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As the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency continues to draw criticism for its arrest of immigrants and abuse of detainees, the idea of abolishing the agency entirely is starting to gather momentum among some Democrats.
Deb Haaland is the Democratic nominee for Congress in New Mexico’s First District and is considered a heavy favorite in November’s general election. She is also one of the first prominent Democratic candidates to make the abolition of ICE part of her platform.
“The more you read about what’s happening, the more YouTube videos you see of ICE arresting people as they’re walking down the street in front of their kids, it just seems like I realized this is not America and this is not how I feel about the way we should be treating our friends and neighbors,” said Haaland in an interview with Yahoo News.
With a victory, Haaland would also become the first Native American woman to serve in Congress, a heritage that has influenced her stance.
“Government policies have separated peoples before, and my grandmother was one of those persons,” said Haaland. “When she was 8 years old she was taken from her family home and sent to Indian boarding school, and for five years she wasn’t able to come home. I see history repeating itself, and I wish we could learn from that. Family separation wasn’t right back then and it’s not right now, and we have to stop doing that. That is not how we should be as Americans.”
ICE has drawn criticism from immigration advocates for years, but scrutiny has increased under President Trump. In the last month the agency has participated in the separation of migrant families at the border, detained a delivery driver who was bringing a pizza to an Army base in Brooklyn and arrested a legal resident of Mexican origin over a decades-old misdemeanor charge that had already been resolved. As ICE makes arrests outside schools, courthouses and hospitals, some medical facilities are developing plans to protect their patients from agents. There have been accusations of sexual assault from detainees, and last year ICE’s acting director was confronted at a town hall by a Holocaust survivor over the agency’s tactics.
ICE is the successor agency to the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS), which was disbanded in 2003 with the passage of the Homeland Security Act. INS had been largely tasked with securing the border, while ICE was focused on enforcing immigration laws within the 50 states. Haaland disputes assertions by Trump that ICE is necessary for American security.
“There have been people immigrating to our country for hundreds of years,” said Haaland. “ICE is only 15 years old. What did they do before that? What did they do 15 years ago? I realize it was implemented after 9/11, but they’re not going after terrorists right now, they’re going after moms and dads.”
The proposal’s popularity among Democrats will be tested on Tuesday in the New York state primaries, in which two outsider candidates are seeking to oust incumbent Congress members. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is the 28-year-old challenging Rep. Joe Crowley, who has represented New York’s 14th District since 1999. Ocasio-Cortez has been an outspoken detractor of ICE since launching her campaign last year. Suraj Patel, a former Obama staffer challenging another long-serving incumbent, Carolyn Maloney, in New York’s 12th, has called for the defunding of the agency and built a fundraising campaign around the concept.
“Every single indication shows us that ICE as an agency is out of control and the deep systemic issues cannot be fixed with a little bit of legislation,” said Ocasio-Cortez in a statement to Yahoo News. “I don’t see how anyone who learns of the terrible moral injustices that ICE has perpetrated would not call for its absolute and total abolition. This agency is set up to be unaccountable, is a moral outrage, and an embarrassment to America.”
Matt Haggman is running in a competitive Democratic primary for Florida’s 27th district, which will be vacant due to a Republican retirement. Haggman, whose wife’s parents were Cuban refugees, told Yahoo News that some voters have expressed concern that eliminating ICE would result in open borders. Haggman said his reply is to point out that ICE is an internal enforcement agency and its absence wouldn’t affect border security. He also referenced the fact there is no correlation between an increase in immigration and an increase in crime, and some studies have found the inverse to be true.
“[ICE] is a 15-year-old experiment that needs to be ended,” said Haggman.
Randy Bryce is a Wisconsin Democrat running for Rep. Paul Ryan’s soon-to-be-vacated seat who has also come out for the abolition of ICE. Bryce said he isn’t concerned that the message could hurt him in an overwhelmingly white district.
“People care about this,” said Bryce in an email to Yahoo News. “We even have a detention center right here in our district in Kenosha. Voters know that while this may not affect them personally, they recognized the way ICE oversteps their jurisdiction and hurts their neighbors, classmates, and friends that are in danger of being deported.”
The trend that started among Democratic candidates has spread to sitting legislators, as four incumbents have recently come out in support of eliminating the agency. Rep. Pramila Jayapal of Washington said in an interview last week she “would love to see ICE go.” Saturday saw Rep. Jim McGovern of Massachusetts tell a town hall that “we need to get rid of ICE” while Rep. Earl Blumenauer of Oregon published a statement on Sunday supporting the agency’s elimination.
“We should abolish ICE and start over,” wrote Blumenauer, “focusing on our priorities to protect our families and our borders in a humane and thoughtful fashion. Now is the time for immigration reform that ensures people are treated with compassion and respect. Not only because it is the moral thing to do, but it’s better policy and will cost less.”
On Monday, Rep. Mark Pocan of Wisconsin took the next step, announcing his intention after visiting the southern border to submit legislation this week that would eliminate ICE. The bill has no chance of passing or even being voted on under the current Republican majority, but it will provide a means for Democratic legislators to signal their condemnation of the agency by co-sponsoring the bill.
Sean McElwee, a writer and activist who was one of the first voices calling for the abolition of ICE, has found himself surprised at how fast the movement is spreading.
“The speed with which the demand took hold in the last two days did surprise me, since many incumbents had been hesitant, though the grassroots of the Democratic Party was already there,” McElwee told Yahoo News. “The fundamental brutality of the United States immigration system has finally been exposed to the public eye, and the case for action is clear.”
Still, abolishing ICE is a long way from being the mainstream Democratic position. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., who caucuses with the Democrats and is seen as a potential 2020 presidential contender, declined to call for the group’s elimination when asked during a Sunday CNN interview. But Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., has reconsidered her position on the agency. Harris, who is also viewed as a potential 2020 candidate, said Sunday during an interview with NBC News that “we need to probably think about starting from scratch” in immigration enforcement. Back in March, Harris said during an MSNBC interview that “ICE has a purpose, ICE has a role, ICE should exist.”
Democratic leadership has yet to come out in support of the action, though Rep. Nancy Pelosi’s office sent the following statement to Yahoo News late Monday.
“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,” Drew Hammill, Pelosi’s deputy chief of staff, said in an email. “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 is desperately needed, and soon.”
With the incremental progress so far this year, McElwee is confident that the calls for ICE’s elimination will be a party litmus test for the next election.
“Every Democrat running for the presidency in 2020 will have to articulate a vision for a world without ICE,” said McElwee. “I have no doubt about that. And millions of Democratic primary voters will demand their Senate and House candidates do the same.”
(Cover thumbnail photo: Charles Reed/U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement via AP)
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