Former Department of Homeland Security officials joined human rights groups Monday in condemning U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement billboards in Pennsylvania depicting the faces of "wanted" undocumented immigrants and baselessly calling sanctuary city policies "a real danger."
ICE announced the placement of six billboards in metro Philadelphia in a Friday statement claiming their purpose is "to educate the public about the dangers of non-cooperation policies."
New: Ex-DHS officials are denouncing the Trump admin.'s new PR campaign of erecting "WANTED" billboards in PA that depict immigrants ICE seeks to arrest and call out local law enforcement. @CBSNews
Officials called it, "Wildly inappropriate" "Propaganda"https://t.co/d2AEKV8M3W
— Camilo Montoya-Galvez (@camiloreports) October 5, 2020
The billboards feature men of color—labeled "criminal aliens"—from countries including Ecuador, Kenya, and South Korea who, according to ICE, "were previously arrested or convicted of crimes in the U.S., but were released into the community instead of being transferred to ICE custody pursuant to an immigration detainer."
Human rights groups were quick to blast the billboards.
"Once again, ICE relies on fear-mongering to achieve a discriminatory policy agenda fueled by tactics of misinformation and disinformation," Amnesty International USA researcher for refugee and migrant rights Denise Bell said in a statement. "Tactics by ICE demonstrate how low the agency chooses to stoop again and again to invoke baseless fear of our very neighbors. This is propaganda."
"This hate-mongering and xenophobia is a disease in this country stemming from the very top of the government," Bell added. "We've seen the president of the United States use these demonization tactics throughout his presidency."
"One month away from the election, DHS leadership has determined that rogue agency has a role to play with thinly veiled pro-trumpism propaganda. It’s unlawful of course, and it will only backfire..." #DefundDHS #DismantleDHS #election #unmaskhate
— NDLON (@NDLON) October 2, 2020
The Nazis used to publish things like this, to scapegoat and build up hatred for "the criminal Jew."
Now ICE is putting up billboards in Pennsylvania with immigrants faces in order to "educate the public."
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— The Revcoms (@therevcoms) October 2, 2020
Former DHS officials also condemned the billboards as an election-year stunt in a swing state where President Donald Trump trails Democratic nominee Joe Biden in the latest polls about a month before Election Day.
"The placement and the timing... make it clear that this is a political move, not related to operational matters," former DHS press secretary David Lapan told CBS News.
John Sandweg, a former ICE acting director, told CBS that the billboards are "a political advertisement in favor of the president or at a minimum, against politicians that they disagree with, and that's just wildly inappropriate."
John Amaya, a former deputy chief of staff at ICE, said the billboards are "just beyond the pale."
The administration has "shown that they are happy and eager to use ICE as a blunt force instrument in their political toolbox, but this is taking things to a whole new level," he told CBS.
Trump's ICE, however, insists the danger posed by sanctuary city policies is very real—even absent evidence to support its claim.
"Too often sanctuary policies limiting cooperation with ICE result in significant public safety concerns," said senior agency official Tony H. Pham. "ICE will continue to enforce immigration laws set forth by Congress through the efforts of the men and women of ICE to remove criminal aliens and making our communities safer."
This matches language from Trump, who has said that sanctuary cities "breed crime." However, not only is there no evidence to support this claim, some studies have shown that sanctuary policies reduce crime because they foster cooperation between immigrant communities and law enforcement.
Criticism of the ICE billboards comes just days after reports that the Trump administration is preparing to launch raids targeting undocumented immigrants in sanctuary cities, a move which was also slammed as a taxpayer-funded pre-election publicity stunt.