A Democratic proposal to abolish Immigration and Customs Enforcement would shutter the agency, probe whether its agents had flouted international law, and create a special commission to rethink how the federal government handles asylum seekers and undocumented immigrants.
In an interview, Pocan (D-Wis.) said the legislation would allow immigration laws to be enforced but put an end to a 15-year-old agency that had diverged from its original mission.
“The ICE brand has been so damaged by the president that it can no longer accomplish its original mission,” Pocan said. “Even ICE agents recognize that ICE doesn’t do what it was intended to.”
For months, the “abolish ICE” slogan has been increasingly embraced by left-wing activists and insurgent Democratic candidates for Congress. On June 25, after days of news stories about immigrant families being separated in detention centers, Pocan said he would introduce a bill to end ICE. One day later, Democratic congressional candidate Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez scored a primary upset in New York, dramatically raising the profile of the ICE issue.
While Republicans have conflated “abolish ICE” with a campaign to create “open borders,” Pocan’s legislation would not alter the nation’s immigration laws. If passed, the bill would sunset ICE within one year, and immediately create a bipartisan group to work out a replacement.
The White House would have no role in the group, which would consist of eight members appointed by congressional leaders and minority party leaders, and nine members from the “major civil society and immigrants’ rights organizations and individuals directly impacted by ICE practices.”
That group would be required to “identify all essential functions of ICE that uphold the Constitution,” then “identify the appropriate federal agencies that shall be tasked with executing activities such as combating financial crimes, cybercrimes, trade fraud, human trafficking and drug smuggling.” It would be up to the commission to “approve the agency’s suitability for that function based on such agency’s track record of transparency.”
The legislation also would ensure that “total federal employment is not reduced with the abolition of ICE” but would prioritize jobs that deal with the “legal, health, and social-service needs of detained individuals.” And it would give the commission a kind of “truth and reconciliation” mission, asking it to study “failures to comply with congressional oversight requirements, violations of constitutional protections and U.S. laws, failures to comply with agency policies and directives, violations of human rights, and any other longstanding patterns of medical neglect, solitary confinement, wrongful death, and other abuses for which ICE is wholly or partially responsible.”
After reviewing the main points of the bill, several advocates for abolishing ICE said Pocan had addressed most of their concerns.
“What we don’t want is to end one bad agency to create or empower another bad one,” said Angel Padilla, the national policy director of Indivisible. “But what’s almost more important than what’s in it is recognizing what it represents — sending a signal that ICE itself is a rogue agency that operates with impunity, and we need to get rid of it. We need to get out of this enforcement culture that we’ve created.”
Sean McElwee, co-founder of Data for Progress and originator of the “Abolish ICE” slogan, said he was “pleasantly surprised” by what Pocan came up with.
“Now that we have a clear consensus that ICE must be abolished, it’s time for a discussion about a humane enforcement system,” McElwee said. “That means ending the criminalization of migration, creating a fast path to citizenship, limiting the scope of CBP’s enforcement and ending our inhumane immigrant detention system. The existence of the legislation proves that within the Democratic Party there is some interest in moving away from pandering to white supremacy.”
But not all Democrats are unified on the ICE question. After Ocasio-Cortez’s victory, the Congressional Hispanic Caucus compiled talking points on immigration reform that stopped short of calling for an end to ICE. On Tuesday, more than 100 local and state officials also released a statement calling for the abolition of ICE, including Oakland, Calif., Mayor Libby Schaaf (D) and Chokwe Antar Lumumba (D), the mayor of Jackson, Miss.
Pocan played down Democratic divisions on the issue, saying there was broad consensus around the idea that ICE was not operating as initially intended.
“The question is: ‘What is the best way to deal with that problem?,’ ” he said. “Our contention is right now they’re not able to go after hardcore MS-13 gang members because they’re focused on the person who just got the speeding ticket.”