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The Abolish ICE Movement Explained

We explain the movement calling for eliminating U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

July 30, 2018

As the debate over family separation and reunification at the border continues, some are calling for the abolition of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). Here’s what you need to know about the movement.

What is ICE, and what does it do?

Following the September 11 terrorist attacks, Congress pressured the George W. Bush Administration to create a department responsible for domestic security. In 2002, Congress passed the Homeland Security Act, which abolished the Immigration and Naturalization Service. Congress transferred the functions of INS to three new agencies within the Department of Homeland Security: ICE, Customs and Border Protection (CBP), and U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS). CBP is responsible for securing the border and the area within 100 miles of it (and is the agency actually carrying out family separations at the border), and USCIS processes requests for immigration benefits, such as naturalization applications and asylum requests. 

ICE has two primary divisions: Enforcement and Removal Operations (ERO) and Homeland Security Investigations (HSI). ERO enforces immigration laws, including detaining and removing the people violating them. HSI investigates international criminal operations and organizations, including the illegal trade of goods, weapons, and drugs, and the smuggling or trafficking of people into the U.S. ICE has 400 offices in the U.S. and in 46 countries.  

ICE has had a turbulent history. Various bodies have questioned ICE’s necessity as a standalone agency, including the conservative Heritage Foundation and DHS’s own inspector general. Still, the agency’s funding and its work have grown substantially. In its latest budget, Congress approved $6.9 billion in appropriations for ICE, up from $3.6 billion in 2005, the first year an ICE budget was enacted. According to the Center for Migration Studies, the average number of immigrants ICE detains daily has nearly doubled, from just over 21,000 in 2003 to over 38,000 in 2017.

Why is there a backlash against the agency? 

Under President Trump, ICE appears to have taken the gloves off. While actual deportation numbers are lower so far than under President Obama, who oversaw a record-breaking number of deportations, the number of ICE arrests has increasedrising 42 percent between 2016 and 2017. Because the arrests are particularly visible, they have generated attention and outrage. 

More importantly, Trump has returned to a policy that Obama originally embraced but ultimately repudiated: treating any undocumented immigrant as a priority for removal. For the first six years of his presidency, Obama oversaw a program called Secure Communities, under which undocumented persons booked into jail on any criminal charges were held until they could be picked up by ICE. In 2014, Obama changed course to focus on immigrants guilty of serious crimes. During the 2016 campaign, Trump trafficked in anti-immigrant rhetoric and promised to deport millions of undocumented immigrants; sure enough, in January 2017, the president issued an executive order again prioritizing removal of anyone who had entered the country illegally. ICE’s acting director ominously warned undocumented immigrants: “You should look over your shoulder, and you need to be worried.” 

This new attitude is displayed in ICE’s increasing use of decades-old misdemeanors as grounds for arrest of even long-time U.S. residents, appearing to focus particularly on nationals from Latin American and Muslim-majority countries. In California, for instance, a Mexican national who became a legal resident in 1988 was detained on his front lawn because of a misdemeanor domestic violence charge from 2001. 

ICE has also arrested people at courthouses more frequently. In January, the agency announced a new policy that would limit courthouse arrests. The directive says agents should avoid noncriminal courts such as family and small claims courts, but ICE officers have since arrested victims of domestic violence seeking protective orders. Advocates say domestic violence complaints in immigrant communities have decreased as a result. 

Who wants the agency abolished, and what does #AbolishICE really mean? 

In the spring of 2018, the Abolish ICE movement began to shift from a hashtag to a more formal stance. Political commentator Sean McElwee — who was the first to tweet“#AbolishICE” in February 2017 — wrote a pieceabout the movement in March for The Nation. Chardo Richardson, who is campaigning for a Florida House seat, made abolishing ICE part of the platform for the Brand New Congress PAC in a February post

Recently the movement gained new momentum because of the surprise June New York City Democratic primary victory of House candidate Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who calls for ICE’s abolition. The family separation catastrophe — though executed by CBP – has put added pressure on ICE, which has become the poster child for DHS’s excesses. 

Now some elected officials — all Democrats — are also calling for elimination or reform of ICE: 

  • Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) have spoken out in favor of the movement generally.
  • Rep. Mark Pocan (D-Wis.) has introduced legislation to abolish ICE.
  • Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) has called for a “complete overhaul” but not abolition. 
  • Eighty-three House Democrats signed a March letter to the leadership of the Appropriations Committee asking for funding cuts to the agencies.

While Trump has tweeted that Abolish ICE supporters favor open borders, no high-profile backer has called for that.  

ICE agents themselves have appealed to DHS Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen for an overhaul of the agency. In June, 19 special agents in charge at ICE’s HSI division wrote to Nielsen saying differences between the goals and functions of HSI and ERO are so great that the two should be split into separate agencies. The plea suggests that the backlash against the U.S. arrests and deportations are having an impact on transnational work as well. 

What would be the impact of abolishing ICE?

If ICE were abolished, other parts of the government would likely take up some of the agency’s responsibilities. In his legislation to abolish ICE, Rep. Pocan proposes examining the agency’s functions to determine how some capabilities — like investigations of gang violence, drug and human trafficking, and organized crime (most of which fall to HSI) — could be transferred to other agencies. ICE’s role removing immigrants who have committed significant crimes is also likely to remain important. 

In theory, a significantly streamlined or restructured ICE could refocus on priority removals. However, given the strongly anti-immigrant orientation of both ICE leadership and the rank and file, such an overhaul would have to be significant — and begin with the agency’s top leadership — to have a chance of addressing the movement’s concerns. 

(Image: Ken Wolter/