On the morning of 23 February 2017, an activist called Sean McElwee came across a story in The Hill newspaper about an undocumented immigrant from El Salvador who was being held against her will by US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents, despite being diagnosed with a brain tumour. McElwee, co-founder of the progressive think tank Data for Progress, tweeted his disgust: “Abolish ICE, abolish ICE, abolish ICE, abolish ICE…”
Over the next 16 months, McElwee tweeted the phrase “abolish ICE” more than 250 times. Today, as Donald Trump claims immigrants are “infesting” the United States – and as shocking stories of migrant children held in cages in detention centres grab headlines across the world – the phrase has become a rallying cry.
At least 21 first-time Democratic congressional candidates have joined the campaign to dismantle or defund ICE. So has the former Sex and the City star Cynthia Nixon, now running for governor of New York, who has called ICE a “terrorist organisation”. Last week, protesters shouted “Abolish ICE!” at the homeland security secretary, Kirstjen Nielsen, at a restaurant in Washington, DC.
#AbolishICE is now much more than a slogan. On 25 June, Democratic congressman Mark Pocan announced his plan to introduce a bill that would officially abolish Immigration and Customs Enforcement as a government agency. “During my trip to the southern border,” said Pocan, “it was clear that ICE, and its actions of hunting down and tearing apart families, has wreaked havoc on far too many people.”
Even centrist Democrats have started to jump on to the anti-ICE bandwagon. In an appearance on MSNBC in March, Senator Kamala Harris, a former prosecutor who is considering a presidential bid, declared: “ICE has a purpose, ICE has a role, ICE should exist.” By 24 June, however, Harris returned to MSNBC to say it was time to “critically re-examine ICE” and maybe even consider “starting from scratch”.
The growing success of the #AbolishICE campaign, McElwee tells me, “has reinforced for me the power of a clear, concrete demand with immense moral weight”. He was “definitely” surprised by the speed at which the campaign spread from the far-left activist fringe to the corridors of Congress. The strategy was to get people “to understand the Trump administration’s mass deportation agenda” by connecting it to an institution – that is, ICE – and reminding them it is “enabling Trump to engage in a campaign of ethnic cleansing… to reshape the demographics of our nation”.
Does that sound hyperbolic? Well, listen to the influential white supremacist Jared Taylor, who proposed an anti-immigrant strategy not dissimilar to Trump’s in 2015: “The key… would be a few well-publicised raids on non-criminal illegals… The main thing would be to convince illegals that ICE was serious about kicking them out.”
The vast majority of congressional Democrats, however, have yet to come out in favour of the abolition of ICE. Even progressive hero Senator Bernie Sanders declined to endorse the movement in a recent interview with CNN. “I think he’ll come round,” an optimistic McElwee tells me. “I bet good money that two months from now Bernie Sanders will support abolishing ICE.”
Some establishment Democrats may need more persuading. Cecilia Muñoz, who served as Barack Obama’s top immigration adviser at the White House, has said she understands “the community’s hatred” of ICE “but at the end of the day… I don’t think abolishing ICE is realistic”.
This is classic Democratic defeatism. Why is it “unrealistic”? Polls suggest only one in four Americans supports deporting “all illegal immigrants”. And ICE itself isn’t a legacy of the founding fathers; it was only created in 2003, as part of the department of homeland security, by George W Bush.
To be clear: 42 of the 45 presidents of the US had no need for an agency as lawless and heartless as ICE. Yet on Trump’s watch, it has been further empowered and emboldened. In 2017, according to ICE, the agency made 143,470 arrests, “which is the highest number of administrative arrests over the past three fiscal years”.
As I noted in this column in February, undocumented immigrants targeted by ICE in the Trump era include a woman seeking a protective order against a violent ex-boyfriend; a 19-year-old high school student a week before his graduation; and a ten-year-old girl with cerebral palsy on her way to emergency surgery. In March, an ICE spokesman quit the agency, saying he could no longer “bear the burden” of spreading the lie that all undocumented immigrants are “dangerous criminals”.
This is an agency beyond repair or reform; starting from scratch, to quote Harris, is the only progressive option. Centrists and conservatives may want to know what the alternative is, but who says there has to be an alternative? Who says ICE’s mission of arresting, detaining, prosecuting and deporting undocumented immigrants is a necessary or worthy mission? “You can have a world in which immigration offences are treated like other civil offences,” argues McElwee, who points out that immigration enforcement prior to 2003 was handled by the department of justice. “We don’t have an ICE for parking violations.”
McElwee believes that after ICE is abolished, American needs a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. “We have to entirely reimagine the immigration system,” he says. The challenge for Democrats and progressives will be to try to “reimagine” a brutal and racist immigration system while resisting Trump’s ongoing attempts to make it more brutal and more racist.
Mehdi Hasan is a broadcaster and NS contributing editor based in Washington, DC
This article appears in the 27 Jun 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Germany, alone