The giddiness did not reflect a newfound Republican antipathy for ICE, the Department of Homeland Security agency charged with enforcing federal immigration laws inside American borders. Rather it reflects a wide belief among GOP leaders that the “abolish ICE” movement reflects the growing radicalization of the Democratic Party — and offers a symbol that can be used to build support for Republican congressional candidates in November.
House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) told reporters Thursday that the bill showed that Democrats are “out of the mainstream of America.”
“This is the agency that gets gangs out of our communities, that helps prevent drugs from flowing into our schools, that rescues people from human trafficking,” Ryan said. “They want to get rid of this agency? It’s the craziest position I’ve ever seen.”
The Democrats sponsoring the bill were quick to point out that abolishing ICE would not mean ending all immigration enforcement: The bill sets up a bipartisan commission that would consider how to reassign its responsibilities to other federal organs. Border security, meanwhile, would be unaffected — it would remain the province of Customs and Border Protection, a separate agency under the Department of Homeland Security.
But they said the actions of the agency under both the Obama and Trump administrations have shifted away from its original focus on combating terrorism and international crime and instead have focused on removal and detention of otherwise law-abiding immigrants who are in the country illegally. That focus has only intensified, they say, under Trump — who has made “zero-tolerance” immigration enforcement a cornerstone of his domestic policy.
“We want to enforce immigration laws, but with a heart,” said Rep. Adriano Espaillat (D-N.Y.), one of three Democrats introducing the bill. “We want an agency as it was originally meant to be — a vigorous agency that will go after terrorists and will go after drug dealers, arms dealers, human trafficking, sex trafficking. But not to take 60 percent of their budget now to arrest a mom and split her away from her 9-month-old baby. That’s not what we need.”
The “abolish ICE” push, which has its roots among liberal activist groups, got a major boost last month when Democratic House candidate Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez beat veteran Rep. Joseph Crowley (D-N.Y.) in a primary by running to his left on issues that included eliminating the agency. Her win has emboldened sitting House Democrats, such as Reps. Mark Pocan (Wis.), Pramila Jayapal (Wash.) and Espaillat, to move forward with legislation.
But it also drew the attention of President Trump and the White House, who stepped up attacks on Democratic politicians who support eliminating the agency. And top Republicans are confident that voters will interpret “abolish ICE” as an unpopular call to scale back immigration enforcement, giving GOP candidates a leg up in key swing districts come November.
In a sign of the issue’s political potency, several Republicans running in tough contests this fall signed on to a resolution supporting ICE filed Wednesday by Rep. Clay Higgins (R-La.). Among the co-sponsors are GOP Reps. Lou Barletta (Pa.), Marsha Blackburn (Tenn.), Kevin Cramer (N.D.), Martha McSally (Ariz.) and James B. Renacci (Ohio), all of whom are seeking Senate seats, as well as gubernatorial candidates Diane Black (Tenn.) and Ron DeSantis (Fla.).
There was little indication, meanwhile, that even Republicans running in immigrant-heavy districts have been persuaded by the attacks on the agency.
“I think it’s suicidal,” said Rep. Carlos Curbelo (R-Fla.), who led a recent push to pass bipartisan immigration legislation. “I’m not an ICE cheerleader, okay? But we should try to change the policies, the laws, not go after the men and women whose duty it is to execute existing laws.”
After the three Democrats introduced their bill Thursday, top House GOP leaders explored putting the bill on the House floor as soon as next week to put members on the record for or against it, with the expectation that it would easily fail.
Majority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.) called it “a radical extreme position that would lead to open borders and undermine America’s national security . . . I think everybody ought to be on record about where they stand on that issue.”
Numerous House Democrats also expressed reservations about the bill.
“I think it’s dangerous politically, but I think it’s also just bad policy,” said Rep. John Yarmuth (D-Ky.). “There’s going to be an enforcement agency at some point . . . It’s about a lack of accountability and oversight, so that’s what we need to focus on.”
Democratic critics include members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, which has pushed lawmakers to take action on several pressing immigration issues, including protecting young undocumented immigrants from deportations and reversing the Trump administration’s recent policy of separating migrant children from their parents at the border. The administration is seeking to change an existing court agreement to keep migrant families together in custody for months while their cases are processed.
“It’s just the wrong strategy,” said Rep. Michelle Lujan Grisham (D-N.M.), the caucus’s chairwoman. “The notion that you would look for accountability at Homeland Security and ICE by restructuring and doing all sorts of things is not the right effort for us today. Today, the right effort for us is to make sure that we don’t allow them to separate children at the border, we do something about the long-term incarceration idea, and that we’re clear that border security is a real issue in this country.”
Pocan said in an interview Thursday evening that he was not eager to see the bill turned into a political football and that its backers would all vote against it if Republicans bring it to the floor. But, he said, Democrats would be happy to have a debate.
“We relish the opportunity to have a conversation about family separations on the floor,” he said.