad to be here. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.