When the White House last week suddenly withdrew the nomination of former top Border Patrol official Ronald Vitiello to lead Immigration and Customs Enforcement, it also reportedly bumped him from President Trump’s trip to the southern border.
Instead, David Shaw, special agent in charge of ICE’s Homeland Security Investigation division in San Diego, sat with Trump, soon-to-be acting Secretary of Homeland Security Kevin McAleenan, the departing Kirstjen Nielsen, and a few others Friday on a panel about border security issues.
In introducing his panel, Trump praised Shaw.
"I want to just say — ICE Special Agent in Charge Dave Shaw. Where are you, Dave?" the president said. “Dave, thank you very much for doing a great job. I appreciate it very much."
What Trump likely did not know at the time was that Shaw appears to have helped lead an effort last year to split the agency in two, separating HSI from ICE’s deportation officers — called Enforcement and Removal Operations — as it faced intense criticism for carrying out Trump's immigration crackdown.
While HSI agents primarily investigate and help build criminal prosecutions with an international nexus, ERO officers are focused on immigration arrests and deportations.
In a letter addressed to Nielsen last June, Shaw and 18 other special agents in charge wrote:
“Many jurisdictions continue to refuse to work with HSI because of a perceived linkage to the politics of civil immigration. Other jurisdictions agree to partner with HSI as long as the ‘ICE’ name is excluded from any public facing information... The development of two new effective agencies is a positive step for the Department,” the letter reads.
Emails obtained by BuzzFeed News through a Freedom of Information Act request show Shaw sent the letter to head HSI officials across the country.
“Please see attached with everyone’s signature and use as you see fit — it has been delivered to [Nielsen’s] office so hopefully we can move the needle in the right direction," Shaw wrote.
In response, Mark B. Dawson, special agent in charge of the Houston HSI office, said: “Thanks for spearheading this Dave!”
An ICE spokesperson did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
There has long been tension between the two divisions of the agency, as HSI agents and officials often frame their work as focusing more on criminal investigations, in contrast to the immigration arrests that ICE’s deportation officers undertake. That tension spilled out in the letter sent to Nielsen last year, which sent shockwaves throughout the agency.
ICE has become a target of protests and a movement to abolish the agency altogether following the Trump administration’s decision to make nearly every undocumented immigrant a priority for immigration enforcement.
The letter did not lead to any substantive changes at the agency.