Immigration and Customs Enforcement on Friday installed bold black-and-red billboards along highways across the key swing state of Pennsylvania, depicting the faces of, as ICE put it, “at-large immigration violators who may pose a public safety threat.” Current and former ICE officials, along with legal experts, labeled the move as politically motivated, a naked attempt to use the wedge issue of immigration to help President Donald Trump in his reelection bid.
In a press release issued Friday, ICE officials described the billboard campaign as a way to “educate the public about the dangers of non-cooperation policies” — i.e., local officials who refuse to hold immigrants in their custody who are wanted by ICE for longer than required by local laws.
But others disagreed. “The tactic is unusual, clearly political, and disappointing given the timing,” said James Schwab, a former ICE spokesperson who resigned from the agency in 2018.
Even some current officials were disturbed. One employee, speaking anonymously because they were not authorized to speak publicly, said it seemed “suspiciously political that it’s being done in a swing state. The administration almost seems to regard all of DHS as an arm of the Trump campaign these days.”
The billboards, which come in six variations, feature the face of a man, along with the words “WANTED BY ICE” and the charges or convictions the men faced in Pennsylvania, which range from assault to robbery. All six men had been released by jails in Pennsylvania — either on bond or because they had served their sentences — despite ICE’s request for them to be transferred into their custody so that they could attempt to deport them.
The move is the latest salvo in the wars over so-called sanctuary cities. Since the beginning of the Trump administration, homeland security officials have attacked local governments that do not cooperate with immigration enforcement, especially jails that refuse to hold immigrants and hand them over to ICE. Many local governments have declined to collaborate with ICE, with some officials saying it will deter law-abiding immigrants from helping law enforcement solve crimes, thus putting public safety at risk.
The administration has released “reports” on counties with sanctuary policies and has tried, often unsuccessfully, to sue them and strip them of federal funds. The policies enacted by sanctuary cities and counties do not prevent ICE from picking up immigrants once they are released from criminal custody.
This latest effort, however, was viewed by some as inappropriately politically motivated: One month before the election, the agency paid for the billboards in a crucial state, and one where Trump was down 9% among likely voters, according to a recent Washington Post–ABC poll.
“This is not what a responsible government agency with power and force should be doing,” said John Amaya, former deputy chief of staff at ICE under the Obama administration. “It is so offensive. This is creating such a dog whistle.”
Current ICE employees, speaking anonymously because they were not authorized to speak publicly, said they were also concerned at the effort and what it meant for their agency and its reputation. One ICE employee said the billboards were clearly an attempt to “pander” to Trump’s base: “It’s appalling, but so much about immigration enforcement under this administration has been for that purpose alone.”
Advocates and city officials in many places in the US believe that local jurisdictions are well served by sanctuary laws, allowing all people — regardless of status — to fully engage with public services, including police, schools, and healthcare, rather than live in the shadows.
Federal officials, however, argue the opposite. They believe that so-called sanctuary laws threaten lives, especially laws that lead local jails to release many undocumented people rather than turning them over to federal agents.
“Too often, sanctuary policies limiting cooperation with ICE result in significant public safety concerns,” said Tony H. Pham, the acting ICE leader. “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 [make] our communities safer.”
The billboards include individuals with charges for alleged crimes such as assault and burglary, while others were labeled by ICE as having been convicted of possession with intent to deliver a controlled substance. Every billboard included a section to label the jail or police agency that released the individual and a number to call ICE.
“Sanctuary Policies are a REAL DANGER” is plastered at the bottom of the billboard. ICE officials did not answer questions on how much the effort cost or whether local leaders were notified of the project.
Mike Dunn, a spokesperson for the city of Philadelphia, which was called out in several of the posters, said the city had always cooperated with ICE and turned over people into its custody when the agency obtained federal arrest warrants.
“The reality is that the White House has tried to coerce cities like Philadelphia into going beyond federal law,” he said.
Legal experts said that the effort was unprecedented.
“It’s more for political purposes than it is for traditional law enforcement purposes. It’s a scare tactic,” said Laurie Levenson, a professor at Loyola Law School and former federal prosecutor. “The problem is the broad scope of messaging: for the person driving by, they’re just getting one message: ‘immigrants are dangerous.’ This is a heavy-handed tactic by ICE. I’ve never seen anything like it.”
CNN first reported that the agency was considering the billboard campaign earlier this week.
Billboards have previously been used by local police departments as an attempt to shame those who have been arrested and charged for soliciting sex workers, a controversial tactic that has also been met with resistance. Elsewhere, FBI officials regularly put out a “most wanted” list for alleged murderers and others.
In this instance, said Pratheepan Gulasekaram, a professor and immigration expert at California's Santa Clara University School of Law, the individuals were already in criminal custody.
“They have served their time — whatever the penalty, it already occurred in local custody,” he said, noting that people released from custody are generally granted bail or have finished their sentence. “The only consequence left is immigration. It’s not in the interest of any county to release people who they think are real community safety threats.”
The billboards come at a volatile period for the Department of Homeland Security, which has been slammed for its politicization during an election year. Critics point to DHS officers being deployed to Portland, Oregon, where tear gas was used against protesters outside a federal courthouse. DHS leaders said the effort was necessary to protect federal property.
For an agency like ICE, which has been widely disparaged during the Trump administration, the long-term impact of the billboards could be significant.
Amaya, the former senior ICE official, said that the Trump administration had “destroyed” the agency’s credibility.
“This is the last thing the agency needs,” he said.