The sudden call by some Democrats to abolish ICE — U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the agency whose multipronged mission includes deportation — makes a better bumper sticker than a blueprint for policy. Like eradicating the Internal Revenue Service, the GOP’s own recurrent shibboleth, scrapping ICE reflects the risible notion that offensive policies can be wished away by atomizing the agency that enforces them. They can’t be.
Many Americans — we count ourselves among them — are outraged by the Trump administration’s harassment, humiliation and hounding of immigrants, including the zero-humanity policy of deterring future migrants by separating children from their parents. The instrument of some (though not all) of those policies has been ICE. But it is just that: an instrument, wielded in every instance to enforce the will of President Trump and his administration.
Indignant at those policies, abolitionists have seized on ICE as a convenient target for their wrath. But getting rid of the agency, or breaking it up, will not change the laws they dislike or, more to the point, the senseless ways in which the administration has chosen to enforce them. It won’t work any more than eradicating the IRS would make taxes disappear.
No doubt, ICE is guilty of unwarranted abuses — rounding up noncriminal migrants who have led exemplary lives for years in the United States; breaking up communities and families; the unforgivable mess of splitting children from parents without any firm idea of how they might be reunited. But those excesses were carried out with the robust encouragement of the White House and Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen, whose department oversees ICE.
And why single out ICE for abolition? U.S. Customs and Border Protection , also a constituent agency of Homeland Security, has its own track record of brutality. And what of the Office of Refugee Resettlement, in the Department of Health and Human Services? It served as a co-conspirator in the splintering-without-accountability of more than 2,000 migrant families this spring, many of whom, in the case of asylum seekers who presented themselves at U.S. ports of entry, did not even commit the misdemeanor of illegally crossing the border.
A few Democrats have riled their bases with the abolish-ICE applause line; they include New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (N.Y.) and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the young firebrand who won a congressional primary in New York. None has proposed an alternative or a replacement. None has acknowledged that ICE’s pre-9/11 precursor agency overseeing deportations, the Immigration and Naturalization Service, was itself often accused of militarizing the border and mistreating migrants.
As it happens, ICE, an agency with 20,000 employees and an annual budget exceeding $6 billion, manages more than deportations. Its investigative division handles cybercrime; human trafficking; narcotics; counter-proliferation involving nuclear materials and other military wares; child exploitation; even stolen art.
Those are all vital and legitimate functions of government, as is deportation. They aren’t going to be abolished, nor should they be. The problem with ICE isn’t its existence or its mission. It’s that the Trump administration, in its xenophobic zeal, has weaponized it to go beyond protecting the United States and into the darker realms of oppression.