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Democratic presidential hopeful Sen. Kamala Harris (Calif.) made national headlines last week when she offered a measured defense of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), during an appearance on MSNBC. While she offered some criticisms of the agency, she ultimately defended ICE’s right to exist.
“I’m a prosecutor. I believe that there needs to be serious, severe, and swift consequence when people commit serious and violent crimes…and certainly if they are undocumented they should be deported if they commit serious and violent offenses,” Harris said. “So yes, ICE has a purpose, ICE has a role, ICE should exist. But let’s not abuse the power.”
Under the current conditions, even a qualified endorsement of ICE is unacceptable. As we’ve cataloged before, ICE has been nothing short of an immigration secret police under President Trump. ICE has apprehended people outside of schools and inside courthouses. ICE has separated families. ICE has gone after immigration activists. ICE has deported domestic violence victims, pastors, and grandmothers. ICE has lied about who they are targeting and illegally used information to pursue their targets. Even the agency’s director, Thomas Homan, has been unapologetic about his agency’s behavior. He has called for the arrest of opposing political leaders and has said that undocumented immigrants should “be afraid” of ICE.
Despite all this, no 2020 Democratic hopeful has released a statement calling for an end to the agency. When the Daily Dot reached out to the press offices of senators Bernie Sanders, Kirsten Gillibrand, and Corey Booker, comment was not returned.
However, now—with 1.8 million undocumented immigrants left vulnerable—is time to draw a line in the sand: Any Democratic candidate for 2020 must advocate the abolishment of ICE.
The hesitance to call for an end to ICE is, as it always seems to be with Democrats, a question of norms. Specifically, would the destruction of ICE mark some kind of cataclysmic shift in America’s power structures? The answer, of course, is no. ICE was created in 2002, so it doesn’t exactly have a storied history. In fact, it has a history of paramilitary activity, abuses and human rights violations, and government waste. ICE was created concurrently with the Department of Homeland Security, and as such has operated as though immigration enforcement and anti-terrorism are similar functions. As the Nation’s Sean McElwee recently wrote, “By putting ICE under the scope of DHS, the government framed immigration as a national security issue rather than an issue of community development, diversity or human rights.”
ICE’s predecessor, Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS), was a more humane approach to immigration enforcement. While INS was guilty of many terrible things, the organization often held itself to higher standards than the current iteration of ICE, such as never conducting deportation raids at a private residence.
In other words, it shouldn’t be difficult for the Left to imagine an America with a more just, less violent immigration policy. No one is proposing that there be no immigration apparatus at all.
Also, attempting to defund government organizations is nothing new. Various Republicans have run on getting rid of far more vital pieces of the U.S. government. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) has proposed getting rid of the Department of Education. Rick Perry once floated abolishing the Department of Energy, of which he is now the head. President Trump’s proposed 2018 budget would have cut 66 federal programs entirely, and it’s well known that he and Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney would love to dismantle the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.
Some Democrats have argued that they would be behaving like small government Republicans should they abolish ICE without a mechanism to replace it. Again, no one is proposing that, and again, we have a precedent of less severe enforcement to draw upon. Decoupling ICE from the DHS and rebuilding a more humane version of a pre-9/11 INS doesn’t seem so far fetched. It would also likely save money, as this new organization would be conducting fewer raids, deporting fewer people, and gobbling up fewer resources.
In 2013, the New York Times reported on ballooning costs of immigration enforcement, and that has only gotten worse under Trump. Furthermore, this would offer a moment to clarify and focus the mission of immigration enforcement in the United States. Confusion as to ICE’s mandate could be cleared up. ICE agents would no longer be falsely identifying themselves as police officers and the government could restrict paramilitary activity within this new agency.
The next question Democrats are probably weighing is one of political viability. While no major Democratic candidates have called for the abolition of ICE, various candidates for state and local positions have incorporated ending ICE into their platforms. A number of progressive and liberal groups have called for the abolition of ICE as well, including Indivisible, Brand New Congress, Justice Democrats, and the Democratic Socialists of America. Activists in cities with large Latinx and immigrant populations support abolishing ICE because they see their evil and excess up close on a daily basis. It’s hard to imagine a national campaign that drew attention to the problems with ICE wouldn’t gain some level of national sympathy.
As with so many issues on the Left, there are two approaches the Democrats can take as they approach 2018 and 2020. One is to advocate reform and control of existing conservative systems. The other is to offer bold changes in American life in opposition to the reactionary government of President Trump. Just as single payer healthcare, $15 minimum wage, and complete freedom of reproductive rights are emerging as progressive litmus tests, it should be unacceptable to run as a Democrat and support anything short of ending ICE.
Brenden Gallagher is a politics reporter and cultural commentator. His work has been published by Motherboard, Complex, and VH1. He’s the co-founder of Beer Money Films, an indie production company. Based in Los Angeles, he works in television drama as a writers assistant.