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How ‘Abolish ICE’ became the left’s new rallying cry

As the backlash against Trump’s actions on immigration reaches new territory, so too has the mainstream political discourse on the idea of abolishing ICE.

An immigration activist holds up a sign calling for the abolishment of ICE during a rally last Saturday outside the Department of Justice in Washington, D.C.
REUTERS/Joshua Roberts

When state Rep. Ilhan Omar addressed the 5th Congressional District’s special convention on June 17, she had a handful of lines that sparked boisterous cheering and applause from the crowd of 200-some dedicated progressive activists assembled.

The one that got the most enthusiastic response? Probably Omar’s call to “abolish ICE,” the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency.

Over the past month, increasingly aggressive immigration enforcement from President Donald Trump’s administration, including the policy of separating migrant families at the U.S.-Mexico border, has outraged Americans of different political stripes. ICE, the special police-like force chiefly responsible for arresting, detaining, and deporting undocumented immigrants, has become a public target of that outrage.

As the backlash against Trump’s actions on immigration reaches new territory, so too has the mainstream political discourse on the issue: the idea of abolishing ICE, considered fringe just a few months ago, has now become something of a political litmus test for progressives.

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Aside from Omar, dozens of Democratic politicians around the country have picked up the “abolish ICE” banner in short order. Possible hopefuls for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination are already being forced to navigate the question; New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, considered a likely candidate, was among the first national politicians to come out in favor of abolishing ICE.

As long as Republicans control the White House and Congress, getting rid of ICE is a virtually impossible goal. And even if Democrats were to take control of the House or Senate this fall, many top-ranking members of the party are opposed to getting rid of the agency.

But the rising popularity of doing away with ICE — and the debate over what, if anything, should replace it — is revealing much about how far some Democrats are willing to go to counter Trump’s immigration crackdown.

ICE aged

The calls to abolish ICE may be relatively new, but ICE itself is also a relatively new agency: it was established in 2003 as part of the Department of Homeland Security, which Congress voted to create in 2002 in response to the September 11th terrorist attacks.

The main federal agency for immigration before 9/11 was called the Immigration and Naturalization Service, or INS, which carried out the government’s most central immigration responsibilities, from administering ports of entry into the U.S. and protecting the border to granting citizenship and visas.

The creation of DHS, the first new cabinet-level agency in years, represented a significant reorganization of, and increase in, government resources toward the goal of fighting terrorism. That reorganization, however, put enforcement of federal immigration law — formerly in the purview of the Department of Justice, where the INS was located — under the banner of national security.

The tasks of the INS, broadly separated into enforcing immigration law and granting immigration-related benefits, were then distributed among three separate agencies within the DHS: U.S. Customs and Border Protection, which would administer ports of entry and control borders, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, which would process citizenship, green cards, and other benefits, and ICE.

ICE now has over 20,000 employees and is responsible for enforcing over 400 federal laws. But its main responsibility is to identify, arrest, detain, and deport undocumented immigrants living in the U.S. It does this on a massive scale: at any given moment, tens of thousands of people are detained at hundreds of ICE-affiliated facilities around the country. (ICE is the only federal law enforcement agency required by Congress to meet a quota: at least 34,000 detained migrants must fill ICE’s beds each night.)

Since its creation, ICE has also deported hundreds of thousands of people from the U.S. each year. In fiscal year 2004, it deported 241,000 people; in fiscal year 2013, it deported 435,000 people.

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Arrests and deportations by ICE peaked under President Barack Obama, but tapered off in the last years of his administration. Trump’s ICE has become more aggressive in arresting suspected undocumented migrants, with officers carrying out raids on homes and workplaces around the U.S., from meatpacking plants to nurseries. During fiscal year 2017, covering the first nine months of Trump’s presidency, ICE deported 226,000 people and arrested 143,000, an increase of more than 40 percent over the same period in 2016.

In addition to administering some detention centers for migrants, ICE also runs three facilities for separated families, putting the agency under greater scrutiny as public outcry over the administration’s policy grows.

‘Lawless law enforcement’

Critics of ICE say that, under Trump, the agency has essentially become a militarized deportation task force whose mission has changed to not only enforce existing law, but to serve the administration’s politically-motivated crackdown on immigration.

Hiroshi Motomura, a professor of law at the University of California-Los Angeles, traces the state of ICE today to the 2003 reorganization that separated immigration benefits-giving from enforcement.

“I think it created a culture, ultimately, that emphasized enforcement exclusively within ICE, because that was their mission,” he said. “Under Trump, it’s taken another step not toward being enforcement, I’d actually say it’s moved toward lawless law enforcement.” He said that the administration has sent signals to ICE offices and agents to “go rogue by design.”

Indeed, the perceived changes have sparked dissent even within the ranks of the agency: last week, 19 ICE agents signed a letter to DHS Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen favoring the dissolution of the agency that employs them. They argued the administration’s aggressive posture on immigration has consumed ICE and made it harder for the agency to pursue its other objectives.

Though the left has criticized ICE for years, its role as the spear-tip of Trump’s immigration initiatives has fueled the push to abolish it. One of the first people to advocate for the idea on a public platform was Sean McElwee, a socialist writer and researcher, who wrote an article in March in the liberal The Nation magazine endorsing the idea.

“ICE has become a genuine threat to democracy, and it is destroying thousands of lives,” McElwee wrote. He cited congressional testimony from the then-director of ICE, Thomas Homan, who stated in no uncertain terms that his goal was to foster fear of his agency in immigrant communities.

“The call to abolish ICE is, above all, a demand for the Democratic Party to begin seriously resisting an unbridled white-supremacist surveillance state that it had a hand in creating,” he said. “Though the party has moved left on core issues from reproductive rights to single-payer health care, it’s time for progressives to put forward a demand that deportation be taken not as the norm but rather as a disturbing indicator of authoritarianism.”

