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On the surface, 34-year-old Suraj Patel comes off as a spirited, analytical “woke bae.” Patel’s website, promoting his campaign for New York’s 12th Congressional District, has all the promising platform points of an election run alongside women’s marches and Muslim ban protests: “Immigrants: Welcome.” “Gender: A Spectrum.” “Black Lives: Matter.”
His social media posts pop from news feeds in periwinkle blue and millennial pink; in one video, Patel says after the presidential election, he mourned for six hours at an Olive Garden and had to pay for unlimited breadsticks twice.
It’s a detail that some conservative trolls have latched onto to prove how “weak” the left is (and that snarky New Yorkers will tear apart over his emotional eating choice), but for Patel and his overwhelmingly Democratic and young constituency, it’s witty, humanizing, and relatable.
His affable nature aside, however, there’s another thing that sets Patel apart from all the other young Democratic newbies flying into the ring, hoping to propel a political “blue wave” into 2020: He is calling for the defunding of the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, more commonly referred to as ICE.
ICE is the agency tasked with enforcing border control laws by arresting undocumented immigrants across the U.S. in the name of “homeland security and public safety.” Under the Trump administration, ICE arrested 25 percent more people in the 2017 fiscal year than in the previous year, with arrests jumping 40 percent after Trump’s inauguration in comparison to the same period in 2016. The agency has been called out for abusing immigrants, wrongly detaining and deporting Americans and legal permanent residents, and driving state and federal employees to quit their jobs. More specifically, ICE has mistreated pregnant women in custody (who were not supposed to be detained in the first place), sought retribution against a detainee after she said an ICE agent sexually assaulted her, and requested that the agency be allowed to destroy records regarding solitary confinement, sexual assault, and deaths while in custody.
For that, politicians and immigration rights advocates have subsequently called the agency a de facto deportation squad hell-bent on splitting apart families of mixed citizenship status. If elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, Patel would push for ICE to be defunded in its current form.
“Border security should stay at the border and out of our cities. It cannot be ‘Donald Trump’s 50-State Deportation Squad’ that raids schools and churches and courthouses,” Patel told the Daily Dot. “Businesses and regular families are being harassed; people aren’t calling [in] domestic abuse violations. They’re living in fear, and it’s making us less safe.”
According to Patel, Trump may be an “exceptionally racist” president, but he is only using the tools Congress has handed him. So Patel’s strategy would echo the one often used to negotiate must-pass spending bills: If the federal government wants more funding for Homeland Security, it needs to transform ICE into an agency that patrols the border rather than raids immigrant communities. It would also need to come up with a pathway to citizenship for the millions of people here attempting to create a life for themselves.
It’s an ambitious plan, to say the least. If elected, Patel would be just one of 435 members in the House of Representatives, and he would represent portions of Manhattan, Brooklyn, and Queens, all of which are encompassed in New York’s sanctuary city policies. However, even if congressional Democrats wouldn’t unanimously co-sign such a bill or maneuver, it’s a potential party- and election-breaking position that other Democratic candidates will eventually have to address if the Trump administration continues to allow ICE to unlawfully detain and harm families.
It’s also an issue that matters to Patel, a first-generation American. His parents emigrated from India as links in a long line of family “chain” migration, as Trump would call it. His parents are business owners, operating motels across 14 states that Patel and his brother helped them maintain during childhood summers. Patel went on to graduate from Stanford, NYU School of Law, and Cambridge University, and worked for both the Obama and Clinton campaigns. Now a business ethics adjunct professor at NYU, he rushed to JFK Airport to volunteer as an attorney with the ACLU after Trump’s first travel ban of nationals from Muslim-majority countries. As Patel put it, if the president is trying to eradicate his version of the American dream, then what better way to challenge these policies than to elevate stories of immigrants, showing that the dream is far from over and worth fighting for?
Patel isn’t exactly alone in his platform, but he doesn’t find himself in generous company, either. The Nation reported that so far only a handful of candidates have also endorsed defunding the agency: Dan Canon, a Democrat for Congress in Indiana’s ninth district; New York congressional candidate Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez; New York Senate candidate Jessica Ramos; and Hawaii State Legislature member Kaniela Ing.
If it’s any indication that Democrats will eventually have to take sides about ICE, though, the Nation ran that editorial a day after Democratic California Sen. Kamala Harris justified ICE’s existence in regards to her history as a prosecutor. While she spoke for its necessity in stopping violent criminals, she did, however, denounce the agency’s abuse of power. Splinter’s Jack Mirkinson called Harris’ position “not good enough,” and that she should be continually asked “why exactly she is willing to uphold the legitimacy of such a racist, corrupt, and thuggish organization” in anticipation of a potential 2020 run. Separately, Sens. Bernie Sanders, Kirsten Gillibrand, and Cory Booker failed to return Daily Dot writer Brenden Gallagher’s request for comment on their own ICE platforms later that month. Reportedly, not a single senator has endorsed Patel’s proposal.
While even the most outspoken Democrats popular with far-left constituents on topics such as wealth inequality, systemic sexual harassment, and expunging marijuana-related convictions are slow to outright divorce the immigration agency, Patel’s platform isn’t at all radical for activist groups and progressive voters themselves.
Silky Shah told the Daily Dot that this “defund and abolish ICE” argument is nothing new in her circles. Shah is the executive director of Detention Watch Network, a coalition that advocates for the abolishment of immigration detention and monitors immigration detention and deportation injustice. Last year, the network launched a #DefundHate campaign in partnership with other groups including United We Dream and Indivisible, the goal of which is an expansion of Patel’s potential congressional efforts.
