DONALD TRUMP’S wrenching immigration policies mark a new low in an administration that seems bent on trammeling the most basic tenets of human rights. Although the president backtracked a bit last week, issuing an executive order to keep migrant families together as courts process their cases, chaos still rules on the Mexican border. And that’s exactly as the president intended: Trump told advisers that separating families is not only a great deterrent against illegal immigration but also “my people love it,” according to The New York Times.
If Trump is roiling his base ahead of the midterm elections this fall, Democrats should not take the bait. Nevertheless, a small but growing group of politicians and candidates have jumped into the breach, calling for the abolition of US Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the agency charged with enforcing immigration law.
That nascent effort became more concrete on Monday, when US Representative Mark Pocan, a Wisconsin Democrat, announced that he will introduce a bill in Congress to dismantle ICE, moving some of its duties to other agencies. Closer to home, Massachusetts congressman Jim McGovern and Boston City Councilor Ayanna Pressley, who is running against US Representative Michael E. Capuano, also announced support for defunding ICE. Other supporters include state Representative Juana Matias, who is running for Niki Tsongas’s seat in the Third Congressional District, and Democratic gubernatorial candidate Bob Massie.
While Pressley rightly decried ICE’s “draconian enforcement methods,” her announcement seems intended to stake out a position to the left of Capuano, who last week visited a detention center with other members of Congress. But this largely symbolic stand against government-sanctioned cruelty doesn’t make for sound immigration policy.
The problem with ICE isn’t its existence, but its management and Orwellian opacity. ICE itself is a post-9/11 repackaging of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, which was established in 1933, and proposals for border enforcement date back to colonial times. President Obama himself deployed a “surge” of border patrol agents in 2014 to stop a flood of “unaccompanied” children crossing into the United States from Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador.
McGovern, Pressley, and others are well intentioned, but should resist Trump’s attempt to fan the flames of a culture war and instead work to assure that unauthorized immigrants have access to humane living conditions, speedy hearings, and pro bono lawyers for asylum claims. That would be the true hallmark of a nation built by immigrants — not a false choice between open borders and “zero tolerance.”