Over the last few months, calls to “abolish ICE” have entered mainstream political conversation. Some Democratic lawmakers and candidates have embraced the idea, and President Trump has responded with tweets asserting that such demands are a call for open borders. (They’re not; CBP, not ICE, is responsible for the border.) But what, exactly, does the demand amount to? Even some experts seem a little unclear: In a recent Slate interview, Cecilia Muñoz (formerly of the Obama Administration and La Raza), expressed concern that “abolishing ICE sounds very close to saying, ‘Well maybe we don’t need a border. Maybe we don’t need immigration enforcement.’” And that ambiguity may make responding to Trump’s attacks more difficult.
Supporters of “abolish ICE” seem most directly motivated by the deportation raids carried out under the Trump Administration. Sean McElwee writes that ICE now sees “any undocumented immigrant [as] inherently a threat,” and that it is functioning as “an unaccountable strike force executing a campaign of ethnic cleansing.” “The goal of abolishing the agency,” he writes, “is to abolish the function.”
McElwee waves off charges of starry-eyed idealism by noting that “abolishing [ICE] would only take us back to 2003, when the agency was first formed.” It is true that prior to 2003 many of ICE’s current functions were carried out by the now-defunct Immigration and Naturalization Service—and there is a compelling argument that ICE’s excesses follow directly from the agency culture that has been allowed to fester since it was spun off from the other arms of the immigration bureaucracy 15 years ago.
Of course, as McElwee acknowledges, deportations did not start with ICE’s creation, and deportation in large numbers is not unique to the Trump era. Indeed, McElwee’s critique of Trump-era ICE includes an unsparing judgment of Bill Clinton’s record in the 1990s, and of the last Democratic President, of whom he says this: “Even Barack Obama, while he made pains to distinguish between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ immigrants, presided over aggressive deportation tactics in his first term in order to build support for a path to citizenship that never came.” This suggests that while ICE’s Trump-era incarnation is especially vile, it is not essentially different from its Obama or Bush-era incarnations; nor is it a decisive break from the 1990s-era practices that preceded its creation.
I don’t know if the majority of “abolish ICE” advocates would agree with that characterization, or if it matters very much: Whether ICE has always been out of control or not, it plainly is now, and it’s hard to imagine that anything short of bureaucratic reorganization can lead to a stable solution. I’ve believed that ever since reporting on ICE during the Obama years, when the contempt among its rank-and-file for a more targeted and humane immigration strategy was not only freely announced to any reporter willing to make a phone call, but was also reflected in its harsh approach to enforcement. In fact, the main ICE story in 2011 and 2012 was the dismissal by its field offices of a recommendation from leadership that it exercise discretion and not direct scarce enforcement resources against unauthorized immigrants who had U.S. citizens in their family, who had been present for many years, who were not committing crimes, who were in school, and so on. Again and again and again, those recommendations were ignored by ICE agents who did little to hide their disdain for “a bunch of attorneys who have never put handcuffs on anybody” (as the head of the ICE officer’s union once put it to me).
That the agency was so resistant to reform initiatives, and that it remained so broken even under a Democratic Administration, is pretty good reason to think that nothing short of reorganization will do the trick. In retrospect, I actually wonder why the movement didn’t take off earlier. But abolishing ICE doesn’t magically bring the INS back into existence, and it doesn’t change the fact that at least some undocumented immigrants—such as those who commit serious crimes—may, for legitimate reasons, be removed from the country. The seeming reluctance of some “abolish ICE” advocates to offer a more detailed vision of the post-ICE bureaucratic landscape suggests to me that the rallying cry may be obscuring internal divisions—perhaps between those who want to return to the pre-2003 system and those seeking a much more fundamental change to U.S. immigration policy. That’s not necessarily a problem: Internal disagreement is a normal feature of political movements, and there’s no reason to demand that this one, which has emerged quickly in response to an unfolding humanitarian crisis, needs to immediately resolve all of these questions. It is trying, at the moment, to stop the bleeding. But there will still be work to do, even if the raids stop, and it matters that if we get to that stage, strategic ambiguity is not unmasked as simple ambiguity.