The campaign called for the end of federal appropriations for the Department of Homeland Security to curb anti-immigration efforts such as ICE and U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) hiring, expanded detention facilities, building Trump’s border wall, and more. The network received public commitments from 103 congressional members to support cuts in DHS funding for the 2018 fiscal appropriations, including Sens. Booker, Sanders, and Elizabeth Warren, which Shah said helped accomplish some of this financial resistance.
Shah also noted the high-profile work done by the #Not1More Deportation campaign founded under the National Day Laborer Organizing Network. In 2010, protesters under the #Not1More mission shut down the Maricopa County, Arizona, jail run by then-Sheriff Joe Arpaio. Following a state court decision that essentially allowed racial profiling of Arizonans who appeared undocumented within “reasonable suspicion,” Arpaio had scheduled an immigration raid—but not before Vanessa Bustos and five other activists created a human chain to block the jail’s entrance and then handcuffed themselves to its doors.
Part of Congress’ non-consideration of defunding the agency, Shah posed, may be a result of the country’s rooted investment in law enforcement and punishment. And while ICE didn’t exist nearly two decades ago, certainly not in its current form after its establishment in 2003, Shah said the conversation around defunding ICE is also too premature to determine how positioning will affect Democrats in 2018 and beyond.
“I think right now it’s just really clear that we’re ready to have that conversation [on defunding ICE]. I think we’re trying to figure out how we can hold members of Congress to this idea that we have to really reduce [funding],” Shah said. “This is a moment when all of these institutions are being called into question, and I think that’s why the ‘abolish ICE’ conversation has gotten some traction because it’s like, ‘Why are we committed to continuing these agencies that serve a purpose to just instill fear and terrorize people?’”
Arriving at such a stance so early can come with its own set of difficulties, as Shah pointed out. While Patel’s swift call to defund ICE makes him somewhat of a “thought leader,” it also leaves him vulnerable to criticism in standing seemingly alone, even from the people who would theoretically support his positioning. For some, even Patel’s plan to send ICE to the border isn’t far enough.
For example, CBP agents are allowed to patrol the area within 100 miles of the U.S. border, leaving thousands of people in cities such as San Antonio, El Paso, and Seattle vulnerable to detention. If driven from the district he’s running for, Patel’s constituents would have a nearly 200-mile cushion from this zone. But Dulce Garcia, an immigration lawyer and Deferred Action For Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program recipient, told the Daily Dot that restricting the “deportation squad” to the border wouldn’t cut it for her family in San Diego. Garcia is one of several DACA recipients who sued the Trump administration last year over the Justice Department’s end of the program protecting undocumented immigrants.
That’s not to say Patel’s brazen, proud, but perhaps almost-fully-but-not-quite baked platform for defunding ICE is performative or misinformed. Even with its sanctuary city designation and multiple reassurances to immigrant New Yorkers, District 12 is just as much a target of ICE as border communities. According to the Immigrant Defence Project, New York state saw a 1,200 percent increase in ICE arrests and attempted arrests at courthouses, with two-thirds of those instances occurring in New York City. And though the New York Police Department has complied with none of the 1,526 detainer requests from ICE in the 2017 fiscal year, the New York Times reported that the department’s arrest records end up creating a “road map” to immigrants by sharing that information with the state, which in turns shares with the FBI, which is then accessible to ICE.
Patel is aware that his initial “back to the borders” strategy isn’t perfect for affected immigrant communities within that 100-mile boundary, and told the Daily Dot that in returning ICE to its original intentions, he specifically meant customs enforcement and preventing crimes of that nature, such as drug smuggling—“not rounding up people with no cause just because the only law they’ve broken is to be here,” he said.
Patel agreed with Garcia’s critique of his proposal. “We criminalize too much behavior in this country already,” he said. “It would be absurd to criminalize people just being here, trying to work and have a life in these communities.”
The candidate’s willingness to not only promote an anti-ICE agenda, but use his campaign as a medium in which to learn more about and subsequently shape ICE defunding concepts, speaks to his commitment to undocumented immigrants. Meanwhile, his incumbent opponent, Democratic Rep. Carolyn Maloney, who has been in office since 1993 and has represented the 12th District since 2013, did not respond to the Daily Dot’s request for comment regarding her stance on defunding ICE. While Maloney has tweeted that ICE must end its “inhumane policies,” Patel pointed out that his opponent was not at JFK Airport amid the travel ban’s January 2017 implementation, like he was.
Patel’s other Democratic opponent, Sander Hicks—a publisher, 9/11 truther, and 2006 Green Party New York Senate candidate—told the Daily Dot that his campaign calls for “the defunding of ICE, the restoration of civil liberties, and the investigation of 9/11, as a part of returning to an America based on the Bill of Rights.” (Patel is currently suing Hicks on charges of insufficient and invalid petitions.)
While it may seem like Patel is vying for his 700,000-person district’s attention through trendy means—like group workout classes and happy hour town halls leading up to the June 26 primaries—he’s set his ICE-defunding sights on the bigger picture: to encourage other Democrats to question, consider, and hopefully adopt similar stances on defunding the agency. Ultimately, Patel’s effort to jumpstart the conversation may very well have an effect on how 2020 hopefuls like Gillibrand and Booker respond to constituents’ burgeoning curiosity over the next two years.
“If [Democrats] are really the party of inclusiveness and the party of empathy and the party for regular people, then if we’re not going to stand up for the most marginalized among us, then who will? We have to give people a reason to vote for us,” Patel said. “We’re moving the establishment in the direction we want it to be, and we’re changing the conversation already. So stay tuned.”
Editor’s note: This article has been edited for clarity.
Samantha Grasso is a former IRL staff writer for the Daily Dot with a reporting emphasis on immigration. Her work has appeared on Los Angeles Magazine, Death And Taxes, Revelist, Texts From Last Night, Austin Monthly, and she has previously contributed to Texas Monthly.