Protesters oppose ICE ‘Citizen’s Academy,’ while agency denies it promotes vigilantism

CHICAGO — A small but determined band of activists came to state their case against an Immigration and Customs Enforcement “Citizen Academy” Tuesday.

Groups including the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights gathered outside of the ICE field office to protest a Citizens Academy pilot program scheduled to begin in Chicago on September 15.

In its announcement a month ago, ICE said the academy would bring in civilians from a wide range of backgrounds to teach them a course meant to help private citizens better understand ICE’s mission. Protesters say it’s a veiled attempt to promote vigilantism.

“The ICE Academy is white supremacy in action,” said Estephany Hernandez, Southwest Suburban Immigrant Project.

ICE Community Relations Officer Manda Walters said the academy is for anyone who, “wants a better understanding so that they can make the changes that they want to see through their legislators.”

“The citizens academy is not to teach civilians how to enforce immigration law.  That is not what we’re doing,” said Robert Gaudian, Chicago ICE Field Director.

Immigrant rights advocates, including Chicago aldermen, are skeptical of the academy.

“Let’s get real. This academy is part of a coordinated effort against immigrants in our city,” said Sara Zaleta, Centro de Trabajadores. “This academy seeks to justify racist violence, encourages vigilante surveillance of our communities during a time when we need less surveillance and more resources.”

ICE says the program being piloted in Chicago isn’t about surveillance, but rather is about education. In announcing the academies a few weeks ago, ICE said in part:

The curriculum will include, but is not limited to, classroom instruction, visiting an immigration detention center, learning more about the health care ICE provides to those in its custody, and examining ICE’s role in ensuring dignity, respect and due process of an immigration case from start to finish.”

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, ICE

Gaudian said the academy is modeled after similar academies in other government agencies, like the FBI and state and local police academies. 

“It’s a way to connect with the community to show them the good work that ICE does in the community,” Gaudian said.