July 02–Just a few weeks ago, the idea of abolishing the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency was a pipe dream for liberal activists.
But amid uproar over the Trump administration’s hard-line immigration policies, “abolish ICE” has been embraced by some of the Democratic Party’s top potential presidential contenders, is on the lips of protesters around the country, and is swiftly becoming a key debate in this year’s midterm elections.
The movement’s remarkable rise from fringe issue to Democratic rallying cry has thrilled progressive activists — but also has Republicans gloating about how it could boost their election prospects.
In the Bay Area, Rep. Mark DeSaulnier, D-Concord, told the Bay Area News Group on Monday that he supports abolishing the agency because “it’s not working.” He appears to be the first sitting member of Congress from California to join the movement.
“Its original mission was to protect Americans from foreign terrorists,” DeSaulnier said of ICE, “but it’s actually making the general public less safe.”
DeSaulnier, who’s served in Congress since 2015, cited a letter from 19 regional ICE supervisors arguing that the agency’s detention and deportation crackdown have made it more difficult for agents to pursue other missions like fighting transnational crime, human trafficking, organized crime and smuggling. He said he’s talked to ICE employees who joined the agency “because they wanted to be the good guys” but now are distressed about “what this administration’s having them do domestically.”
Support for the idea of abolishing the agency and starting over has grown amid the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” immigration policy, which separated more than 2,300 immigrant children from parents who crossed into the U.S. illegally in May and June. Audio of crying children and photos of kids in cages spurred national uproar.
The proposal also got a boost when progressive New York City congressional candidate Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez won an upset victory against Rep. Joe Crowley, the fourth highest-ranking Democrat in the House, in part by campaigning on shutting ICE down. And abolishing ICE was a centerpiece of ationwide protests against the Trump administration’s immigration policies this weekend.
Now even some of the top 2020 presidential candidates support the idea, including Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York and Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts. Another rumored White House contender, California Sen. Kamala Harris, hasn’t explicitly backed abolishing the agency, but said on MSNBC last week that “we have to re-examine ICE, and we need to probably think about starting from scratch because there’s a lot that is wrong with the way that it’s conducting itself.”
ICE is one of the federal government’s youngest agencies, established in 2002 in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. Previously, deportation was handled by the same agency that enforced immigration policy. Progressives argue that the U.S. would be better served by going back to the old model and putting less energy and resources toward deportations.
Still, even those who support abolishing ICE disagree about what exactly should replace it. DeSaulnier said it would make sense to separate the investigation arm of the agency with the immigration enforcement arm. A Wisconsin congressman is working on legislation that would start a commission to abolish ICE and reallocate its responsibilities to other agencies.
Meanwhile, Republicans see the issue as an easy way to tar Democrats as supporting “open borders.” In an interview with Fox News last week, Trump said that the debate over abolishing ICE would lead Democrats to big losses.
“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,” he said. “I love that issue if they’re going to actually do that.”
While there hasn’t been state polling on the question, GOP activists argue the idea could even be too left-wing for California. Ocasio-Cortez’s rhetoric about abolishing ICE will be a boon for Golden State Republicans, predicted Harmeet Dhillon, a Republican national commiteewoman for California.
“Keep talking, girlfriend,” she said.
Other Democrats also worry the debate could hurt their party. “I think it has the potential to be a distraction and to divide us,” said Rep. Jared Huffman, D-San Rafael, in an interview. “It’s President Trump’s terrible practices and policies that are hurting people, not the name of the agency or the org chart.”
The debate could also be an issue in this year’s intraparty U.S. Senate race. Former State Senate leader Kevin de León, who’s challenging Sen. Dianne Feinstein from the left in November, told protesters outside an immigrant detention center in Los Angeles this weekend that he supports abolishing ICE.
“Today, ICE is the weapon of choice for a president dead-set on waging a war against immigrant communities in our country, and Congress has done nothing to stop it,” he said in a statement.
Feinstein has called for reforming ICE but hasn’t gone as far as calling for the agency to be abolished. She said in a statement Monday that Trump’s immigration policies have “created fear throughout California” and “it’s clear that we need to rethink how our immigration laws are enforced in the face of repeated overreach.”
Most of the Bay Area’s Democratic members of Congress are sticking to similar, more mainstream positions of criticizing ICE and the administration’s immigration tactics while not calling for abolishing the agency.
“We need to end the abuses in ICE, so we can’t have the separation of families and kids being put in cages,” said Rep. Ro Khanna, D-Santa Clara, in an interview. “But I’m for protecting our borders and having an enforcement agency.” He suggested ICE could be improved if it was moved under the Justice Department instead of the Department of Homeland Security.
Rep. Anna Eshoo, D-Palo Alto, said critics should focus on Trump’s immigration policies, not on ICE itself.
“Every sovereign nation has the responsibility to protect their borders,” Eshoo said in an interview. “Do I relish what they are doing and carrying out? Absolutely not… but ICE didn’t set that, the president of the United States put that in place.”
Should ICE be abolished? More responses from Bay Area members of Congress:
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-San Francisco: “Leader Pelosi believes that ICE has been on the wrong end of far too many inhumane and unconstitutional practices to be allowed to continue without an immediate and fundamental overhaul,” said spokesman Drew Hammill. “No one can watch ICE play such a central role in the heartbreak and horror of family separation without reasonably concluding that a drastic overhaul of its immigration functions is desperately needed, and soon.”
Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-San Jose: “It seems to me that focusing on abolishing ICE as an agency lets President Trump off the hook. We shouldn’t shift responsibility for the President’s dysfunctional policies to ICE personnel on the ground. That said, ICE is an agency in need of reform with an internal culture that is problematic. It’s worth studying whether we should reform the agency’s responsibilities, implement new training, or examine recruitment policies.”
Rep. Eric Swalwell, D-Dublin: “The President’s current border policies are cruel and cold, and they should be abolished. Congress should move to pass laws that do not separate families, reconnect those who have been separated, provide a certain fate for DREAMers and a path to citizenship for the undocumented, and provide smart, humane border security. There’s consensus among the American people to do all of this.”
This article provided by NewsEdge.