On Thursday night, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) called for the elimination of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE. By Friday morning, Republican campaign groups were asking whether Democrats who had taken money from Gillibrand — a number of female candidates in swing races — would echo the senator or denounce her.

“Do they stand with Gillibrand and want to do away with our immigration enforcement agency?” asked America Rising.

“Expect more Senate Democrats to trip over themselves in an effort follow Gillibrand’s swing to the radical left,” said the Republican National Committee.

The implication was that the abolition of ICE, a demand that started with left-wing activists and writers, would be a killer wedge issue against moderate Democrats. And so far, the idea is being endorsed only by left-wing Democrats — among them Rep. Mark Pocan (Wis.), New York Mayor Bill De Blasio, and congressional candidate Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (N.Y.).

But we do not really know what voters think of ICE, a government organization that is only 15 years old. We know that voters favor “border security,” a term that can be defined in many ways — including support for ICE.

But we also know that many voters have not been impressed by immigration enforcement decisions made by the Trump administration.

In a September 2017 Washington Post/ABC News poll, when asked whether the administration had been “too tough” in enforcing immigration laws, 45 percent of responding voters said yes; 30 percent said they were satisfied. In the only recent poll of any kind that asked voters about ICE — a Harvard Institute of Politics survey of 18-29-year-olds in March — just 25 percent of young voters trusted ICE to “do the right thing” all or most of the time. By comparison, 51 percent said they trusted the military, and 38 percent said they trusted the Environmental Protection Agency.

That was before the drawn-out family-separations crisis, which transformed “abolish ICE” from a cause for opponents of “mass deportation” to a simple way for Democrats to criticize immigration enforcement in the Trump era.

The “abolish” language was serious — campaigners want ICE gone — but it was always inspired by conservative efforts to degrade branches of the government by suggesting they be abolished entirely. In 2012 and 2016, multiple Republican candidates for president ran on abolishing the Internal Revenue Service, the EPA and the Department of Education. The latter agency is included in a Trump administration government reform plan, albeit one unlikely to make it through Congress.

Just as “abolish the IRS” campaigners imagine some form of revenue collection to replace it, “abolish ICE” campaigners follow the hooky slogan with several replacement proposals. Ocasio-Cortez has told multiple interviewers that an idealized, post-ICE government would continue to police the border and enforce immigration law. Ocasio-Cortez described this at greatest length last month in an interview with the Intercept.

Before ICE we had the INS. So we had the Immigration and Naturalization Services. There are very intense operations that we do need to monitor. We have to keep tabs on human trafficking, child sex trafficking, child pornography and, of course, just standard immigration in and out. And so the INS had handled that before. And so criminal investigations will get forwarded to the Department of Justice which had the infrastructure to kind of handle those proceedings, and then there are other investigatory arms, either within the FBI or within Health and Human Services that would handle those different pockets.
Now when the Department of Homeland Security was established, it concentrated and centralized all of those things into one. And those operations in and of themselves can continue. You know, you can have Border and Customs do the things that they have always done.
The one line that I do want to draw is that when I started talking about this over the weekend it kind of recently blew up, and I’m starting to see, particularly, other congressional candidates say: “Let’s return to the INS.” And that I want to make sure is not correct either.
This is not about going back to the INS. This is really about, in some ways, we need to go all the way back to the root of our immigration policy to begin with, which the very first immigration policy law passed in the United States was the Chinese Exclusion Act in the 1800s, and so the very bedrock of U.S. immigration policy, the very beginning of it was a policy based on racial exclusion. And I think that we need to really reimagine our immigration policy based around two things like I had said before, foreign policy and criminal justice and additionally our economic goals as well. And we really kind of need, I think, to reimagine our immigration services as part of an economic engine, as part of an accommodation to our own foreign policy aims and, where necessary, enforcement of serious crimes like human trafficking and so on.
So abolishing ICE doesn’t mean get rid of our immigration policy, but what it does mean is to get rid of the draconian enforcement that has happened since 2003 that routinely violates our civil rights, because, frankly, it was designed with that structure in mind.

That’s a complicated answer that’s at home in a podcast, but not in a campaign ad — which is what’s really being discussed when Gillibrand-endorsed candidates are asked whether they want to “abolish ICE.” Without polling, many Democrats have admitted that the politics of this are nettlesome; the Congressional Hispanic Caucus has provided talking points on ICE which do not call for abolition. That suggests the risk for Democrats if they get behind the “abolish” campaign and are not ready for tough questions.

None of the Democrats who have climbed out on this limb, however, have been making it a litmus test for their party. There is an understanding that the scandal of family separations has created an opening on immigration: Where restrictionists would like to talk about gangs and crime, reformers can talk about children and families. Characterizing ICE as a failing experiment that is enforcing the law incorrectly allows reformers to explain how it should be enforced. The Trump administration frames criticism of ICE as an “open borders” stance, but Democrats expect to be hit with the “open borders” club no matter what they say. The president pushes the envelope; Democrats would like to push it back.

Scott Clement contributed to this report.