ICE: The American Gestapo - Liberal Resistance

ICE: The American Gestapo

By Angela West


Editor’s note: This week we are honored to have a new writer among us, Angela West. She is currently a Ph.D. candidate at Drew University’s Caspersen School of Graduate Studies, History and Culture Program. She has a B.A. from Southern Oregon University in history and an M.A. from Drew University specializing in Holocaust and Genocide Studies. In this piece, she looks at how the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has become more and more like an authoritarian or even terrorist organization.


Rural communities in the United States are at risk of deteriorating. Since the election of Donald Trump, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has increasingly targeted individuals and families without legal citizenship. In January 2018, BBC released a video highlighting the tragedy in Pacific County, Washington. A rural community predominately made up of Trump supporters were shocked by the disappearance of their friends and schoolmates. Residents, including Pacific County Sheriff’s Office, are realizing the impact of their votes for Donald Trump, and the economic and emotional repercussions.

Pacific County is not the only community ICE has targeted over the course of the year. According to ICE’s fiscal year report, arrests increased by 33,366 compared to 2016, a staggering thirty percent. The report claims that ninety-two percent of those arrested between January 20, 2017 to September 30, 2017 possessed a criminal conviction, a pending criminal charge, were an ICE fugitive (this could mean no laws were broken other than illegal entry into the United States), or were processed with a reinstated final order (meaning those who have remained in the United States beyond their permitted time). Yet, it is important to note that a majority of these criminal charges are non-violent (traffic offenses (DUI): 80,547; ‘Dangerous’ Drugs (this includes marijuana) 76,503; Immigration: 62,517; and other traffic offenses: 68,346). ICE’s crackdown on families and individuals without legal status is causing considerable alarm and, in particular, among some of Donald Trump’s former supporters. In the past year, many individuals with online platforms and various news outlets have grown increasingly concerned that ICE has turned into a sort of American Gestapo (Nazi Germany’s infamous secret police).

Obviously differences between ICE and the actual Nazi Gestapo abound. Yet, definitively deciding whether or not ICE is the modern-day Gestapo is the wrong question to ask. Instead, what is it about ICE and their actions that conjure comparisons to Nazi Germany’s Gestapo? We must understand that history does not repeat itself, but it certainly carries echoes of the past into the present and future. These echoes are our lessons and our warnings. As a result, an even more dire question lies behind the comparison: what are we as bystanders going to do about it? The terms bystander, perpetrator, and victim is commonly used amongst historians to describe people’s role during the take over by the Nazi Regime in Europe. Bystanders are those who witnessed Nazi atrocities and injustices towards others, but did nothing to intervene or supported these injustices.

The Gestapo was created by Hermann Göring in 1933, combining various police agencies into the secret police. By 1936, Heinrich Himmler was appointed Chief of German Police by Adolf Hitler. From this moment forward, the Gestapo was no longer functioning in a state region, but became a national secret police force. The Gestapo’s role in Nazi Germany was to hunt and arrest individuals they considered a threat to the Regime. By 1939, individuals labeled as Jews, Communists, Jehovah Witnesses, homosexuals, and those against the Regime (asocials) were targeted. Arguably, the Gestapo’s best weapon was fear. Most who were arrested disappeared, never to be heard from again. With this in mind, one begins to see why so many are questioning ICE’s role in the United States. ICE’s increased presence in the last year and targeting of individuals with non-violent offences or no offences at all causes anxiety. ICE’s best weapon is fear and it is working.

Fear of ICE is not for nothing. Individuals and families without citizenship are at risk of deportation and is a valid concern given ICE’s increased arrests. Pacific County’s lead sheriff reported ICE agents appearing at individuals’ jobs and homes waiting to arrest them and their families. Currently, the ACLU is expanding their lawsuit from the Trump Administration to ICE for their roles in targeting migrant families. In one case, ICE agents arrested an asylum seeker from the Democratic Republic of the Congo and detained her for months. After a few days of detention, they separated the asylum seeker from her seven-year-old daughter. The daughter was placed in a government-run shelter for over four months 2,000 miles away from her mother. ICE is currently claiming they made a mistake, but ACLU argues this is not the case. The Trump Administration plans to initiate an official policy allowing ICE to separate parents and children, but it appears ICE already started the process.

Actions like this are why comparison to the Nazi Gestapo are increasingly appropriate. The Gestapo solely reported and answered to the highest ranks of the Nazi Regime. They were given full power to arrest individuals and hold them in concentration camps indefinitely without ever charging them. Lower-level Gestapo agents were assigned to the Einsatzgruppen (mobile killing units) in occupied Soviet Union. In addition, they were responsible for the coordination of mass deportation of European Jews to killing centers. Historically, forces like the Gestapo have been beyond the law.

Does any of this sound familiar? Sure, ICE is not helping murder 1.5 million people, occupying other countries, eliminating government resistance, or sending people to killing centers. However, this force is attached to the U.S. president’s administration and is responsible for Enforcement and Removal Operations (ERO). This is subdued phrasing for tracking non-U.S. citizens and deportation. All of this, along with the massive overhaul of increased arrests, has caused fear amongst the most vulnerable. This is why the comparison exists and it’s not entirely unfounded. ICE’s actions over the last year are terrifying and inhumane.

So what are we to do as bystanders? First, we stop being bystanders. Donate to legal services that support undocumented immigrants. The U.S. immigration courts are significantly backlogged, and only a small number are represented pro-bono. They face private prisons and obscene human rights violations. Law organizations such as National Immigrant Justice Center, National Immigration Law Center, Families for Freedom, and Immigration Advocates Network benefit from donations to help undocumented immigrants. Non-profits such as Border Angels help undocumented immigrants on the border and accept donations as well. You can also volunteer. If you can translate, interpret, or you are savvy with legal jargon, your assistance could be of use. You are needed if you have a spare room to share and can become a volunteer for organizations near you that help immigrants. Participate in protests and call your local and state politicians to show support for legal action to defend undocumented immigrants, migrant families, and asylum seekers. Express your concern over ICE’s actions over the last year. Finally, educate yourself on immigrants’ rights. The ACLU has put together a helpful guide for bystanders when they witness undocumented immigrants being targeted.

Remember that while ICE may not be ‘the American Gestapo’, the echoes of history exist for a reason. Their actions are a cause for concern. Fear is ICE’s best weapon, and we cannot allow it to continue.