When Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez scored an upset win in a congressional primary on Tuesday, and reporters rushed to describe her and her agenda, it was the first time many people had heard what sounded like a radical idea: Abolishing the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, or ICE, just one of the many things Ocasio-Cortez supports.
But the truth is that abolishing ICE isn’t that radical. We reorganize government all the time, creating some agencies and eliminating others. Nevertheless, it is a bold proposal, and it is often joined to other bold proposals, such as creating Medicare for all.
Which raises an interesting question: Just how far should candidates for Congress go, and is it really a problem if all their ideas aren’t immediately practical?
After Ocasio-Cortez’s victory, Republicans, who were apparently unaware that #AbolishICE had been circulating among liberals for months, immediately pounced in the hopes that the immigration nightmare the Trump administration has created could be turned into a political winner by portraying Democrats as soft on the border. “Every Democratic candidate could be asked now, maybe, ‘Do you agree or disagree with the new face of the Democratic Party that we should abolish Immigration and Customs and Enforcement?’ ” said White House counselor Kellyanne Conway. “We even had a credible potential candidate for president in 2020 suggest we get rid of ICE, the border enforcement agency,” said Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.).
I’m not sure who McConnell was talking about, but Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.) has said that “we need to probably think about starting from scratch,” and last night, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) came out squarely for abolishing the agency, saying we must “reimagine it, and build something that actually works.”
Before we go further, we should get some facts straight. First, ICE is not “the border enforcement agency.” The border enforcement agency is Customs and Border Protection, which sounds similar, but an easy way for the Senate majority leader to remember it when he gets confused is that it’s the one with “Border Protection” in its name. The Border Patrol agents, those guys who are, you know, at the border? They work for CBP. ICE enforces immigration laws, but they don’t patrol the border. So there’s nothing in abolishing ICE which would mean we’d then have open borders.
Second, the people proposing that we abolish ICE aren’t saying immigration laws shouldn’t be enforced. They’re saying that this agency has gotten out of control, and its responsibilities need to be moved to other agencies. In fact, just this week, a majority of the special agents in charge of ICE’s Homeland Security Investigative Division (HSI) sent a letter to the Secretary of Homeland Security proposing that their division be split off from the rest of ICE. They argued that the actions of the Enforcement and Removal Operations division (ERO) — those are the guys who bust down doors — have become so controversial that they are “harming the entire agency’s reputation and undermining other law enforcement agencies’ willingness to cooperate.”
And keep in mind, ICE has existed only since 2003. When it was created as part of the post-9/11 reorganization of government that ramped up all kinds of surveillance and policing powers, its predecessor, the Immigration and Naturalization Service, was, guess what, abolished.
The agency had been plenty aggressive under Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama. But when Donald Trump was elected, he sent ICE a clear message: The gloves are off. He compliments ICE agents for being “rough guys,” and in response to the new era, they’ve gone after not just criminals but any undocumented immigrant, often in shockingly heavy-handed ways. It is no exaggeration to say that, in many immigrant communities, the name ICE now inspires nothing short of terror. Those who want to abolish it — and there’s already a bill in Congress to do so — believe that its culture has become irredeemably abusive, and that its responsibilities need to be distributed elsewhere within the government.
Perhaps no one is more responsible for the spread of “Abolish ICE” as a meme than political analyst Sean McElwee, who first began using those two words on Twitter in February 2017, and has tweeted it hundreds of times since then. He also wrote about the idea for the Nation. Though ICE is not the agency separating families at the border as the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” policy has been enforced, that controversy has helped bring this idea into the mainstream — and to the attention of the right — as more liberals propose reining in ICE as part of reforming immigration.
I can already hear people saying, “None of that matters! Republicans will just demagogue this and claim that Democrats want open borders!” Of course they will. President Trump has been saying that for weeks, before he even realized anyone wanted to abolish ICE. But perhaps Democrats should care less about what Republicans will demagogue (spoiler alert: everything), and care more about what they think is right — even if it doesn’t seem like it can be accomplished quickly, or in some cases ever.
I don’t mean all Democrats. If you’re a presidential candidate, you have to think carefully about, say, what health plan you favor, because you’re going to have a mandate to do it if you get elected. I’ve raised questions about “Medicare for all” in the past, because I think it’s an oversimplification and we can achieve the same fundamental goal — universal, secure, affordable coverage — in somewhat different ways (my preferred system would be a hybrid one like they have in France, but that’s a topic for another day). I get uncomfortable when I hear some liberal activists say that, if a candidate doesn’t emphatically support Medicare for all, then it means they’re a corporate sellout, because it suggests that the person writing off that candidate hasn’t thought very much about how health care works and what the critical challenges are in such a sweeping reform.
But so what? To return to the newest Democratic celebrity, at this time next year, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez will be a first-term member of Congress at the bottom of a very tall ladder of seniority, with approximately zero power to change any laws. How much does it matter if some of the things she proposed during this campaign are a little too ambitious? If she told her future constituents what she stands for in ways they could understand, isn’t that enough? If she’s there when a new health plan gets written, she can be an advocate for the values she articulated; it’s not on her to come up with a detailed plan that all Democrats are going to be bound by.
So maybe it’s fine if she says that, for her, it’s Medicare for all or nothing. And even if many Democrats aren’t willing to say that ICE should be abolished, it is good there are some (newly) prominent people out there saying it, so we can have a discussion about whether ICE has gotten out of control and needs to be reformed. The worst thing that will happen is that a light will be shined on the agency and perhaps some of its most egregious abuses can be addressed.
There are times when what we want from politicians is a clear statement of values and intent, even if it means taking a little risk, and the details can be worked out later. This may be one of those times.