Over the summer, the publicization of the separation of families found crossing the southern border illegally sparked a major debate over immigration policy. Under the Trump Administration’s “zero tolerance” policy, anyone caught committing this misdemeanor offense is prosecuted in the harshest manner available, including those seeking legal asylum.
For months, agents from Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) tore apart families of undocumented immigrants, incarcerating thousands of undocumented minors in for-profit prisons before they were shipped off to shelters and then housed with foster families while their parents went through deportation proceedings.
Eventually, widespread activist pressure and investigative journalism cut through the Trump Administration’s lies about the nature of its family separation policy. Trump was backed into signing an executive order ending family separation after weeks of falsely saying it could only be done by Congress.
During this contentious national debate, left-wing grassroots organizations sparked a call for the total abolition of ICE as a federal agency. At first seen as a fringe issue, it spread like wildfire through leftist and progressive circles.
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a democratic socialist running on the Democratic Party ticket, won her primary election for New York’s 14th District against Congressional heavyweight Joe Crowley on a platform that included the abolition of ICE. Rep. Mark Pocan of Wisconsin, introduced a bill for the abolition of ICE in June. Pocan was joined by House Democrats Earl Blumenauer, Pramila Jayapal and Jim McGovern. Shortly after, sitting senator Elizabeth Warren publicly advocated that ICE be scrapped.
Since some confuse the responsibilities of the two agencies, let’s clarify the differences between ICE and CPB. Border Patrol agents do just that: patrol our northern and southern borders looking for contraband being smuggled in as well as anyone entering the country without proper documentation.
By contrast, ICE is mandated to enforce immigration law between the borders in the interior of our country by incarcerating undocumented immigrants whose presence ICE has become aware of via surveillance, patrols and investigation.
I make this distinction because it’s true when critics say getting rid of ICE alone will solve nothing; current immigration law would simply be enforced by different agencies. Before ICE was created in 2003 during the mass national psychosis the American political class experienced after the 9/11 attacks, ICE’s duties were handled by the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS). If INS, instead of being reorganized into ICE and CPB, had instead been flooded with surplus military hardware and given the task of ethnic cleansing by a xenophobic dullard president, it stands to reason that INS would have morphed into what ICE is today.
To put it simply, the treatment of immigrants by our law enforcement is dictated by immigration policy. The thing is, progressives would need the same thing to either shut down ICE or significantly change immigration policy: control of the government. This is where it becomes tricky to assess the political wisdom of calling to abolish ICE.
Many politicians and pundits skeptical of ICE’s abolition argue that the position is simply bad politics, as most Americans look at law enforcement favorably. They see the issue as aiding left-wing Democrats who run in deep blue districts but warn that a position so radical simply won’t play in Peoria.
On the plus side, the grassroots popularity of the policy among young progressives makes it a good issue to energize the base with. Those grassroots activists have seen plenty of traction with the issue, forcing Democratic candidates to adopt more progressive immigration platforms and already leading to some electoral victories.
On the other hand, any Democratic nominee for president in 2020 who goes up against a law-and-order style Republican with a call to abolish ICE will get crushed. Even after months of coverage of family separation, centrists and conservatives are still unready to seriously challenge the status quo in such a way.
While ICE’s approval ratings are lower than the IRS, most people seem to think reform would be adequate.
All of this leaves progressives in an awkward position. The issue may be more useful during primaries as a sort of progressive litmus test than as an appeal to the mainstream during a general election.
Democrats, especially those running in swing districts, would probably be wise to keep anti-ICE activists at arm’s length.
But that doesn’t mean progressives should stop pressing for ICE’s abolition. With the attention their demand has already gotten, it should be used to call attention to the daily horrors ICE inflicts while steadily dragging more and more politicians toward a more progressive immigration policy.