ICE Didn’t Need McKinsey’s Help to Abuse Detainees

This is America. Photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images

I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by consulting, starving hysterical naked, dragging themselves through Excel spreadsheets at dawn looking for a thrifty fix. This is, presumably, how Allen Ginsberg would have opened “Howl,” had he been born a millennial.

For decades now, management consulting firms like McKinsey & Company have been harvesting the cream of the Ivy League crop, and applying that human capital to the vital task of increasing the quantifiable efficiency of (immeasurably amoral) bureaucracies. But even as McKinsey has worked to optimize graft in South Africa, or maximize opioid sales in the U.S., it has taken pains to project a civic-minded image, lest it lose its capacity to recruit idealistic valedictorians.

So, it’s been refreshing to see the New York Times and ProPublica sully the company’s good name. This week, a joint investigation from those outlets revealed that McKinsey not only worked to increase the efficiency of Donald Trump’s crackdown on undocumented immigrants, but did so by generating cost-cutting recommendations so inhuman, they made ICE staffers blush:

[T]he money-saving recommendations the consultants came up with made some career ICE workers uncomfortable. They proposed cuts in spending on food for migrants, as well as on medical care and supervision of detainees, according to interviews with people who worked on the project for both ICE and McKinsey and 1,500 pages of documents obtained from the agency after ProPublica filed a lawsuit under the Freedom of Information Act.

McKinsey’s team also looked for ways to accelerate the deportation process, provoking worries among some ICE staff members that the recommendations risked short-circuiting due-process protections for migrants fighting removal from the United States. The consultants, three people who worked on the project said, seemed focused solely on cutting costs and speeding up deportations — actions whose success could be measured in numbers — with little acknowledgment that these policies affected thousands of human beings.

These passages read like a parody of number-crunching sociopathy on par with Mitchell and Webb’s “Kill the Poor.” And the fact that McKinsey pushed “efficiencies” this morally odious surely tells us something important about the firm’s internal pathologies.

And yet, the framing of the Times’ exposé is still a bit misleading. McKinsey’s crime wasn’t imposing an inhuman logic on an upstanding immigration enforcement agency. It was gamely embracing that agency’s indigenous inhumanity.

Now, ICE employs more than 20,000 people. There are surely plenty of empathic, public-spirited individuals working within its bureaucracy. And there’s no reason to doubt that some were horrified by McKinsey’s recommendations, and mounted noble efforts to resist them. But the scandalous practices that McKinsey allegedly promoted — eroding due process to expedite deportations, subjecting detainees to inhumane conditions, and loosening hiring standards for enforcement officers to hit staffing quotas — have long been the standard operating procedures of America’s immigration-enforcement regime.

Individual ICE staffers may have blanched at McKinsey’s efforts to “short-circuit due-process protections for migrants fighting removal from the United States.” But for decades, short-circuiting such protections has been a cornerstone of official U.S. policy. Egregious curtailments of due process are baked into the foundations of U.S. immigration law. Despite the fact that deportation is among the most severe penalties any state can impose on a human being, immigrants contesting removal have no right to legal counsel, or even to a formal legal proceeding before a judge. In fact, in its frenzied efforts to meet deportation targets (and/or perform “toughness on illegals” to an increasingly powerful nativist lobby), our government hasn’t just denied detained immigrants basic due-process rights, but worked to subvert what few protections they do have. As Syracuse University political scientist writes in her upcoming book, ILLEGAL: How America’s Lawless Immigration Regime Threatens Us All:

[U.S. Customs and Border Protection] has invested in trying to ensure that immigrants can’t get lawyers by surveilling, harassing, and detaining some of the leaders of organizations that provide pro bono representation. Shockingly, in a Clinton-era program (ramped up during the Obama administration) designed to encourage immigrants to waive their rights, at least one Legal Aid lawyer collaborated with DHS to trick immigrants into signing away their rights by misleadingly telling them they had no avenues for relief. The overall result of these obstacles is that only a small minority of people at risk of being deported — around 15 percent — even appear before a judge.

