Q&A: ICE heats up midterm debate over immigration

The upset victory of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in a New York City Democratic congressional primary helped push ICE to the political fore.
(Mary Altaffer / Associated Press)

It was a faint but fervent cry on the far left before moving to the mainstream, echoed by some leading Democrats: Abolish ICE!

The drive to eliminate, or, at least overhaul, the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency has quickly become another of the political wedges dividing the country and inflaming hardcore partisans.

While its practicality remains to be seen, the utility of the issue and its underlying emotionalism is clear: It’s given Democrats a rallying call against the perceived excesses of President Trump’s immigration policy and Republicans a rejoinder against accusations of heartlessness.

Reform efforts, if any, will almost certainly be pushed past November, when the midterm election will determine control of Congress — an outcome that could hinge greatly on the immigration issue and which party better frames the debate over the next four months.


What is ICE?

The agency was born out of a government reorganization that followed the 9/11 terrorist attacks. The move consolidated the Immigration and Naturalization Service and U.S. Customs Service under a new roof.

Broadly speaking, the agency’s responsibility is tracking down immigrants who entered the United States illegally and have settled in the country. lt also works to prevent counterfeit and illegal merchandise, such as guns, drugs and child pornography, from entering the U.S.

It is not responsible for patrolling the country’s borders and is not behind the controversial policy of separating children from parents apprehended at the border. A different agency, Customs and Border Protection, oversees the Border Patrol.

So why is support for ICE melting away?

Couldn’t resist, could you?


First off, there’s not a whole lot of data on public attitudes toward ICE, which most people had probably never heard of a month ago. A better question might be: Why have its operations suddenly become an issue?

Do tell.

The agency has faced criticism before. The Intercept published a report in April alleging widespread physical and sexual abuse of detainees, one of several accounts accusing agents of improper behavior.

Under President Obama, the agency was criticized for a number of deportation raids that critics denounced as cruel and heavy-handed, in part because some involved the detention of young children.

But why all the attention now?

The well-documented scenes of kids being separated from their parents at the U.S.-Mexico border created a humanitarian and political crisis for the Trump administration, adding new urgency to an issue — illegal immigration — that has long stirred strong feelings on opposing political sides.

Then, in a huge upset last month, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a 28-year-old political newcomer, defeated Rep. Joseph Crowley, the fourth-ranking Democrat in the House leadership, in a New York City congressional primary. One of the issues she promoted was the elimination of ICE.

The call was subsequently taken up last weekend by demonstrators across the country protesting Trump’s immigration policies and by two prospective 2020 Democratic presidential hopefuls, Sens. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Kirsten Gillibrand of New York.

Independent Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, Democratic Sen. Kamala Harris of California and Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti — who are also eyeing a White House bid — have been more circumspect, calling for a top-to-bottom assessment of ICE but not its outright abolition.

I love the issue.

President Trump, on Democratic calls to abolish ICE

Why do I hear Republicans gleefully rubbing their hands together?

Many see this as a huge political gift, the equivalent of Christmas in July.

Ho ho ho?

That’s because instead of focusing on kids being separated from their parents, which even some Trump supporters find abhorrent, the focus of the immigration debate has shifted to considerably more favorable political ground. Republicans, led by the president, have portrayed the calls to overhaul ICE as an effort to stop protecting the country’s borders.

“I hear Democrats saying, ‘We want to abandon ICE,’” Trump told supporters at a recent West Virginia fundraiser. “We’re not abandoning ICE, and we’re not abandoning law enforcement.”

When Democrats say, “Abolish ICE!” Republicans translate that as, “Open borders!”

Is that true?


Again, ICE has nothing to do with patrolling the border, although it is charged with helping enforce the country’s immigration laws and some parents who were separated from their children are being detained at ICE facilities.

But it’s a politically resonant accusation and gives Trump and his allies, who were thrown on the defensive over the family separation policy, a chance to seize the political upper hand. “I love the issue,” Trump said candidly in a Fox News interview.

So it’s just a lot of fringy left-wingers clamoring to ice ICE?

Actually, no.

In a letter sent last month to the secretary of Homeland Security, Kirstjen Nielsen, leaders of ICE’s criminal investigative division called for an overhaul of the agency, saying its work has been undermined by the branch responsible for immigration arrests and deportations.

“Many jurisdictions continue to refuse to work with [the investigative division] because of a perceived linkage to the politics of civil immigration,” the group of agents wrote.

What’s Congress doing about this?

Two Democratic lawmakers, Reps. Earl Blumenauer of Oregon and Mark Pocan of Wisconsin, have proposed legislation to abolish ICE. In response, the White House in a pair of tweets accused Blumenauer and Pocan, respectively, of supporting drug smuggling and human traffickers.

You mean respectfully?

No, respectively. There’s not a lot of respect in our politics these days. | Twitter: @markzbarabak