In the spring of 2018, a hashtag was born at the margins of the far left: #AbolishICE. Later that year, the slogan turned into more of a movement when Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York made it a big part of her progressive platform. The demand from grass-roots immigration advocates and some Democrats to eliminate the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency gained mainstream traction again this summer when it met an apt analog in the “Defund the Police” movement, which was catalyzed by the killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor at the hands of police.
The biggest reason why calls to abolish ICE have grown stronger and louder — even among some federal immigration agents — is that the agency in charge of enforcing the nation’s immigration laws has accumulated accusation after accusation of appalling and inhumane practices. In the last few months, ICE has come under fire for the way it has responded to the COVID-19 pandemic and has faced accusations of unwanted gynecological surgeries being performed on women detainees at one of its facilities in Georgia. It all adds up to a troubling and longstanding pattern of the blatant mistreatment of immigrants under ICE’s care. And while the radical anti-immigrant policies of the Trump administration have fueled this pattern, ICE’s institutional lack of accountability preceded his administration.
Yet the question remains unresolved: Would dismantling ICE fix what has gone wrong with the agency? Does it constitute a realistic or sound plan from a policy and political standpoint? No and no. Instead, ICE should be thoroughly reformed, as well as its parent agency, the US Department of Homeland Security. Contrary to Ocasio-Cortez’s beliefs, reforming the vast immigration enforcement apparatus within DHS — ICE and its sister organizations, US Customs and Border Protection and US Citizenship and Immigration Services — can be done.
The “abolish ICE” slogan has powerful appeal. It taps into the despair and outrage caused by the Trump administration’s trademark immigration policies, motivated largely by xenophobia and fear-mongering — and ICE has been the main vehicle used to administer those policies.
Yet dismantling ICE doesn’t solve the problem. “At the end of the day, there’s going to be some agency within the federal government enforcing our immigration laws,” said Ali Noorani, president and CEO of the nonprofit National Immigration Forum. “The problem is that we have a built-in immigration enforcement system with very little accountability,” Noorani said.
The coronavirus pandemic has made such a dynamic more evident. The American Civil Liberties Union has filed more than 50 cases challenging ICE’s response to COVID-19 in its detention centers. “ICE has consistently either ignored the problem or denied the problem, and basically endangered people’s lives, whether it is detainees or people who are working in these facilities, as well as the surrounding communities,” said Eunice Cho, a senior staff attorney at the ACLU, in an interview with The New Yorker.
The most shocking example of abuse was the short-lived but horribly damaging Trump policy of separating families at the border that sent parents to ICE detention and kids to government-funded shelters. More than 5,400 kids were separated from their parents as a result. It was a defining moment that galvanized those on the left to get behind “abolish ICE.”
While anti-immigrant practices are not limited to ICE under Trump (large-scale immigration raids and massive deportations also occurred under President Obama and previous administrations), there is no question that Trump has allowed a culture of negligence to grow within the agency. Last year, he relaxed standards around immigrant detention, weakening oversight requirements in those facilities. This fiscal year, ICE recorded the highest number of deaths of immigrants in its custody — 21 — since 2005. More than a third of those who have died in ICE custody this year had tested positive for COVID-19.
And yet, “abolish ICE” remains an oversimplification, Noorani said. “I think at this moment, whether it is BLM or the ICE movement, the public has realized that the country’s law enforcement mechanisms are not operating in an accountable way,” he said. “And to make them more equitable and accountable, it takes a complex solution. We should speak to that complexity. We should talk about how ICE dollars are spent without oversight.” Indeed, ICE has one of the largest law enforcement budgets in federal government — at $8 billion a year, almost triple the budget it had 17 years ago when the agency was born.
A good place to start is to follow that money. Congress must also implement stricter processes and rules for ICE. For example, a law prohibiting the privatization of immigrant detention centers is overdue. It’s more difficult to keep privately-run facilities in check, and they exist for the sole purpose of making a profit, which usually comes at the detriment of detainees’ well-being. If those steps are taken, then it would be harder to get away with the abuse of vulnerable populations and malpractice that has become far too common in immigration enforcement.