Author: Sabrina Siddiqui
As Donald Trump took the stage at an event in Montana this week, the president animated the crowd with a new rallying cry.
“We protect Ice,” he said. “They protect us and we protect them.”
Trump repeated the new slogan to raucous cheers. The president was referring to Immigration and Customs Enforcement, a law enforcement agency within the Department of Homeland Security that bears the responsibility of carrying out his hardline immigration agenda.
It was the latest sign that Trump, whose administration has been roundly criticized for separating migrant parents from their children at the border, wished to seize on the politics of immigration in an election year that could tip the balance of the US Congress.
With the 2018 midterm elections looming in November, Trump has sought to advance the narrative that Democrats support the abolition of Ice. The outcome, the president claims, would result in “open borders” and crime flowing into the United States.
It is a familiar ploy – reminiscent of Trump’s fear tactics around immigrants in the 2016 presidential race – and one embraced wholeheartedly by the White House and the Republican National Committee. By Friday, Vice-President Mike Pence was paying homage to Ice at its headquarters in Washington.
“We are with you 100%,” he said. “Under President Trump, we will never abolish Ice.”
The politics surrounding Ice have elevated the agency and its utility to the forefront of the debate over America’s immigration system. For Trump, it has served as a vehicle to distract from his administration’s confusion thus far over how to reunite the nearly 3,000 children who have been separated from their parents at the US border as a result of his policies.
“I think that Republicans are talking about Democrats abolishing Ice a lot more than Democrats are talking about abolishing Ice,” said David Fitzgerald, co-director at the Center for Comparative Immigration Studies at the University of California, San Diego.
The issue garnered attention after Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a 28-year-old progressive activist, pulled off a stunning victory over Joe Crowley, one of the senior Democrats in the House, in last month’s New York primary. Ocasio-Cortez made abolishing Ice, the functions of which include detaining and deporting undocumented immigrants, a central tenet of her platform.
Only a handful of the 242 Democrats in Congress, which includes two independents who caucus with the party, have called for abolishing Ice. The majority of Democrats who have commented on the subject have suggested reforming the agency and its focus.
The list of those calling for Ice to be abolished nonetheless includes at least some prominent Democrats, such as Senators Kirsten Gillibrand of New York and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, both regarded as potential contenders for the 2020 presidential race. Gillibrand said she agreed with Ocasio-Cortez’s position of abolishing Ice, stating the agency had become “a deportation force”.
“We believe that we should protect families that need our help and that is not what Ice is doing today,” Gillibrand said. “And that’s why I believe you should get rid of it, start over, reimagine it and build something that actually works.”
Warren took a similar view, saying Trump’s “deeply immoral actions” necessitated a new approach to America’s immigration laws.
“We need to rebuild our immigration system from top to bottom,” Warren said, “starting by replacing Ice with something that reflects our values.”
Democrats have broadly held an advantage over Republicans on the issue of immigration. A recent poll, conducted before the controversy over Trump’s family separation policy, found Democrats with a 14-point advantage over Republicans on each party’s handling of immigration.
The politics of Ice, however, are more complex, in part because the American public is not intimately familiar with the origins of the agency and its intended purpose.
Enforcing immigration law, both within the interior of the United States and at its borders, was previously a function of the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS). It was not until a commission, in response to the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, recommended structural changes to the Department of Homeland Security that Ice was born and primarily charged with interior enforcement. The US Customs and Border Protection, meanwhile, was tasked with enforcement along the US borders.
“It became more of a political factor specifically around mass deportations,” said Fitzgerald, who noted that the controversy had to do with a ramp-up in interior enforcement that began under the George W Bush administration and continued in the early years of Barack Obama’s presidency.
Obama was famously dubbed the “deporter in chief” by immigration advocates due to a rapid escalation of deportations that ultimately led to more than 2.8 million undocumented immigrants being forcibly removed from this country during his two terms. But the Obama administration, immigration advocates said, shifted its focus in later years by having Ice concentrate on those who committed serious felonies or were considered security risks.
“It didn’t mean that the law wasn’t followed, it just meant that they used discretion,” said David Leopold, an immigration attorney and former president of the American Immigration Lawyers Association.
“When Trump came into power, within a couple weeks, they threw out all commonsense immigration enforcement priorities. They basically said to [Ice], go grab anybody you can.”
Under the Trump administration, the directive has been substantially widened to target undocumented immigrants regardless of whether or not they had committed a serious crime. Arrests by Ice rose by 42% during the first nine months of Trump’s tenure, compared with the same period in 2016. The overall arrests in 2017, Trump’s first year in office, were 30% higher than the previous year.
Some of the cases of the Trump era have gone viral — such as the father whose family filmed his arrest by Ice agents after he had dropped his 12-year-old daughter off at school.
In announcing the “zero-tolerance” policy that prompted the Trump administration to separate families at the border, the attorney general, Jeff Sessions, openly stated that anyone entering the country illegally would be prosecuted.
The “Abolish Ice” slogan among some progressives, Fitzgerald said, probably has less to do with the agency itself than “a general cry of protest against Trump’s draconian immigration policies”.
Democrats in Washington, he pointed out, have largely adopted the position that Ice should be reformed rather than eliminated in its entirety. Congress could, for example, reduce or reallocate some of the agency’s funding away from deportations and re-establish enforcement guidelines such that criminals and security risks are the priority.
The heightened scrutiny over the agency’s immigration enforcement arm has led even some Ice agents to seek distance from the Trump administration’s policies.
Last month, 19 agents who work for Ice homeland security investigations wrote a letter to Kirstjen Nielsen, the DHS secretary, asking for their division to be split from that which handles immigration enforcement. The agents wrote that the association of Ice with the Trump administration’s controversial detention and deportation policies had made it difficult for its investigative division to pursue threats to national security, organized crime, and drug and human trafficking.
“Ice as an agency needs serious reform,” said Leopold. “The reality is, at the end of the day, we need to have an agency that enforces immigration law and the border.”
“But we need an agency that operates with humanity, with compassion … It’s not about abolish Ice so much as it is about abolish the abuses, abolish the treatment of families like they’re something less than human.”