Topic Stories | ICE and the Banality of Spin

THE PRESS RELEASE is a curious and unique mode of messaging. The typically short, formulaic communiqué, written by public relations professionals to mimic hard news, is one of the few forms of writing created with the express intent of being copied in full. (The world’s first modern press release, for example, was written in 1906 by Ivy Lee, on behalf of Pennsylvania Railroad, to preempt difficult questions about a train crash that killed 50 people; it was published verbatim in the New York Times.)

The majority of the public never encounters or reads a press release: the documents live primarily on the websites and blogs of corporate businesses, non-profits, government entities and the occasional industry site that reproduces them in full. But press releases are familiar to journalists such as myself, especially those of us on whom certain industries want to make an impression; we encounter them daily in our email inboxes, where PR professionals hope to influence our thinking and, therefore, the narratives we help put out into the world.

A few months ago, as news of family separations at the border dominated media coverage and the #AbolishICE movement gathered steam, I decided that I needed to understand the agency called ICE, or Immigration and Customs Enforcement, in its own words. Founded in 2003 as an outgrowth of the Department of Homeland Security and the War on Terror, ICE has come to symbolize, for critics and supporters alike, the Trump administration’s policies on immigration. I figured that going directly to the source—or, rather, to the source’s public relations professionals—would help me to understand how the agency’s administrators and workers see themselves and the immigrants that they often target. How did ICE agents justify their actions, I wondered, and how did the agency’s worldview, in turn, affect public opinion?


Illustration by Edel Rodriguez for Topic Stories