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The abolish-ICE slogan, mostly buzzed about in left-wing political circles to that point, was given a national airing with the unexpected victory of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a 28-year old socialist who defeated powerful U.S. Rep. Joseph Crowley in a Democratic primary in New York City. Ocasio-Cortez is an advocate for abolishing ICE and is vowing to push for it in Congress next year.

In Minnesota, if Omar wins the five-way DFL primary in the 5th District on August 14, she’s almost guaranteed to be the district’s next representative in Congress, where she’d likely be a leading advocate for getting rid of ICE.

“ICE has only become increasingly militarized, brutal, and unaccountable,” Omar said in a statement to MinnPost. “Our immigration policy should be based in compassion and a desire to help the other. ICE is not the solution, we need to abolish ICE.”

No panacea

It’s not just progressive upstarts like Omar and Ocasio-Cortez, however, who are now in favor of abolishing ICE: it’s also nationally known Democrats with their eyes on the White House.

In the past week, possible Democratic candidates for president have come out in support of the idea, including Gillibrand, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio. (Meanwhile, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders’ refusal to jump on the abolish-ICE bandwagon earned him the ire of the left.)

A HuffPost poll found that just 22 percent of Democrats have a favorable view of ICE, and 40 percent support abolishing it. (That same poll, however, found that only 17 percent of Americans have even heard of the idea.)

Though a growing cohort of Democrats may want to abolish ICE, that doesn’t mean they’re on the same page about something equally important: what, if anything, would replace it. Supportive politicians like Gillibrand argue that federal immigration enforcement needs to be restructured, not eliminated: “You should get rid of it, start over, reimagine it and build something that actually works,” she said.

Two Democratic members of the U.S. House, Rep. Mark Pocan of Wisconsin and Rep. Pramila Jayapal of Washington, have introduced legislation to abolish ICE and create a special commission that would “implement a humane immigration enforcement system that upholds the dignity of all individuals, while transferring necessary functions to other agencies.”

“I think what many people want to do is return to an integrated agency that combines service with enforcement,” UCLA’s Motomura says. “To understand that slogan or that rallying cry as a call to abolish borders, or to abolish enforcement, misstates what it’s about. I think it’s a rallying cry against a certain attitude toward enforcement, a rallying cry against a certain attitude toward immigrants.”

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Some activists, however, would be just fine if ICE were abolished and the government stopped deporting undocumented immigrants. Brad Sigal, an activist with the Minnesota Immigrant Rights Action Committee, or MIRAC, said he doesn’t think abolishing ICE is a “panacea.”

“Our central demand and our main focus continues to be, fight every deportation we can try to stop,” he says. “But I think in a broad sense, the demand for abolishing ICE is very much in line with that, and it clearly has energized and motivated a lot of people.”

Activist groups like MIRAC are organizing to increase support for abolishing ICE in order to put pressure on politicians to adopt the position, and Sigal said he was encouraged by the stances of top Democrats on the issue.

Starting over

Clearly, some Democratic candidates believe adopting the abolish ICE position is good politics for them. But there is a dearth of statewide candidates in states Trump won, and in swing states, who are taking up the call.

No major statewide candidate in Minnesota, for example, has explicitly advocated for abolishing ICE, though some have displayed sympathy for the idea. Rep. Keith Ellison, a stalwart progressive in the House, might have been expected to sign on to the Pocan-Jayapal bill. However, Ellison is now running for attorney general of Minnesota, and he’s been more circumspect on the topic.

A spokesman in Ellison’s D.C. office said the congressman “strongly believes that we must aggressively revamp our immigration system” and that he will “review any legislation which would seriously address the critical issues of abuse and accountability within our immigration system.”

First District DFL Rep. Tim Walz, who is running for governor, said he supported an independent investigation into the actions of the Trump administration on immigration, but did not favor abolishing ICE. “As far as DHS and ICE are concerned, I strongly support holding the administration accountable as well as majorly reforming these institutions to ensure they uphold our sacred values of freedom and democracy,” he said in a statement.

Some Democrats are cautioning the party to pull back on the abolish ICE push. One of them is Leah Phifer, a former DFL candidate for the 8th Congressional District seat whose own ties to the agency proved an obstacle in her quest for the party’s endorsement in that closely-watched race. Some activists hammered Phifer because she once worked for ICE, and they worked to link her to the Trump immigration crackdown.

“Policy shouldn’t be built on slogans like ‘build the wall’ or ‘abolish ICE,’” Phifer said in an email to MinnPost. “It just makes it harder — and takes even longer — to solve a problem that needed to be fixed yesterday. Elected officials moving to the ends of the ideological spectrum means less people are left in that critical common ground where large-scale legislation is crafted and passed.”

As Democrats debate, Republicans are attempting to make political hay out of the abolish ICE push, and are painting Democrats as a party of “open borders.” Trump himself thinks it’s a winning point for the GOP: he said on Fox News that if you get rid of ICE, “you’re going to have a country that you’re going to be afraid to walk out of your house. I love that issue if they’re going to actually do that.”

But as the administration continues to advance hard-line policies on immigration, it’s likely that the calls to abolish ICE will only grow and amplify — to the point where supporting the position may become as much a part of progressive orthodoxy as supporting single-payer health care.

MIRAC’s Sigal suggests it could endure through to a day when Trump is no longer president. “As it’s sinking into people that this is not something that started with the Trump administration, it goes back a few administrations, that’s where this demand to abolish ICE clicks for a lot of people,” he said.

“It’s not enough to hit rewind to 2016, you really have to tear it out by root and branch and start again.”