A growing number of Democrats are getting behind the call to “abolish ICE,” the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, but there’s little clarity among Democrats as to what that actually means.
The progressive rallying cry was heard around the nation after Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez upset a powerful House Democrat in a New York primary on a platform that featured abolishing ICE. Since then, a growing number of Democratic lawmakers and candidates have backed the position, frustrated with the stories of family separations at the border.
Democrats have leaned into the call even without many specifics on what the proposal would actually entail, despite how straightforward it sounds. ICE has a host of responsibilities in addition to immigration enforcement, including investigating child exploitation, detecting money laundering, running the Student and Exchange Visitor Program, and helping prevent terrorism. Abolishing the agency would mean leaving those tasks (and there are many) to other government organizations or eliminating them altogether.
Largely, Democrats who support the movement say they want to have a discussion now and are comfortable with figuring out the details later.
“Are there other agencies that already exist that are equipped to do some of those functions that ICE is doing? I mean, we have the FBI, we have the Department of Justice. I mean, even the Department of Labor focuses on issues of human trafficking,” Massachusetts Rep. Jim McGovern, who has called for abolishing ICE, told BuzzFeed News. “Do we have duplication of efforts here? Let’s figure out how we do this better and how we have an immigration policy that better reflects our values.”
“Let’s bring all the experts and bring all the community activists together and actually talk about who should be doing what, and do you need ICE when you have other agencies that are supposedly tasked with doing similar if not the same task?”
But a discussion is a far cry from what “abolish ICE” implies at face value.
“The abolish ICE people can’t answer the question of where immigration enforcement responsibilities would go. Just like GOP couldn’t answer what they’d replace [Obamacare] with. It sounds bold but it’s only a surface level solution,” one Democratic aide told BuzzFeed News in a series of texts.
When asked what abolishing ICE means to them, some Democrats approached the question instead by starting with what it doesn’t mean. It doesn’t, they are quick to point out, mean open borders, the way President Donald Trump and his administration have falsely tried to portray it.
Matt Haggman, a Democrat running in Florida to replace retiring Republican Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, said that to avoid Republicans using the "abolish ICE" movement as an attack against them, Democrats have to be “clear in what [they're] arguing for.” Asked if he thought those Democrats were being clear enough now, Haggman, who has cut an ad calling for ICE to be “shut down,” told BuzzFeed News, “I think that we can all become clearer.”
“But I think that’s OK. I think that the point is that we’re hearing voices loudly call for change, and while the voices are loud and many, I think as time goes by, I think we’ll also get sort of greater clarity on what exactly that change looks like.”
Haggman said he sees the "abolish ICE" call as one facet of broader, comprehensive immigration reform.
Another Democratic candidate for Congress, Massachusetts state Rep. Juana Matias, who is running in the state's 3rd District, called on Congress to review ICE’s practices to determine “which federal agency would be better suited to uphold and enforce humane immigration and customs related policies.” She said she looks forward to having a broader discussion on this within the party.
“In the meantime, we can start by eliminating ICE’s Enforcement and Removal Operations (ERO) capabilities,” Matias said in a statement to BuzzFeed News.
While the "abolish ICE" movement has split the Democratic Party, with many of the party’s leaders unwilling to go that far, Democrats aren’t on entirely different pages. In fact, there’s seemingly perfect unity on some basics — that family separations shouldn’t be happening, that the nation’s immigration laws need a comprehensive overhaul, and that ICE’s priorities aren’t in check.
The specifics of what should happen to ICE are where Democrats start to fall apart.
House progressives are at work to introduce long-shot legislation that, if passed in the Republican-controlled chamber, would create a commission that would give recommendations on how to redesign the agency and what responsibilities to transfer elsewhere. The legislation “would abolish the agency within a set period of time,” according to the office of Rep. Mark Pocan, a Wisconsin Democrat leading the legislation. The time frame is still being worked out, but New York Rep. Adriano Espaillat said one of the proposals is to give ICE until the end of 2018.
“We will have from now until the end of December to determine which is the new agency that should pick up the jurisdiction that’s currently given to ICE,” Espaillat told BuzzFeed News of the plan. “There’s a debate as to whether or not the new agency should be part of the Justice Department as opposed to the Department of Homeland Security. Or that it should be maybe an independent entity. And that’s something that we can discuss for the next three or four months and then be able to come up with a good recommendation.”
Espaillat demurred when asked what he thought dismantling ICE should look like, saying that he didn’t think it was fair to “jump the gate” but that he welcomed the process of having a “broad discussion.”
In the Senate, some progressives are also lining themselves up with calls to abolish ICE. New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand was the first to outright say ICE should be abolished.
“Senator Gillibrand has stated her vision for replacing ICE by separating the criminal justice and immigration missions. ICE needs to be reimagined under a new agency with a different mission and different leadership,” a spokesperson from Gillibrand’s office told BuzzFeed News in a statement in response to questions about ICE’s current responsibilities, ranging from which should continue to exist to which should be transferred to other agencies.
The spokesperson pointed to reports that at least 19 ICE investigators have asked the Department of Homeland Security to dissolve the agency over concerns that the administration’s priorities have inhibited its ability to focus on other threats. In a letter to the department's secretary, the agents asked to separate ICE’s responsibilities.
“With the right leadership, we can create a new agency that works,” Gillibrand’s spokesperson said.
Ocasio-Cortez herself, while being on the record as saying that it is necessary to have protection at the border, has not gone into detail on what abolishing ICE looks like to her.
In Congress, the "abolish ICE" argument could well be moot: If Democrats can’t make dramatic wins in this year's midterms, there’s little chance of meaningful reform happening, at least in the way they want.
“We have people who say, fix it, reform it, tweak it, I mean, whatever,” McGovern said. “Whether you say ‘abolish ICE’ or whether you’re saying these other things, I think it kind of gets to the same point, and that is that [ICE] is not what was intended, and it has become a very polarizing agency within our communities.”