ICE Director Confronted on Intimidation of Nonviolent Citizen Activism

John Morton, Director of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, spoke on Monday at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville.  Here’s the University’s report.  Here’s the local newspaper’s. Both report only on what Morton said, without mentioning what he was asked about by members of the audience following his opening remarks. 

He could have been asked about record breaking deportations and the recklessness that has deported U.S. citizens.  Perhaps he was. I wasn’t there.  But Erin Rose, who was there, sent this report:

“Last night I got up the nerve to go confront the director of ICE, John Morton, where he was giving a lecture on the duties and achievements of ICE at the University of Virginia Law School. I went with Nancy, who is a very gutsy woman and really inspires me. We listened while the director spent one hour explaining what his department does. Besides undocumented people, they also deal with child abusers. (I didn’t understand that connection.) He told us that since the beginning of his tenure the death rate among ICE prisoners has gone down from dozens a year to less than 10 a year.  (Were we supposed to clap?)  He also said that incarceration has gone up 50% since he got there. They contract with private corporations and the taxpayer pays the bill. He also said the system needs to be entirely redone, revamped. He gave absolutely no indication what would be necessary or even why….

“… When it was time for questions, Nancy stood up and introduced herself as not a lawyer or a child molester, but just a common citizen who would like to know why ICE considers American citizens who are just disagreeing with their government in a open, planned, peaceful, democratic demonstration, their purview? She referred to our protest against Citizens United [held on January 20th in Charlottesville] and told him that many organizers across the country had been intercepted before the event and monitored during the event by special agents of ICE. He answered that he had no knowledge of it, immediately dismissed it, and went on to the next question.

“So I raised my hand, stood up and told him that I was one of those organizers and that I know of many others — dozens — who were contacted and questioned. I asked him how he doesn’t know the functions of his own department? When he continued to deny any knowledge of this, I turned to the gentile and learned audience and told them that even though he is not telling them, they should know that this department, which was ostensibly set up to deal with immigration control of foreigners, is now concerning itself with local American citizens that dare to disagree with their government. And that even more disturbing, they are not admitting to this. I stressed that this concerns them and this is what they need to know from this lecture. I then walked out. I was chased by a strange man who caught me just as I left the building, wanting to know what organization I was from. When I asked him what he was doing there, he was vague. Again, he pressed me for information but I blew him off and left quickly. Nancy, who stayed til the end, later told me that she was also approached by this man, who seemed to want to learn as much as he could about us. I went home feeling sick to my stomach and quite depressed. I had expected an explanation in answer to my question, certainly a justification- but not a complete denial. How do you explain this?”

Now, I was the speaker at the January 20th event, and I never heard anything from ICE — and that always seems to be the case and always leaves me very skeptical.  So I asked Erin for more information, and she sent me this email that she had received:

Ryan, Edward A <> wrote:
From: Ryan, Edward A <>
Subject: January 20, 2012 – Occupy the Courts
To: [Erin and 13 other people.-DS]
Date: Monday, January 23, 2012, 5:32 AM

    To all,

    You were previously identified as an Organizer or part of the planning process for the January 20, 2012, “Occupy the Courts” movement. Federal Protective Service representatives reached out to you before hand to attempt to assist in your planning of the event and facilitate any permitting required and coordinate and provide information regarding any additional entities you might have had to contact.

    As this event is now over, we are always trying to improve in our outreach program. I am asking that by the close of business, January 25, 2012, you provide me with any feedback you can as well as answer the few questions posed below.

    Question 1:

    Were you satisfied in the information that was provided to you during the initial contact by Federal Protective Service representatives?

    Question 2:

    Was the Federal Protective Service able to assist you in your planning process?

    Question 3:

    On the day of your event, were the Federal Protective Service Officers courteous, respectful and helpful?

    Question 4:

    In your opinion, is there anything we could have done better?

    I thank you for your time and the Federal Protective Service looks forward to working with you again.

    Ed Ryan
    Special Agent
    U.S. Department of Homeland Security
    Federal Protective Service
    (215) 521-2146  Office
    (215) 521-2169  Fax

The event in question was held, as planned and publicly announced, on a street corner in front of a federal court house.  The same location has been used for a peace rally every Thursday afternoon for many years without incident or interference.  During the event, four uniformed “officers” of some sort were visible inside the glass front of the building, watching us.  To my knowledge, they never emerged, and we never entered.  Whether they had any colleagues there without uniforms I couldn’t say for sure.

Erin has expressed her concern thus:

“If the stated mission of ICE is to ‘uphold public safety by enforcing immigration and customs laws,’  what does ICE  have to do with us, a group of legal American citizens peacefully assembling in our home town? Doesn’t that seem weird? I mean, I realize ICE is under the umbrella of Homeland Security — although I think even the overlap between these two is strange.  However, if these two departments have something in common, it is that they were both set up to deal with foreign and covert threats.  Homeland Security was ostensibly set up to counteract terrorism. Terrorists do not announce their protests by posting flyers all over town. Terrorists do not wave colorful signs to get attention. Just how are two government departments, which were supposedly set up to deal with foreign, covert threats, now concerning themselves with we, the people?”

These seemed like reasonable questions, so I phoned up Ed Ryan to ask him.  I left a voice message at 11:50 a.m. on Wednesday.  I’m still waiting for his helpful call. 

The event in Charlottesville was one of dozens all over the country on January 20th organized by, and reports from elsewhere are that the Department of Homeland Security and Federal Marshalls were very eager to “facilitate” rallies planned in front of court houses.  Concerns about this that have been communicated to me include that it helps to habituate us to accepting official and authoritarian intrusion, inspection, and approval of our decisions to exercise our First Amendment rights, and that it intimidates some people who then choose not to take part in public events at all.  I’ve seen both of those reactions first-hand.

We’re spending $75 billion a year above and beyond the wars and above and beyond the “Defense Department” in order to establish a department focused on “the Homeland,” since the “Defense Department” is obviously defending something else entirely.  The result has not just been grotesque profiteering, guarding cows, arming police for war, harassing minorities, and so forth.  It has also been employing people like Ed Ryan to make sure that my friends know Big Brother is watching them when they dare to hold up a poster proclaiming the rights of people over those of corporations. 

Does this seem like good money spent to you?  What if the Homeland really was insecure?  I’m still waiting for the relevant bureaucracy to return my call.

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