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The Messaging Battle over “Abolishing ICE”

The Department of Energy, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Educationthe GOP has a history of calling for the abolition or defunding of many government organizations. Today, another movement against a government organization is catching steam, but the Democrats are the ones leading the charge.

Calls to abolish Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) have been growing in frequency and severity since March of this year, when Sean McElwee, the co-founder of Data for Progress and a contributor to The Nation, published his article, “It’s Time to Abolish ICE.” Since then, both established politicians like Kirsten Gillibrand and up-and-coming candidates like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez have endorsed the movement.

ICE is the branch of the Department of Homeland Security that handles violations of immigration law in the nation’s interior. Since its inception in 2003, it has been accused of human rights violations by activist groups including the American Civil Liberties Union, which claims ICE strips immigrants’ rights to due process and equal protection. These allegations precede the current movement, but increases in arrests by ICE and the separation of parents and children at the border fomented this year’s unrest.

Current discontent with the organization manifests itself as protests, like those organized by activist groups like Mijente and Unidad Latina en Acción; rallies, like the two in New Haven in early and late September against the deportation of Nelson Pinos; and a growing list of politicians who support the movement and have introduced legislation that would abolish ICE.

The calls to abolish ICE are gaining traction, but as the phrase becomes more common, the movement’s future is unclear. Perhaps, like the movements for civil rights and gay rights, it will be absorbed into popular political discourse and acted upon as it becomes a mainstream idea. Or, like many anti-war movements or Occupy Wall Street, it may be subsumed and co-opted, relegated to stump speeches and empty promises until its eventual erasure from the zeitgeist.

When people talk about the origins of “Abolish ICE,” they point to McElwee, but in an interview with The Politic, he was quick to point out that he “just sort of strung together two words on Twitter.” He says the credit for the movement should go to immigrants rights groups which, since 2003, have been working on ways to limit ICE’s ability to detain and deport immigrants.

McElwee believes that “Abolish ICE” is part of a “broader frame of abolition movements,” including those against prisons and police, all with pre-existing “intellectual work and frameworks” on how to achieve their goals. “Abolish ICE” can exist because of the work of activist groups figuring out to “end data sharing, …limit detention centers, …[and] target companies that fund immigration detention,” McElwee says. The “movement existed before ‘Abolish ICE’ and it’ll continue to exist even if people stop being mad about ICE on social media.”

But while this iteration of the movement is in the press, and the two critical words summarizing it are hot on the tongues of prominent politicians, McElwee says there is a “chance to extract a large political capital from [ICE].”

This political capital comes in the form of a seat at the negotiating table. McElwee sees “Abolish ICE” as a way to shift discourse to the left and to “extract real, material concessions from people who have power.” For McElwee, abolishing ICE is the end goal, but, along the way, the movement creates ripples in the political fabric that can be used to the left’s advantage.

He commented that the “current status of the Democratic Party in relation to immigration is far, far too centrist.” “Abolish ICE” is not only about counteracting the Republican party, but also making Democratic representatives more progressive. Though for a long time “funding for ICE was seen as run-of-the-mill,” according to McElwee, “It’s quite likely that over the next couple of omnibus [bills], ICE is gonna be increasingly contested.” These are the shifts that McElwee hopes for, and though he’s aware policy change will take time and votes, he is unwilling to compromise on the issue. He told The Politic, “There needs to be some actual vision for what a left immigration policy has, and the beginning of that is sort of ending the idea of undocumented people as pawns that are traded in order to bring Republicans to the table to negotiate.”

As the phrase becomes more popular, its usage necessarily gets muddled, even among progressive Democrats who agree with the core idea. In New York’s 12th congressional district, 2018 primary candidate Suraj Patel, who uses the slogan “Defund ICE” rather than “Abolish ICE,” called his use of the phrase “weaponizing policy” in an interview with The Politic. To Patel, policy can be used to mobilize the usually unmotivated voting-age population of his district—he decided the best way to accomplish this would be to “treat people like the smart people they are and…talk about policy in nuanced and non-binary ways.” Since he was running in a safe Democratic seat, he didn’t feel he had “much to lose advocating for what’s right.” In fact, the demographics of the district gave him the “opportunity to really introduce new ideas into the mainstream.” A talk with McElwee easily convinced him that strongly opposing ICE was the way to go, and Patel’s less black-and-white policy of “Defund ICE” was born.

Though “Defund ICE” was born during his campaign, Patel is sincere about the policy, and, like McElwee, he sees its use in bringing a leftist perspective on immigration to Congress. In line with McElwee, he argues that Democrats, can “use ‘Defund ICE’ as a leverage point to get Donald Trump and the Republicans to come to the table on progressive immigration reform.” But, as his phrasing denotes, his stance isn’t as hardline as McElwee’s.

“You’re obviously gonna have some sort of border and customs security,” Patel makes clear. His platform deals with what happens when ICE is gone—with what’s worth saving from the organization. To him, the calls for ICE to be abolished aren’t that different from his calls to “defund and significantly reform.” Patel believes the activists calling to abolish ICE are saying to “abolish it and replace it with something.” For him, border and customs security is worth salvaging while the “mass deportation force operating in our towns and cities” should be abolished.

