SAN FRANCISCO — Two Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials have shared or approved of social media posts that spread unfounded conspiracy theories about Rep. Ilhan Omar and caravans of migrants who travel through Mexico to seek refuge in the US, a BuzzFeed News review of their accounts reveals.
Officials at ICE — tasked with enforcing US immigration laws — said they are now reviewing the social media activity to see if it violated any agency policies. Advocates say the material is offensive and a potential indicator of bias.
In one recent instance, a post shared on LinkedIn by senior ICE agent Leslie Derewonko and “liked” by Jerry Templet, the second-in-command of Homeland Security Investigations in San Francisco, insinuated that US Rep. Ilhan Omar, a Muslim American lawmaker from Minnesota, was a terrorist threat.
The post described Omar as a “trojan horse” who came to the US because of a “refugee outbreak” under former president Barack Obama, to which Derewonko commented, “And this is what represents America?”
The post included a misleading video clip that claims to show Omar admitting to taking “terrorism classes.”
For ICE, an agency under unprecedented scrutiny, politicized messages by its officials on social media can be quickly scrutinized and held up as indicative of how its officers and agents view the communities they investigate on a regular basis.
On Facebook, Templet liked a post in 2015 advertising a T-shirt with the message “I’m the Infidel Allah Warned You About.”
Derewonko has been a prolific LinkedIn user, sharing and commenting on posts that have stated or insinuated that so-called caravans of Central American migrants were part of an Election Day “false flag” and that the caravan was the UN’s “invading force.”
One meme of Rodney Dangerfield had the caption “What is the difference between an illegal immigrant and ET? ET learned to speak English and wanted to go home!" The agent commented with a crying-laughing emoji.
Derewonko previously listed on his LinkedIn page that he was an ICE representative in Mexico and a senior special agent. But after BuzzFeed News contacted the immigration agency, Derewonko stripped the ICE affiliation from his profile. Templet appears to have deleted his LinkedIn profile.
“It is alarming that a public official charged with executing our immigration policies endorses such toxic views of refugees, Muslims, and an elected official. Liking these types of posts means this senior ICE official is viewing many of the people under his authority in subhuman terms and therefore directly endangers their safety,” said Dalia Mogahed, the director of research at the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding. “The T-shirt is emblematic of an anti-Muslim hate movement that uses the Arabic word for 'deniers of truth' (ironically) or 'kafir' as a symbol of Islamophobic pride.”
Zahra Billoo, head of the Council on American-Islamic Relations in Northern California, said Templet’s activity was “concerning to say the least ... seeing these posts worries me about [his] abilities to interact with Muslim and other immigration applicants without bias and a commitment to a fair application of the law.”
An ICE spokesperson, Richard Rocha, said the agency does not have an employee social media conduct policy but that “social media content posted by employees on their personal platforms should not be considered representative of agency policies or positions. We are reviewing whether any of this particular content violated other agency policies.”
But to those within the agency, the social media activity was seen as potentially detrimental to the perception of immigration officials.
High-ranking ICE officials can express their personal views but “hanging it out there with your professional affiliation paints everyone in the agency with the same brush,” said a senior ICE official who was not authorized to speak on the record. “Narrow-minded opinions are not needed in any federal law enforcement position.”
But Scott Shuchart, a former senior adviser at the Department of Homeland Security, said that while some of the posts were offensive, they were “legal speech, and so long as these ICE employees are using private devices on their own time, all I am is disgusted. I don’t believe there’s any cause for official action unless there’s a reason to think it’s abuse of public resources.”
A former ICE official pointed out that the social media activity could be used in court by defense attorneys arguing that either Templet's or Derewonko’s postings were indicators of bias in their cases.
HSI officials regularly investigate and help build criminal prosecutions with an international nexus overseen by federal prosecutors.
“If they ever have a defendant that is Muslim, they could say 'ICE is biased against me,'” the former ICE official said. “They could introduce that in the trial. ... There are cases that are thrown on far flimsier circumstances than that.”
The criticism comes just one year after David Jennings, the former San Francisco ICE field office director, shared an image on LinkedIn that depicted three patio umbrellas intended to resemble people in body-covering burqas along with the caption: “I spent 30 minutes talking to them to learn more about their culture until the barman told me they were umbrellas.”
Jennings later apologized for posting the material. He has since been elevated to assistant director, overseeing ICE operations nationwide in Washington, DC.
The former ICE official said Templet should have taken a different approach to the social media posts.
“You’re the No. 2 in that office. That person should know a lot better,” the former official said. “It is incredibly troubling that a DSAC would do this. It calls into question his judgment. He should’ve talked to the agent and told them to knock it off. We have to maintain impartiality. It is utter bullshit.”