Sen. Merkley Calls for ICE 'Citizens Academy' to Be Defunded

Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-OR) is calling on fellow Congress members to demand that a new "Citizens Academy" focusing on the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency's Enforcement and Removal Operations (ERO) unit be defunded.

Speaking with Newsweek on Monday, Merkley said he feared that the Citizens Academy pilot program set to launch in Chicago in September could "encourage profiling and vigilante operations and extenuate the divisions that we have in America."

"The last thing we need is to increase the...divisiveness, the racial prejudice and the profiling that's already a big challenge we're facing as a nation," he said.

Plans for the new program came to light after a letter signed by ICE Chicago Field Office Director Robert Guadian inviting stakeholders to participate in the program was published online.

Included in the program's training, he said, would be "scenario-based training and exercises [on] defensive tactics, firearms familiarization and targeted arrests."

While ICE appears to have originally piloted its Citizens Academy programming in 2012, under the Obama administration, an agency spokesperson told Newsweek that the Chicago course would be the first of its kind focusing specifically on units overseeing immigration arrests and deportations in the U.S.

In the midst of widespread protests around racial injustice and police brutality, Merkley said a course focused on ICE's deportation unit with training on defensive tactics, arrests and firearm use is "more than tone-deaf."

"It just sounds like it's trying to pour gasoline on the fire of racial division and profiling. They should cancel this program," he said.

Congress members, he asserted, should also be doing what they can to see the program brought to an end.

With a full House Committee of Appropriations markup of the Homeland Security 2021 funding bill set to take place on Wednesday, representatives could introduce an amendment blocking ICE and other DHS agencies from using funding to host Citizens Academies, Merkley said.

In the days since ICE's plans to host an ERO-focused Citizens Academy came to light, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has also been advocating for members of the committee to take action.

Speaking with Newsweek, Madhuri Grewal, who serves as federal immigration policy counsel for the ACLU, said that Congress members should be fighting to see all Citizens Academy programs run under the DHS defunded.

In a statement sent to Newsweek on Tuesday, however, Evan Hollander, a spokesperson for the House Appropriations Committee, said the committee had been in contact with ICE to raise concerns about the ERO program.

"In response to these concerns, ICE has clarified the reference to training and exercises in its descriptions of the program and has assured the Committee that no law enforcement training will be part of the program and that participants will have no operational role going forward," Hollander said.

Newsweek has contacted ICE to clarify on whether that means participants can no longer expect to receive "scenario-based training and exercises [on] defensive tactics, firearms familiarization and targeted arrests," as Guadian had suggested in his letter to stakeholders.

While Grewal said the ACLU would oppose the programs under any administration, she said "now that there is a greater degree of Congressional interest and oversight and accountability of ICE, these sorts of programs can't fly under the radar as they have in the past."

While ICE has said the programs are meant to strengthen relations between the agency and local communities, Grewal said: "It seems so bizarre that ERO has been decided to be the best-situated to build community relations and trust."

"Touting the way you arrest immigrants is not a great way to build community relations or to do PR," she said. "It begs the question of what is the end game? Are you just extremely proud of targeting black and brown communities, or do you believe this is really the right time to be doing this?"

Like Merkley, Grewal said she believes that rolling out the program in the wake of widespread protests over racial injustice seems "tone-deaf at best, but also dangerous."

The ACLU counsel further questioned ICE's decision to push ahead with hosting the program in the middle of a pandemic.

"I think we're just aghast looking at the bigger context here. Why on earth is this happening right now?" Grewal said.

In a press release published on Monday, ICE said "ERO Chicago is working closely with the Department of Homeland Security and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, as well as other federal, state and local agencies to ensure personal health and safety during the academy."

"Participants will be issued personal protective equipment [PPE] and will be expected to adhere to social distancing guidelines," it said.

For Grewal, the fact that PPE would be dedicated to this cause at a time when the state of Illinois is seeing an uptick in coronavirus cases is perplexing.

"Really, this just shouldn't be happening period," she said.

This article has been updated with a statement from the House Committee of Appropriations.

Senator Jeff Merkley (D-OR) speaks during a news conference in the U.S. Capitol on February 11, 2020 in Washington, D.C. Merkley has spoken out against plans for a new ICE ERO 'Citizens Academy'. Sarah Silbiger/Getty

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