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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/Shut­ter­