It’s worth noting that due process isn’t some charitable gesture we bestow on the guilty, but a vital protection we afford the wrongfully accused. For this reason, denying basic legal protections to people facing deportation doesn’t merely betray American values; it threatens Americans’ liberty. By some estimates, ICE has attempted to detain and deport upward of 3,000 U.S. citizens since 2005.

And yet, in sacrificing those rights on the altar of deportation quotas, McKinsey was upholding ICE’s standard procedures, not subverting them.

Much the same can be said of the consulting firm’s callous indifference to the conditions in ICE and CPB’s detention facilities. McKinsey may have wanted to abridge detainees’ rights to quality food and medical care. But for years, our government has been routinely failing to uphold their right not be sexually assaulted by agents of the state. As the Intercept’s Alice Speri revealed earlier this year, between January 2010 and September 2017, detainees filed 1,224 complaints of sexual abuse in ICE facilities. Only 43 were investigated. ICE is now seeking permission to destroy the records of thousands of these complaints for the sake of “routine, government record maintenance.” Meanwhile, DHS’s own inspector general has found that ICE does not consistently hold private contractors accountable for documented abuses of detainees — and, in some cases, has responded to revelations of abuse by trying to exempt the offending facilities from the standards of care that they had violated.

To be fair, if ICE rigorously investigated every allegation of sexual abuse in its facilities, it would struggle to meet its deportation objectives. In ignoring evidence that it is presiding over pervasive sexual torture, the  agency is merely trying to pursue its mission with all due efficiency. This supremacy of “mission” over human rights is also reflected in CBP’s record-keeping procedures. As Cohen writes:

[CBP] makes a distinction between misconduct by its personnel that is classified as “mission compromising” and “non mission compromising.” Drug smuggling, for example, is “mission compromising,” but sexually assaulting or murdering detainees is “non mission compromising” and is subject to less stringent internal reporting requirements.

Finally, McKinsey’s push to radically streamline ICE’s hiring process, so as to meet President Trump’s demand of 10,000 new immigration officers, is also in keeping with the Department of Homeland Security’s time-honored traditions. The extraordinary size of CBP’s officer corps — and the difficulty of finding qualified job applicants in some of border regions in which it operates — has earned the agency the distinction of being America’s most lawless. CBP’s officers are five times more likely to be arrested than other law-enforcement agents. Between 2005 and 2012, the agency’s employees were apprehended for alleged crimes over 2,100 times. By 2014, the department’s head of internal affairs was warning that thousands of CBP officers were “potentially unfit to carry a badge and a gun.” Nevertheless, even after efforts to purge rotten apples, the bureau’s aberrant rates of criminality have persisted. And internal discipline has remained maddeningly lax: Between 2005 and 2014, CBP officers killed dozens of people in the line of duty, including several U.S. citizens. None of these incidents resulted in disciplinary measures — even in cases where video evidence contradicted officers’ accounts of why they had deployed lethal force.

For some readers, this recitation of DHS’ failings may seem unnecessary. In center-left circles, the malevolence of Trump-era immigration enforcement goes without saying. Few liberals are at risk of mistaking McKinsey for the mother of all ICE’s sins. But the consensus views of DHS on progressive social media is not reflected in the halls of power, where the median Democratic lawmaker remains happy to expand the department’s already bloated budget. Meanwhile, even within the confines of progressive discourse, Donald Trump’s personal role in corrupting enforcement is often overstated. Tellingly, when a McKinsey spokesman sought to defend the firm’s work to the Times, he emphasized that it had entered into its contract with ICE “during the Obama administration.”

But Donald Trump did not infect DHS with his own moral sickness. Like McKinsey, he just exacerbated the depravity that was already there.

ICE Didn’t Need McKinsey’s Help to Abuse Detainees