WASHINGTON — A growing number of liberal Democrats are seizing on a simple, hashtag-ready rallying cry that is proving to be a disruptive and volatile force within the party: Abolish ICE.
The growing movement helped fuel a stunning upset in Queens on Tuesday, when Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a 28-year-old who organized for Senator Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign, walloped Representative Joe Crowley, once pegged as a potential next leader of House Democrats.
One of Ocasio-Cortez’s top campaign issues was abolishing the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, known as ICE, which is in charge of enforcing immigration laws inside the United States.
While some Democrats fret that a call to disband ICE makes it easy to paint the party as extreme, Ocasio-Cortez’s victory was a strong measure of the backlash among Latinos and Democrats over President Trump’s immigration crackdown, and of their demand for a stronger resistance.
ICE has drawn the ire of Democrats since its creation in 2003, but that criticism has been stepped up under Trump, who directed the agency to remove undocumented immigrants from the country even if they haven’t violated laws here. Once the Trump administration began separating migrant children from their parents at the border this spring, calls to “Abolish ICE” spread from immigration advocates and activists on Twitter to Democratic politicians.
In the House, Representative Mark Pocan of Wisconsin plans to release an “Abolish ICE” bill in the coming days that would establish a commission to recommend how best to disband the agency and distribute its essential functions to other parts of the government. Representative Jim McGovern of Massachusetts, who opposed the creation of ICE in 2003, is also involved in the legislation.
“I’m not trying to put anybody in an uncomfortable spot,” McGovern said of his fellow Democrats. “I’m trying to advance a discussion where we have more sensible immigration laws.”
Only four House Democrats have signed on to the effort so far, but Pocan said other members of the House Progressive Caucus will likely join once they release a draft. Other high-profile Democrats have signaled an interest in the movement as well. Senator Kamala Harris of California, who is not ruling out a run for president, said in an interview last weekend that the country should “think about starting from scratch” on ICE.
Before the creation of ICE, the Immigration and Naturalization Service handled both legal immigration and enforcement. Deportations were relatively rare until 1996, when Congress passed a law stiffening penalties for undocumented immigrants.
Republicans have used the momentum around the call to abolish ICE to argue that Democrats are “pro-open borders.”
“I think the Democrats are going hard left,” Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell said in an interview with Politico on Wednesday. “The energy in the Democratic Party is self-avowed socialists, open borders.”
Some Democrats have also criticized the movement. “Look, abolishing ICE sounds very close to saying, ‘Well maybe we don’t need a border. Maybe we don’t need immigration enforcement,’ ” Cecilia Munoz, a former Obama administration official, told Slate.
Pocan and McGovern reject that characterization.
“No, we don’t want open borders,” Pocan said. “ICE doesn’t operate on the border.”
Their goal is to stop detention and deportation of nonviolent undocumented immigrants who already live in the United States, letting the FBI and Justice Department handle immigrants who commit violent crimes or are involved in drugs or human trafficking.
Their bill may attract moderate support because it doesn’t abolish ICE outright, instead asking a commission to look into it and make recommendations, according to Representative Raul Grijalva of Arizona.
“This discussion about abolishing ICE was happening months ago among advocates and organizations and then McGovern and Pocan and others are crystalizing what’s out there,” he said.
The bill may end up as a flashpoint in Democratic primaries in Massachusetts and elsewhere, as primary opponents attempt to distinguish themselves in crowded fields and activate the anger in the party’s base over Trump’s treatment of immigrants.
Representative Michael Capuano of Somerville is facing a primary challenge from Boston City Councilor Ayanna Pressley, who wants to abolish ICE. Capuano opposed the creation of ICE 15 years ago, but does not favor abolishing the agency now.
“My focus is on reuniting children with their parents and stopping Donald Trump’s hateful policies ripping families apart,” Capuano said in a statement. “Changing who enforces bad policy now doesn’t fix that bad policy and it won’t bring families back together. The policies being enforced are more important than the agency enforcing them.”
“If elected I will work with federal leaders to rehouse the non-immigration enforcement functions of ICE — including human trafficking and money laundering investigations—elsewhere in the US Department of Homeland Security, while immediately eliminating funding for enforcement and removal functions,” Pressley said.
State Representative Juana Matias, one of many Democrats running in a primary to replace Representative Niki Tsongas of Lowell, who is retiring, has also called for abolishing ICE.
Forced to confront the question by Ocasio-Cortez’s surge in the New York race, Crowley stopped short of calling for the agency, which has 20,000 employees, to be disbanded, but he did brand the agency as “fascist.” That wasn’t enough to keep him clear of his challenger — he ended up losing the primary to Ocasio-Cortez by 15 percentage points.
Pocan said he hoped no one would use his legislation to assess how progressive a member of Congress is on the issue of immigration. His main goal, given that the bill has close to no chance in a Republican-controlled Congress, is to get a conversation started on dramatically rethinking immigration enforcement.
“This isn’t a litmus test of where they’re standing on this issue,” said Pocan. “If anyone misconstrues that, this would be unfortunate. Mike Capuano has been as solid a progressive as can be in Congress.”Liz Goodwin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.