To mark Women’s History Month, Homeland Security Today is featuring women at ICE Enforcement and Removal Operations. The following is a roundtable discussion with female ERO employees from Newark, New Jersey, who explain why women play such vital roles at U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and why they feel ICE is part of their professional calling.
- Marlene Belluardo, assistant field office director (AFOD). Belluardo has served with ICE for 25 years beginning with the former U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS).
- Kathy Perez, AFOD. Perez began her career as a detention enforcement officer with INS in 1998, and her goal is to be the first full-time, permanent female deputy field office director at ERO Newark.
- Tammy Marich, first female AFOD at Mount Laurel, New Jersey. Marich began her ICE journey in 1997 with INS after several years with the Federal Bureau of Prisons.
- Kelly Gonzalez, mission support specialist. Gonzalez has served in the federal government for 11 years, including five with the Transportation Security Administration, one with Homeland Security Investigations, and five with ERO.
- Nina Spencer, supervisory mission support specialist. Spencer began her career 24 years ago with INS after serving several years with the United States Postal Service.
Q: Walk me through a day in the life of a female ERO officer and some of its benefits and challenges.
Perez: No day is ever the same. One day you may be processing recently arrived noncitizens and the next day you may be involved in arresting a dangerous gang member. If you thrive in an environment that changes from day to day, ERO is definitely for you! It can definitely be stressful, though, and you need to learn the right coping strategies. I deal with the stress by working out, meditating and taking an occasional vacation.
I’m a hands-on manager, so I encourage my team to express their ideas and try to make sure my staff is dealing well with the ups and downs of the job. Twenty-five years on the job and I can tell you that it’s been one interesting journey. At first, there weren’t many women on the job, but that’s changed. Now women are in positions of leadership and there are women-only recruitment campaigns. That’s change in the right direction.
Marich: I start my day by reading ICE news clips and news articles from other ERO areas of responsibility to get an idea of what’s happening around the directorate. Although our mission is always the same – community safety – ICE is always in a state of change, whether there are new laws and policies or a change in presidential priorities.
In my 30 years’ experience in law enforcement, the best you can do is go with the flow. I make it a point to keep close ties with my staff, do walks around the office, talk with anyone who may be having difficulties, and look for solutions. I do love this job; the travel, the ups and downs, and the dedication of my staff keep me motivated as a public servant. We’ve come a long way from when women were issued service weapons with grips that were too big for our hands and body armor that did not properly fit. Today, I tell women at ICE, “You’re not only wanted here, but needed here.”
Belluardo: I have a degree in forensic psychology, and it’s come in handy in my current role. As the AFOD at a detention center, I communicate and work with attorneys, judges, victims of crime and criminal offenders. Becoming an AFOD has been a long journey that I’ve really enjoyed; it started when ERO was INS, and I was still in high school processing paperwork for them. I’ve watched ICE change in my many years with the agency; many have been positive changes related to women. I remember when, as with many law enforcement agencies, unhelpful attitudes got in the way of progress; some people even questioned whether women could handle the job. Those doubts have long since been overcome. Personally, I’m fortunate to have great support from my family – particularly my husband, who also works in law enforcement.
Spencer: Mission support specialists handle the day-to-day details that help ERO function seamlessly. I deal with a variety of tasks involving vehicles, property, budgets and entrances on duty. My five-person team is very much like a family to me; I look forward to coming to work because of them. I was recently promoted to a supervisory position, and that just shows that it’s your quality of work that matters, not your gender. I’m almost 25 years into my career, and I’ve seen ERO offer more and more opportunities to women. That makes for a more balanced work environment and creates a wider perspective. There’s no better time to pursue a career with ERO, whether you want to work in the field or in administration.
Gonzalez: I’m a very detail-oriented person, so mission support is a natural fit for me. I like things organized, done on time, and thoroughly. As acting special field assistant to Field Office Director John Tsoukaris, this is key to keeping things moving smoothly. Are there challenges beyond the unpredictability on any given day? Yes. That said, I’m a very persistent person and I’ve found that, ultimately, my devotion to my work has been rewarded.
Q: Why ICE?
Perez: I thrive on day-to-day challenges and being a role model for other female officers. I also believe completely in our mission of community safety. I make a difference, not just because of the female perspective I bring to the job, but because I’m a natural-born leader. ICE is looking for leaders, whatever their gender may be.
Marich: Many people have misconceptions about ERO, and ICE in general. We arrest and remove dangerous criminals from communities, including dangerous gang members like those in MS-13, which is really important to me. And with ERO, I feel greatly appreciated for my role, and it has nothing to do with my gender. Also, I believe strongly in mentorship and so does ICE, so we’re a good fit.
Belluardo: ERO is not an easy place to work because it’s high pressure, but it’s also highly rewarding. It’s been very gratifying to grow and be recognized personally and professionally. Because we have greater numbers, women have more say than we once did, and that’s important too.
Gonzalez: I’ll go ahead and say what others have said about me: I’m tough, but I’ve got lots of heart. It’s a good mix for ICE. I speak up for myself and stand for what’s right. My boss respects that, as do others in leadership positions. There are other workplaces where that kind of directness isn’t welcomed.
Spencer: ICE is full of opportunities for women. You can go so far if you keep an eye out and rise to the right challenges. Really, the sky’s the limit if you’re looking for a rewarding, challenging career with upward mobility.
The Push for More Women in Law Enforcement
ICE is one of nearly 200 agencies across the country participating in the 30/30 initiative, which aims for women to represent at least 30 percent of law enforcement officers by 2030. Currently, 15 percent of ICE’s law enforcement officers are women; 38 percent of the agency’s total workforce is female.
“The 30/30 mission makes perfect sense,” says ERO Newark Field Office Director John Tsoukaris. “Increasing our overall number of female employees, including law enforcement officers, improves our overall effectiveness and perspective, and to that end, 30/30 is ICE’s future.”
In 1871, Ellen Hunter – the first female port inspector in Baltimore – earned $800 per year. Fast forward to 1971, and the Civil Service Commission ruled to allow women to fill enforcement positions that required the use of firearms. Check out more historical facts at ICE’s Women in Law Enforcement feature page.
ERO, a directorate of ICE, upholds U.S. immigration law at, within, and beyond our borders. ERO operations target public safety threats, such as convicted criminal noncitizens and gang members, who have violated our nation’s immigration laws, including those who illegally re-enter the country after being removed and immigration fugitives ordered removed by federal immigration judges. ERO deportation officers assigned to Interpol also assist in targeting foreign fugitives for crimes committed abroad at-large in the U.S. ERO manages all aspects of the immigration enforcement process, including identification and arrest, detention, bond management, supervised release, transportation, and removal. Additionally, ERO repatriates noncitizens ordered removed from the U.S. to more than 150 countries worldwide.