Other Democratic politicians, like Rufus Gifford and Joe Donnelly, who choose to avoid the phrase, are wary of jumping on the “Abolish ICE” bandwagon,.  

Gifford believes that, though there should be a focus on “returning to a comprehensive set of humane and compassionate immigration policies.” He believes the administration “would use other vehicles and agencies to pursue its hateful agenda” if ICE were abolished. Donnelly, meanwhile, finds it “important that we have safe, strong, and secure borders.” Though both agree that ICE should not be abolished, Gifford seems to agree with Patel’s and McElwee’s sentiment that immigration reform and empathy is needed, while Donnelly refuses to criticize ICE. The divergence of the two camps seen here augurs a reckoning even among anti-”Abolish ICE” Democrats.

There are distinctions to be made within the “Abolish ICE” camp as well. In his article for The Nation, McElwee states that “the goal of abolishing the agency is to abolish the function.” Though he’s willing to elaborate on the exact policy he wants, “Abolish ICE” is self-explanatory enough for McElwee, and he appreciates the political use of having a catchy slogan. Patel, on the other hand, isn’t satisfied with a catchphrase. When he says “Defund ICE,” Patel makes sure to explain; his commitment to nuance is steadfast.

“I…just think that [ICE] does not belong in the Department of Homeland Security,” Patel said. Instead, the customs enforcement aspect of ICE “should belong in the Department of Justice,” while the immigration duties should reside with a “severely…neutered ICE that is at the border where it belongs,” Patel told The Politic.

The two views do fundamentally agree; Patel merely sees “danger in simplifying what ought not to be simplified,” though he isn’t “blaming anyone for taking [“Abolish ICE”] to that step and getting it more catchy.” The ability to leverage for progressive immigration reform is important to him as well, and he agrees with McElwee that ICE “shouldn’t be raiding existing communities in the country.” Though Patel couches his rhetoric in more nuance, the underlying meanings are the same.

While Suraj Patel picked up “Defund ICE” during his campaign, Dan Canon, 2018 U.S. Congress primary candidate from Indiana’s 9th District, has been working with the idea for longer. A civil rights lawyer, Canon wrote an article for Slate in early 2017—over a full year before McElwee coined “Abolish ICE”—about ICE’s immigrant detention system. Though he didn’t use the slogan “Abolish ICE” until his campaign a year later, Canon has been advocating against ICE for a long time.

Perhaps because of his background in civil rights law, Canon’s view on ICE is very harsh:

“It’s a system that’s so awful that it’s beyond reform and I think you’ve got to totally tear it out at the roots and start over,” he told The Politic. Canon sees the problem with ICE as mired in the institution rather than just in its function; ICE’s function does “way more harm than good for America and the lives of individuals,” but the reason it needs to be abolished is “the degree of corruption…in the agency overall.” Canon speaks about this corruption in his article for Slate, which details his ultimately futile effort to give legal representation to an immigrant detained in an ICE facility. Canon believes that starting a new agency from scratch could remove this corruption and opaqueness and replace it with a more just system that doesn’t treat detained immigrants “worse than the worst criminals that we have that are United States citizens.”

Because Canon and Patel have different primary issues with ICE, they also have different ideas about how to replace it. When speaking with The Politic, Canon explained: “My answer to what’s going to replace it is, ‘I don’t care.’” For Canon, the institution of ICE is too inextricable from the harm it has caused and its internal corruption to be reformed. Canon sees the U.S. as being able to deal with immigration and customs issues “separately and independently from ICE.”

Like Patel, Canon wants to see a change in how the U.S. deals with immigration. However, although he sees the value in the slogan “Abolish ICE” as a means to that end, abolishing ICE is more important to him as an end in and of itself:

“I think we ought to be running on what we think is right and not what we think is politically expedient,” Canon said, though he added that often, the two are one and the same. He adds that the left can’t win by “negotiating from the middle.” Instead, “strategically speaking as well as more morally speaking,” he says, “starting from the standpoint of abolition is the smart thing to do.”

Such a seemingly drastic stance may currently be unpalatable for an American electorate. Since “Abolish ICE” started gaining steam, many articles have questioned the movement (see, for example: The New York Post and opinions in The New Republic this July and August). According to a July POLITICO poll, only one in four voters support abolishing ICE. One in two think ICE should not be abolished, and the remainder are undecided. However, a plurality of Democrats—43 percent—are in favor of abolishing ICE, while only 34 percent think the government should maintain ICE.

Those in support of the movement aren’t deterred by these numbers.

Patel believes that the snappiness of the phrase and the way it has been characterized by the right is the only thing making the movement unpalatable. Patel explained that with appropriate nuance, the issue could be politically salient. Democrats could have a platform plank saying they will “significantly reform and restrict the activities of a mass deportation squad while fighting for comprehensive immigration reform.”

Canon is similarly optimistic: “Things are changing so fast,” he says, referring to the movement having begun mere months ago, “it certainly wouldn’t surprise me if the agency was never abolished, but it wouldn’t surprise me to see it abolished in the next four years.”

McElwee is more confident about the future of abolishing ICE. When asked if it will happen, he told The Politic: “No doubt in my mind.”