Houston immigration advocates say ICE body camera program is a ‘baby step’ toward accountability

Advocates say the use of cameras in ICE operations is overdue.

AP Photo/Gregory Bull, File
In this July 8, 2019, file photo, a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officer looks on during an operation in Escondido, Calif.

Houston immigration advocates are cautiously optimistic about a new body camera program for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents announced this week, saying it's a long awaited first step in reforming the beleaguered agency.

ICE special agents and officers in Houston, New York and Newark, New Jersey will now wear body-worn cameras in pre-planned operations as part of a pilot program.

The use of body cameras in ICE operations is overdue, said Zenobia Lai, the executive director of the Houston Immigration Legal Services Collaborative.

“A lot of physical contact happens when law enforcement carry out their duties, sometimes unjustifiable force,” Lai said. “A body cam is one way to keep the law enforcement, which include ICE agents, honest about doing their job.”

But the devil is in the details, Lai cautioned. While the body camera pilot program is an improvement on transparency, it needs additional refinement to be truly effective, she said.

“Right now, you have a body camera, you turn it on, or you don’t turn it on, there’s no consequences one way or the other,” Lai said. “We don’t know where the footage will go. So I say it’s a tiny baby step forward, but lots more needs to be done.”

The pilot program will start with special agents from the Homeland Security Investigations that participate in SWAT teams.

Those agents work more on issues of international crime and human trafficking and less with individual immigrants, according to Terry Cody, legal director at the St. Frances Cabrini Center for Immigrant Legal Assistance.

Cody said she’s optimistic about the pilot program. However, she said she has concerns about the cameras being used to surveil immigrants.

“Something that should be generally a good thing in terms of transparency could be used against individuals,” Cody said.

In a press release, acting ICE director Tae D. Johnson said the pilot program is part of an ICE initiative to increase accountability. Congress directed ICE to design the pilot program in a section of the Fiscal Year 21 Appropriations Bill. The bill became law Dec. 28, 2020.

The pilot is planned to later extend to include officers who work in enforcement and removal operations. ICE is negotiating with the union that represents enforcement and removal operations officers, so it’s unknown when those officers will participate in the body camera pilot program.

According to a ICE privacy impact statement, the footage from the body cameras would be encrypted onto the camera and later uploaded to an ICE owned evidence site.

Another piece of legislation, the ICE and CBP Body Camera Accountability Act— first introduced in the House in 2019 and reintroduced in the House in January — would require ICE and Customs and Border Patrol agents to wear body cameras and keep them on during their shifts. It would also make the footage available to all parties in administrative, civil or criminal proceedings.

That bill was referred to the House trade subcommittee in January. No other public actions on the bill have occurred since that date.

The transparency that body cameras provide also protects law enforcement. Cody said body camera footage can show an officer was following proper procedure while also protecting immigrants from abuse.

“Anything that can help show the whole picture, Cody said, "so that if it’s their word against an officer’s word about what happened, the camera’s going to tell the story."

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