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Body Politics, Essays, Justice

The Theological Anthropology of ICE’s “Priority Enforcement Program,” Pt. I (Greg Williams)

On 13 August, the main floor of the New Haven People’s Center was characteristically hot and unusually crowded for a late summer evening. About half a dozen lawyers, nonprofit workers, and labor union staff were there for a meeting of the Connecticut Immigrant Rights Alliance.

On 13 August, the main floor of the New Haven People’s Center was characteristically hot and unusually crowded for a late summer evening. About half a dozen lawyers, nonprofit workers, and labor union staff were there for a meeting of the Connecticut Immigrant Rights Alliance. So, too, were scores of rank and file members of the New Haven Workers’ Association – Unidad Latina en Accion (a group that I worked with as a white co-conspirator for three years and am very thankful to for giving me permission to write this article, as well as some guidance as to its content). The subject of the meeting was ICE’s new “Priority Enforcement Program” (PEP), the latest instantiation of information-sharing between immigration and local law enforcement, which now threatens to make not only police stations, but also probation offices, drug treatment programs, and other elements of the criminal (in)justice system unsafe places for immigrants, places where they could easily be handed over to immigration and taken away from their family in chains. “It can happen to anyone” and “it can happen anywhere” were the twin themes of the evening.

To me, and to a growing number of Jesus-followers in this country, it is patently obvious that the complex of policies, institutions, discourses, and practices known collectively as “the immigration system” violates every possible standard of hospitality – not to mention basic justice – that could conceivably be adopted within a recognizably Christian social ethic. Excellent work has already been and is currently being done to flesh this out by far more able theologians than me. A prime example of this is the excellent documentary Trails of Hope and Terror recently written by Iliff School of Theology professor Miguel de la Torre. This work – and the particular directions that the system is moving, especially in the ways that it is drawing local police into the task of “enforcing” the racialized boundaries of American civic life prompt another question: just what are the theological claims borne within the system itself? What theses about God, about morality, and about the nature and good of the human person are being articulated in concrete and barbed wire, and in the laws and practices that legitimize and empower these technologies of violence? And how does this question relate to the theological problem of race in America more generally? And how might practices like grassroots community organizing and direct action pose alternative claims that are in greater conformity to the gospel of Jesus Christ?


The Priority Enforcement Program is, in the most basic analysis, an updated version of the earlier program “Secure Communities.” Since taking office, Barack Obama has deported over two million immigrants (overwhelmingly people of color), more than any other US president. In place of highly visible and controversial “raids,” his administration has relied, to an ever increasing extent, on local law enforcement to bring immigrants of color into deportation processes. Secure Communities was the first instantiation of this pattern. Under this program, whenever local law enforcement took an arrestee’s fingerprints, ICE would check to see if they had ever had any contact with the individual before and, if they had, issue a “detainer request,” asking that they be held for up to 48 hours. Immigration officers would then come and put them in a deportation process.

In 2012 and 2013, I had the privilege of participating in a campaign that highlighted the racist violence inherent in this system. That fall, Jose Maria Islas spent four months in jail awaiting trial when he was arrested in a clear case of racial profiling. While he was on his lunch break from his job at a Hamden, CT factory, police arrested him on the sole criteria that they were looking for “two short brown guys” who had apparented attempted to steal a bicycle on the opposite side of town. As is often the case in the US court system, even though there was clear evidence to exonerate him (i.e. security footage of him at his job while the crime was taking place), prosecutors kept him in jail and pressured him to take a plea deal. Finally, he agreed to Accelerated Rehabilitation, a diversionary program which, if he completed it, would end in all his charges being dropped. When he was being released at the courthouse, however, the judicial marshals held him and handed him over to ICE, who locked him up all over again and started a deportation process against him.

The case of Jose Maria Islas shows how connecting immigration to local law enforcement and court systems breeds racial profiling and incarceration. On paper, the system is color-blind, but this is exposed as a farce when a “short brown guy” is in question. For months, ULA fought this case in the courts and in the streets, holding vigils all through Lent that culminated in an “easter uprising” in which we sat in at the office of New Haven congresswoman Rosa deLauro. In the end, not only did our efforts in the streets – led, in large part, by Jose Maria’s sister Juana Islas – pressure ICE to drop the deportation case, but they also helped push Connecticut to pass the TRUST Act, strictly limiting the extent to which police could cooperate with immigration.

