Much of the energy behind the current “Abolish ICE” movement was generated by a different kind of family separation, thousands of miles away from Kentucky at the border between the U.S. and Mexico, where 2,300 migrant children have been taken from their parents after they entered the country illegally. It’s important to note that Customs and Border Protection, not ICE, is the body responsible for implementing the administration’s zero-tolerance immigration policy that has led to this separation. However, ICE is tasked with housing adult detainees while they go through deportation proceedings, and is expected to help parents locate their children after they’ve been separated, according to a fact sheet from CBP.
The advocates and lawmakers calling to abolish ICE have framed the issue as a moral one: The agency’s widespread use of deportations for undocumented immigrants without criminal records is inhumane, and detracts from its more important function of investigating drug smuggling and human-rights abuses. “They’re not doing the job they were hired to do,” said Randy Bryce, the Democratic candidate running for Speaker of the House Paul Ryan’s seat in Wisconsin’s 1st district, in an interview with The Atlantic. “It’s more along the lines of a personal deportation force for Donald Trump right now.” A spokesman for the Michigan gubernatorial candidate Abdul El-Sayed, told me that, as governor, El-Sayed would support ICE being “defunded and dismantled,” and would not allow state resources to be used in federal immigration enforcement.
Sean McElwee, a co-founder of Data for Progress and abolishice.org, has been a leader in the charge to eliminate ICE for several years. Abolish ICE “is fundamentally an anti-deportation movement,” he told me, and after the agency is gone, “the central aim has to be ensuring that mass deportation is not housed somewhere else in the government.” The question, then, is whether calling to abolish ICE means ending all or most internal immigration enforcement—or simply restructuring or replacing the agency itself. This is the area where Democratic lawmakers’ positions are less clear, and where conservatives see a political opportunity.
Some politicians have stopped short of demanding the complete elimination of the agency. Senator Bernie Sanders, who had been reluctant to comment on the growing movement, released a vague statement on the issue on July 3: “Now, it is time to do what Americans overwhelmingly want: abolish the cruel, dysfunctional immigration system we have today and pass comprehensive immigration reform,” the statement said. “That will mean restructuring the agencies that enforce our immigration laws, including ICE.” Senator Kamala Harris of California, in a recent interview on MSNBC, said it would be necessary to “reexamine” the agency and perhaps consider “starting from scratch.” A spokesman for Harris told me that the senator hopes ICE funds can be directed more appropriately, and agents can be retrained “against targeting vulnerable populations such as victims of sexual assault or domestic violence, crime witnesses, pregnant women, and children.”