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Opinion ICE deserves to be abolished

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents. (Chris Carlson/AP)

Everyone loves a litmus test, and because abortion has proved too thorny these past few years, some on the left have proposed another bright line for candidates to toe: the abolition of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

The clarion calls to excise ICE from the executive corpus have rung especially clear of late. First, an essay by Sean McElwee in the Nation last week probed whether “an unaccountable strike force executing a campaign of ethnic cleansing” is compatible with democracy. (His answer: No.) Then, MSNBC’s Chris Hayes asked potential 2020 presidential contender Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.) if the agency, which Harris says has abused its power, should exist. (Her answer: Yes.)

To Harris’s further-left detractors, the resignation Tuesday of San Francisco’s ICE spokesman after the Trump administration put out false public statements about a recent raid offered one more reason that she’s wrong. Of course ICE is abusing its power, they argue – that’s what it was created to do. And anyone who plans to lead the Democratic Party should say so and fight to defund it. Conservative and more moderate commentators, on the other hand, act as if they’ve never heard a proposition so radical. Take a government agency and just … get rid of it? Who’d ever suggest something so extreme?

Well, almost every Republican ever. President Trump’s 2019 budget blueprint proposes slashing funding for 22 agencies and programs to zero. His 2018 document targeted 19. Sens. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) and Rand Paul (R-Ky.) want to get rid of the Internal Revenue Service. Rick Perry famously campaigned on cutting the departments of Commerce, Education and “oops” in 2011. (“Oops” turned out to be Energy, which Perry now heads.) The list goes on; in fact, Republicans have recommended the elimination of nearly every Cabinet agency at some point in time.

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And while Democrats are generally less eager to lop off bureaucratic limbs, Barack Obama did attempt to eliminate the Commerce Department toward the beginning of his presidency. (Republicans had already tried the same thing in 1995.)

Those appalled by the prospect of losing ICE, which has hardly existed since time immemorial, ask who would perform its essential functions in its absence. That question doesn’t seem to concern them when it comes to other departments; they just assume those functions aren’t actually essential. Those who want to abolish ICE have a strong argument. They’re not saying the agency is useless, and they’re not saying it’s a money-sink. They’re saying it does active harm.

ICE was created in 2003 as part of the post-9/11 panic-induced increase in domestic surveillance. ICE’s animating idea was that immigrants were an existential threat. Never has ICE come close to its initial strategy goal of “a 100% rate of removal for all removable aliens,” but today’s administration seems to want to reach it more than ever – and it has more technological tools than ever, too.

Every week there’s another story. It’s a 39-year-old landscaper living near Detroit who has been here since he was 10 and hasn’t even run a stop sign. It’s a 10-year-old with cerebral palsy sitting in an ambulance on the way to the hospital for emergency gall bladder surgery. It’s the 92 Somalis who were beaten and threatened and forced to urinate on themselves on a deportation flight that ended up returning to the United States, and who are now still being held in abusive detention.

It may seem odd, or even radical, that Democrats are asking for an agency to get the ax. Small government has always been a Republican principle. But the Democrats have some principles too, and one of them rests on that old concept of the United States as a nation of immigrants. Prospective presidential candidates claim they’d like to enact comprehensive reform to restore that vision. There’s no reason reform shouldn’t include disbanding a deportation squad (and transferring duties such as customs investigations elsewhere).

What’s happening today is happening because of Trump, but it’s also happening because of what ICE was always meant to be: an immigrant disposal system. The agency isn’t after “good” guys or “bad” guys. It’s after everyone. “The shackles [are] off,” as Trump said, but the beast they were holding back was born 15 years ago. Being a good Democrat might just mean killing it.