Democrats’ push to abolish ICE reaches Capitol Hill

Protesters call for abolishing the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency on June 29 in New York.
Protesters call for abolishing the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency on June 29 in New York.
(Mary Altaffer / Associated Press)

The calls on the left to abolish the government’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency reached Capitol Hill on Thursday, as three Democratic representatives filed legislation to close the agency that has become the face of immigration raids in the Trump administration.

“ICE is not working in its current form because the president has abused it to go after people with parking tickets, traffic violations, etc., rather than focusing on domestic terrorism and human trafficking and the big crimes,” said Rep. Mark Pocan of Wisconsin, one of the bill’s sponsors.

There’s very little chance that the bill will get a sympathetic hearing in the Republican-controlled House, especially with just over 115 days to go before the midterm election.

Republicans, however, are practically ecstatic about the measure’s introduction. As they see it, Democrats have legitimized the idea of closing an agency tasked with combating human trafficking, international gangs and drug smuggling and have made the move close to an election that will determine which party controls the House.


“They have really jumped the sharks on the left,” House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) told reporters. “It’s the craziest position I’ve ever seen, and they are tripping over themselves to move too far to the left. They are out of the mainstream of America, and that’s one of the reasons why I feel very good about this fall.”

Indeed, Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Bakersfield) would like to bring the measure to a vote this fall, something that would require House Democrats to go on the record before the midterms. No vote has been scheduled, however.

The idea of abolishing ICE hasn’t gained much support nationally. A new Politico/Morning Consult poll released Thursday showed that just over half of voters, 54%, opposed eliminating the agency, while only 1 in 4 supported the idea.

The poll also found that 40% of respondents said they would be less likely to vote for a congressional candidate who supported abolishing ICE, compared with 26% of voters who said such a position would make them more likely to vote for a candidate.

ICE plays no role in patrolling the country’s borders — that’s the job of a different branch of the Department of Homeland Security, the Customs and Border Protection agency. But Republicans, including President Trump, have cast Democrats’ call to close ICE as a call to open the borders and have accused them of supporting human trafficking.

Pocan said he expected Republicans to mischaracterize the idea.

“I actually kind of like it when they say things like, ‘Oh look, this shows you want open borders.’ That’s the first thing that comes out of almost all their mouths. ICE doesn’t work at the borders, it shows that they are lying,” he said.

As an agency, ICE is rather young. It was created after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks to consolidate the Immigration and Naturalization Service and U.S. Customs Service into a single agency tasked with preventing “acts of terrorism by targeting the people, money and materials that support terrorist and criminal activities.” Immigration enforcement is just one of its responsibilities.

Democrats who support changing the agency say it has strayed far from its intended purpose. Trump has used ICE as his “own mass-deportation force,” said Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), a co-sponsor of the bill.

“This is an expression of the anger at the cruelty of an administration and the way in which this agency is being used,” she said. “We need to have an agency that people can actually respect and trust and look up to.” Law enforcement agencies across the country, including in California, have refused to work with ICE on non-immigration issues because of its involvement in deportations, Jayapal said, noting that could harm national security.

The idea of closing the agency has gained steam on the left since Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez championed it in her successful campaign to beat House Democratic Caucus Chair Joe Crowley in a Democratic primary in New York. Protesters and activists have rallied around the idea, and at least two potential 2020 presidential candidates, U.S. Sens. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, have embraced it as well. Others, including U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris of California, have encouraged an overhaul of the agency.

Jayapal pushed back on the “abolish ICE” label that has come with the bill, saying the measure is more about reforming the current process.

The bill would create a commission to recommend to Congress how to change immigration enforcement and where in the government to parcel out the agency’s responsibilities. ICE would be abolished within a year.

“There was immigration enforcement before ICE was created as an agency, and there will be immigration enforcement after ICE is gone as an agency,” Jayapal said.

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