We all need our bogeymen to give flesh to our frustrations. Our fears and resentments need a cause other than our own failings. And in this sense, the floor of the U.S. Congress is a veritable Frankenstein's lab. Congress repeatedly passes monstrous legislation during bouts of political demagoguery, only to turn around and attack its own creations.
The most audacious and shameful example of this blame-shifting is tied to the issue of immigration. Increasingly, agents at U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement are finding themselves under withering assault. Most recently, immigration agents were smeared as the "Gestapo" by Rep. Luis Gutierrez of Illinois.
During a moment of frustration—and without any evident sense of irony—Gutierrez complained that nobody was taking the lead to pass immigration reform (as if he and his colleagues on the House Judiciary Committee were irrelevant to this process). He then all but warned the women and children of America to lock themselves up and hide from the agents of the Department of Homeland Security.
"You know who is in charge now?" Gutierrez warned hysterically. "The Gestapo agents at [the Department of] Homeland Security. They are in charge."
Gutierrez was repeating a slur dished out by California Rep. Sam Farr during a congressional hearing earlier in the year, in which he called Immigration and Customs Enforcement a "Gestapo-type agency."
Has "Gestapo" become a talking point among politicians trying to score points by beating up on the Department of Homeland Security? What about calling immigration agents terrorists? House Speaker Nancy Pelsoi accused immigration agents of "terrorizing" communities when the agency executed a raid on undocumented employees doing contract work for Wal-Mart in 2003. Most recently, Barack Obama made the same accusation during a summer campaign stop at a La Raza convention. Only Senator Obama's comments did not go unnoticed. (One of the disadvantages of being a presidential candidate.)
Art Gordon, president of the Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association, issued a letter to Obama criticizing the candidate's "disparaging remark [that] 'communities are terrorized by ICE immigration raids.'" Gordon made clear his frustration at the hypocrisy of politicians who attack law enforcement agencies for doing the job they were created by the politicians to do.
"It's one thing to remark intelligently on the need for immigration reform," Gordon writes, "but it's quite another to berate ICE law enforcement officers who are risking their lives to enforce the laws passed by Congress. To wit, your quotation might have read better if you stated '...communities are terrorized by the antiquated laws passed by Congress.' "
Which is, of course, the unmentionable sore point for the otherwise opinionated political class. Congress, in all its gridlocked glory, has failed in its responsibility to pass meaningful immigration reform. Somebody has to take the blame, and the guys who have to go out on the campaign trail and explain themselves don't want it to be them. So why not blame the immigration agents?
It takes courage to push back against the institution that pays your bills, but Julie Myers, who heads Immigration and Customs Enforcement, has publicly (and commendably) called upon Gutierrez to apologize for his attacks.
"These [Gestapo] comments cross any line of decency and are an affront to the men and women at this agency who perform their sworn duties, often at great personal risk," she wrote to Gutierrez last week. "Most troubling, irresponsible comments like these, vilifying law enforcement officers, can have a significant impact on officer and public safety."
One senior ICE agent told me that attacks by elected officials send a dangerous message to the public. "My biggest fear is that these groups will continue to dehumanize our agents to the point that some unstable whacko will think it is acceptable to attack an agent," he said. "What will they say to the agent's widow?"
Even organizations staunchly urging looser immigration laws have come to the defense of ICE. In a letter last week to Gutierrez, the Anti-Defamation League chastised the congressman for his historically inept comparison of ICE agents to Nazis. "Whatever your views on the tactics and enforcement methods of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers...it is highly inappropriate and insensitive to suggest that actions by these agents in any way resemble actions taken by Nazi Gestapo agents in World War II," the league said.