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One of the more unlikely yet exciting talking points for Democratic politicians of late is the growing call to abolish Immigrations and Customs Enforcement. What began as an “online” idea amplified by leftist activists like Sean McElwee has become a policy bullet point adopted by midterm candidates such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Boston’s Ayanna Pressley. The idea is also making waves in Washington DC, where Wisconsin Representative Mark Pocan has assembled a working group to put forth a bill for how abolishing ICE would work — an idea that Paul Ryan called “the craziest” he’s seen.
This is happening because the images, sounds, and testimonies of what’s happening to immigrants on the southern border have put millions of voters and their elected officials into a state of horror and disgust.
But the grassroots movement to abolish ICE was gestating long before Donald Trump authorized the separation of families. Remember last year’s story about undocumented Massachusetts residents being arrested by ICE when they showed up to immigration offices to begin the application process for green cards? Stories like that one — which poured in from all corners of the country almost immediately after Trump was sworn into office — have been integral in making voters more aware of the way that ICE operates and the cold, procedural nature of its cruelty.
The word “procedural” is worth highlighting here because it speaks to why ICE should be shut down altogether and not revamped.
What we’re seeing from ICE today is not symptomatic of an agency “gone rogue” -- ICE is doing exactly what it was established do.
As an institution, ICE is relatively new. The agency was formed in 2003 through a series of legislative reforms sparked by the 9/11 terror attacks. Prior to the attacks, immigration enforcement had mostly been handled by the Justice Department’s Immigration and Naturalization Services agency. The Bush administration used the attacks to establish the Department of Homeland Security, which absorbed INS and rebranded the agency as ICE. Overnight, immigration became a matter of national security, laying the ideological and tactical groundwork for the brutal mass deportations that occurred under Bush and Obama, and are now worsening under the Trump regime.
What we’re seeing from ICE today is not symptomatic of an agency “gone rogue” — ICE is doing exactly what it was established do. The agency has long operated with inadequate oversight from Congress, which has empowered its players to target immigrant communities in a more militarized and terroristic fashion. In addition, ICE routinely abuses its power to threaten political opponents such journalist Manuel Duran -- who was arrested by ICE after covering police brutality in the Memphis area, and could soon be deported to El Salvador — and Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf, who warned her constituents about an imminent ICE raid earlier this year.
Again, this is happening by design, and it’s why the more moderate calls for ICE to be “radically reformed” and not abolished are misguided. Take the jungle primary for Niki Tsongas’s House seat that’s unfolding in Massachusetts’ 3rd District right now. Of the 10 Democratic candidates, the only three who’ve called for the abolishment of ICE are Juana Matias, Barbara L’Italien, and Jeff Ballinger. The others, including Dan Koh, Lori Trahan, and Rufus Gifford, have instead suggested that ICE be “radically reformed.”
It’s easy to understand why so many Democrats are hesitant to join the Abolish ICE movement. By nature, Democrats are less prone to calling for the abolition of federal institutions, and the party is still locked in a confounding debate over whether the best midterm and 2020 strategy is appeasing moderates or firing up the more liberal base. But Democrats also tend to pride themselves as people who appreciate nuances, and the case for abolishing ICE is about understanding the nuances of how (and why) this agency was created — to further criminalize immigration during a time of heightened anxiety over terrorism and other national security threats.
This is what ICE exists to do, and it’s what ICE will continue to do until the majority of Democratic Party leadership fully acknowledges the agency’s purpose and the proper way to deal with it. Some institutions can be saved by reform, but for that to work, there has to be something salvageable. And that’s why abolition is the only road forward.
We need to stop thinking about immigration as a national security issue.
Instead, we must recognize immigration as a matter of human rights that will only grow more profound as white nationalism proliferates back into the mainstream and as climate change destabilizes our environment. We talk about keeping our communities together and looking out for each other in the face of these threats, but as long as we continue to delegate immigration management to ICE and DHS, immigrants in America will remain at the mercy of a system that's designed to view them as potential threats.
It's time for that to end.
- 15 Years After Its Creation, Critics Want To Abolish ICE
- ICE Carries Out Its Largest Immigration Raid In Recent History, Arresting 146
- Would You Warn Your Neighbors About An Immigration Raid?
- Immigrant Families In Mass. Shouldn't Have To Live In Fear Of The Police
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