The Priority Enforcement Program is ICE’s response to this legislation, and similar laws passed by states and cities around the country that refuse to allow their police to be deputized by a federal agency determined to detain and deport immigrants of color and separate them from their families, even as the administration has theoretically taken firm executive action on immigration. The only difference between PEP and Secure Communities is that, instead of having police detain immigrants, it asks for information about their whereabouts after their release. So, instead of detaining them at the jail, ICE will come to their homes, to their addiction programs, to their parole officers, and to their jobs. The end result is an even greater imbrication between immigration and the criminal injustice system, as there are far more people on probation and parole than in local jails.



It is common, especially in theological writing, to describe the US immigration system in general and programs like PEP in particular as “broken.” Such language, however, implies that there is some fundamentally good telos for which ICE and other elements of the system were created, which they are failing to serve, functioning instead to enact lamentable, but ultimately senseless violence upon the bodies of immigrants of color. As anti-racists, and especially as disciples of a crucified Lord, we must reject this logic, and insist that, like every other “public” aspect of American society – like police and prisons, zoning laws and corporate marketing strategies – the immigration system serves one and only one telos: the production and maintenance of white supremacy, corporate exploitation, and other crucifying systems of power and domination.

Harsha Walia – a South Asian activist, writer, and popular educator rooted in migrant justice, Indigenous solidarity, Palestinian liberation, antiracist, feminist, anti-imperialist, and anticapitalist movements and communities – helpfully offers an alternative narrative in her recent volume Undoing Border Imperialism (AK Press, 2013). Instead of a “broken immigration system,” she uses the concept of “border imperialism” to describe the interrelation of four distinct sets of policies, practices, laws, and institutions. The first process is “displacements as a result of the coercive extractions of capitalism and colonialism, and the simultaneous fortification of the border – often by those very same Western powers that are complicit in these deportations – which renders the migration of displaced people as perilous” (41). The US, for example, has had a longstanding colonial relationship with Mexico going (at least) all the way back to the Mexican-American war in 1846-48. This relationship, most recently instantiated by free trade policies under NAFTA, displaces millions of people, including Jose Maria Islas, who are then chased, detained, and sometimes shot by US border control officers. The second process is “the criminalization of migration and the deliberate construction of migrants as illegals and aliens” (53), exemplified by Jose Maria’s detention, assisted by the local police in CT. The third process is “the racialized hierarchy of national and imperial identity” (61), that is, the legal, social, and cultural construction of immigrants as people of color within existing racial hierarchies – in the case of the US, within the black-white binary in particular. The incidence of racial profiling associated with Jose Maria’s detention (that the only criteria for his arrest was that he was a “short brown guy”) shows how this takes place. Finally, the fourth structure of border imperialism is labor precarity (67). Migrant workers like Jose Maria are subjected to low wages, long hours, poor working conditions, unemployment and underemployment at much higher rates than their white counterparts, and higher rates, even, than other workers of color.

Programs like Secure Communities and PEP, then, are not “flaws” in a “broken system.” Rather, they represent closer cooperation between border control and law enforcement, in the context of US racial hierarchies and in service to labor precarity and corporate rule. They make complete sense within the telos of border imperialism as a whole: the creation of racialized and classed hierarchies through the mechanisms of and in service to the colonial-capitalist state and market.

(to be continued next week)


Greg Williams is a graduate of Yale Divinity School and an incoming ThD student at Duke Divinity School, who writes out of his experience doing grassroots community organizing and nonviolent direct action from an anti-colonial/anti-capitalist perspective on the non-statist democratic left. He has been particularly active in anti-globalization, anti-poverty, labor, migrant justice, prison abolitionist, LGBTQ and indigenous and Palestinian solidarity work.  He is a member of the Industrial Workers of the World and the environmental group Rising Tide North America. He is an Ashkenazi Jew, a radical reformed Christian, and an Anarcho-Communist.

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