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Why Critics Say It's Time to Abolish ICE

Critics argue that Immigrations and Customs Enforcement is rotten to its very core.
barbed wire

Juan Gaspar-García, a 22-year-old man with Down syndrome, came to this country from Guatemala the year after his mother died. He was 14 at the time, and his father and siblings were in Florida. From the outside, it would seem as though the move worked well: Gaspar-García has graduated from high school and works with one of his brothers for TentLogix, an event-rental company. He's also undocumented. Now, after a raid last month by Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Gaspar-García is facing the risk of deportation back to a country that he doesn't know.

Instances like this one demonstrate why more and more people—not just radical leftists—are arguing that we need to abolish ICE.

Gaspar-García was taken from his job on March 28th along with his brother and 26 other co-workers. His brother, who has Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals status, was released immediately. Gaspar-García is eligible for protection under DACA, but never applied for that status, and consequently was held in custody for over three weeks, then released in late April to his family after the case garnered media attention. As of now, however, his legal status remains in doubt.

Since the election of Donald Trump, not a week goes by without some new outrageous story of overreach by various elements of immigration enforcement. The New York Times just reported on 700 children who have been separated from their parents at the border since October. ICE, which focuses on immigration inside the border, has taken advantage of Trump's hardline stance to pursue more and more non-criminal undocumented people. That's the policy that leads directly to stories like Gaspar-García's.

"In this era, ICE has just taken off the gloves, going full throttle without regard to consequences," Katrina Eiland, staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union's Immigrant Rights Project, tells me over email. "This is a perfect example of that. They don’t have any logical enforcement priorities anymore—everyone is an enforcement priority." When vulnerable individuals are persecuted, when we can see past the statistics to individuals, it becomes harder and harder to make the case that ICE is salvageable, in any practical or moral sense.

What's new, though, is that instead of criticizing specific cases and calling for reform—the usual popular response to outrages—we're seeing increasingly widespread demands to abolish ICE altogether. Sean McElwee, writing at The Nation, recently made the case for abolition, citing widespread support for it among progressive groups. Washington Post columnist Molly Roberts has joined in the call, and while Roberts notes that some mainstream Democratic politicians such as Kamala Harris have refused to endorse shuttering the agency, many candidates in the 2018 cycle are distinguishing themselves by calling for abolition. Randy Bryce, contending for (soon-to-be former) Congressman Paul Ryan's seat in Wisconsin, told Newsweek, "I think that ICE should be abolished and Congress should explore which existing agency could best house immigration and customs enforcement, so that only those who pose a true threat to our country's security face deportation." And these calls are coming from beyond the left too. Shikha Dalmia, writing for the libertarian outlet Reason, argues that ICE's overreach threatens not just immigrants, but all Americans. Dalmia says she's appalled to see ICE checkpoints popping up in American towns, asking people for their papers, and characterizes these instances as clear signs of governmental overreach. "A good first step to stop all this would be by scrapping ICE," Dalmia writes.

McElwee links ICE to the widespread manifestations of white supremacy in the Age of Trump, writing: "The central assumption of ICE in 2018 is that any undocumented immigrant is inherently a threat. In that way, ICE's tactics are philosophically aligned with racist thinkers like Richard Spencer." If we're going to get white supremacy out of immigration enforcement, McElwee concludes, "the Democratic Party [must] begin seriously resisting an unbridled white-supremacist surveillance state that it had a hand in creating. Though the party has moved left on core issues from reproductive rights to single-payer health care, it’s time for progressives to put forward a demand that deportation be taken not as the norm but rather as a disturbing indicator of authoritarianism."

What's more, ICE seems more vulnerable to calls for abolition than bigger systemic targets, like the police or the prison system. As Dara Lind explains at Vox, ICE is a relative newcomer in the world of American law enforcement. After 9/11, ICE was established as the agency for interior enforcement as part of the new Department of Homeland Security. Democrats generally supported the creation of DHS and its many tentacles; now they can vow to unmake it. Cases like the arrest of Gaspar-García could provide political impetus for politicians wondering whether now is the time to act.

For its part, ICE touts its adherence to the strictest interpretation of the law as a positive feature of enforcement operations. For example, an ICE spokesperson in Miami issued a statement saying: "ICE does not exempt classes or categories of removable aliens from potential enforcement. All of those in violation of the immigration laws may be subject to immigration arrest, detention and, if found removable by final order, removal from the United States." That matches ICE Acting Director Thomas Homan's comment to NPR in January, when he said: "I have my personal opinions ... but as the director of ICE, I'm the head of a law enforcement agency. And my job is to enforce the laws enacted by Congress. So I'll tell you this: I will enforce any law enacted by Congress, and I'll stop enforcing any law that Congress repeals."

When I questioned ICE about the detention of a man with Down syndrome, the Miami spokesperson declined to comment for this story, saying that Gaspar-García has been released. When pressed on whether the circumstances of his detention had complied with disability law, ICE sent me a link to one of the agency's manuals. Although we have no specific information about ICE detention facilities, prisons generally ignore the Americans With Disabilities Act, and there's no reason to have faith in ICE's compliance here.

While ICE's conduct is intensifying under a president who uses xenophobia as a political tool, American governmental persecution of immigrants isn't exactly new. The history of the U.S. is full of instances where the government treated supposed "outsiders" horrifically, from the racism embedded in the Naturalization Act of 1790 to the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, and, of course, the vile history of Japanese internment (not to mention the history of slavery, genocide of indigenous peoples, and more). Throughout American history, the federal government has responded to perceived crises by passing laws and performing enforcement actions that later become widely reviled by historians and general consensus alike. The challenges of immigration in the 21st century are no more or less acute, and political leaders are just as likely to react badly and make mistakes as did their American predecessors. Right now, the progressive left is working to push the center away from those mistakes, and to take a stand that might prevent future harms.