Washington (CNN)When the idea of erecting billboards of immigration violators initially came up at least a year ago, US Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials didn’t think much of it. The proposal was considered to be a low priority, according to two sources familiar with the discussions.
But just weeks from the presidential election, billboards picturing immigrants who were previously arrested or convicted of crimes are up in six locations in Pennsylvania, a critical swing state.
“This was a ready, fire, aim kind of thing. Get this done now,” a Department of Homeland Security official told CNN.
In the run up to November 3, and with early voting already underway, ICE and the Department of Homeland Security are amplifying with speeches, news conferences and billboards a message that the Trump administration has spent the better part of four years pushing: criticizing jurisdictions that limit cooperation between local law enforcement and federal immigration authorities.
In 2016, President Donald Trump flipped Pennsylvania by a small margin — 48.6% compared to 47.9% for Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton. To keep momentum, the Trump campaign is trying to maintain, and grow, that support for the President — a steep challenge after already losing some voters in the state.
The administration’s public actions on so-called “sanctuary cities” have taken on added significance as Trump ramps up his law-and-order campaign message, pulling in what should be apolitical law enforcement operations into a contentious presidential race.
“By driving ICE into this political gutter, you destroy its reputation,” said John Sandweg, who served as acting ICE director under the Obama administration, underscoring the importance of relationships with local law enforcement.
Acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf ardently defended the billboards during a news conference in Philadelphia on Friday as DHS and ICE touted the apprehension of over 170 people who are subject for deportation.
“These billboards are important because we can no longer stand idly by while the public is being misled about the role ICE plays in keeping the public safe,” Wolf said. “This campaign would be entirely unnecessary if local leaders would do their jobs and protect their communities by partnering with federal law enforcement.”
Initially, ICE had considered putting billboards up in multiple cities, but the first step was going to be Philadelphia, mainly for its proximity to DC, an ICE official told CNN. “Regardless of then or now, part of the conversation was always how well is this going to work, how effective is this going to be,” the official said. Tony Pham, the senior official performing the duties of the ICE director, said Friday the agency is evaluating the effectiveness of the billboards before proceeding with more in the future.
The political rhetoric is coming from elsewhere in the Department of Homeland Security as well. Wednesday, acting Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Mark Morgan also appeared to offer a veiled criticism of Democratic nominee Joe Biden’s immigration platform during an operational update.
“If we continue to provide protections under the umbrella of sanctuary cities and other rewards, for instance free health care, drivers license, jobs that they’re not legally authorized to have, we will further incentivize a new wave of unprecedented illegal migration,” Morgan said.
The Trump campaign has similarly run an ad claiming that Biden’s proposal to provide a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants would result in them being eligible for “free healthcare, social security, and Medicare.”
It’s the latest example of routine operations being dragged into the presidential election. The Department of Homeland Security, along with the Justice Department, also came under increased scrutiny earlier this year for admonishing Portland, Oregon, where protests at times turned violent.
And during the Republican National Convention, a naturalization ceremony at the White House that was attended by Wolf was aired, raising ethics concerns.
As Election Day nears, ICE appears to be doubling down on its enforcement messaging. Along with Friday’s event in Philadelphia, ICE has touted a series of enforcement actions that have resulted in the arrests of hundreds of immigrants with criminal histories. While the operations might be commonplace, the agency has made an effort of publicizing results in press releases — sometimes elevated by DHS — and news conferences.
“I wouldn’t expect any reduction in that tempo,” a DHS official said, referring to the ramped-up messaging campaign and emphasis on enforcement.
A little over a week ago, Wolf also joined ICE leadership for a separate announcement on the results of a similar operation in California and rejected that the administration’s actions were political in nature.
“It’s not about an election. It’s not about Republicans or Democrats. It’s about sanctuary city policies,” Wolf said.
But his department seems to be pushing the boundaries. “It’s pretty rare for the secretary to personally attend a press availability or press conference on some operation. It happens, but it’s pretty rare,” Sandweg said.
At the start of his administration, Trump threatened to take federal funds from sanctuary jurisdictions in an executive order. He also floated the possibility of releasing immigrants into sanctuary cities in part to retaliate against Democrats.
Many of the largest cities in the country have sanctuary policies in place. The leaders behind them argue that such policies make communities safer because undocumented immigrants are more likely to report crimes if they don’t fear deportation.
But ICE says that when immigrants with criminal convictions are released, it requires additional time and resources for the agency and “increases the occurrence of preventable crimes and preventable victims.”
Wolf showed no indication of backing down from the administration’s aggressive posture against sanctuary cities Friday. “Sanctuary city residents should understand and continue to expect a more visible ICE presence in any jurisdiction covered by Operation Rise,” he said.
CNN’s Geneva Sands contributed to this report.