The Abolish ICE Debate Is a Test for Powerful Democrats

Donald Trump acts as though “persecution” and “prosecution” are the same word. This is why he has been exploiting Immigration and Customs Enforcement, better known as ICE. Under his influence, ICE has embraced its capacity for jackboot thuggery, enforcing white supremacy as much if not more than any immigration law. Trump has taken an agency that ostensibly was meant to keep Americans safe and used it to act out his personal cruel desires. Facing increasingly loud calls for ICE’s abolition, Trump’s empty bravado and capacity for lying have been on display these past few weeks.

The president has falsely claimed to have witnessed ICE agents “liberate towns from the grasp of MS-13,” the violent gang he wants us to believe is lurking on every street corner and in the soul of every toddler he incarcerates. The latest of many tweets on this topic arrived Tuesday morning.

Trump has good reason to be flustered about this. There were more than 700 demonstrations last Saturday protesting ICE and the administration’s family separation policyl the one in L.A. was the largest. Some 70,000 people flooded the city’s streets with an anger and determination to match their numbers, demanding the reunification of immigrant children and their parents – and quite a bit more. “This is a city that stands up for immigrants, a place where 63 percent of us are either immigrants or the children of immigrants,” Mayor Eric Garcetti told me as the rally began in Grand Park, about two blocks from City Hall. “But when the federal government fails, we pick up the pieces. This policy has taken a hammer to a broken system.”

Garcetti has admitted to considering a presidential run in 2020, and, during the course of our conversation, I realized that he never once mentioned Trump’s name. Celebrities, politicians and regular citizens alike at the march grasped that we have bigger things to worry about than one man. “We have lost our humanity on a cultural level,” actress Laura Dern told me as thousands began to abandon the staging area to march several blocks to a federal detention center where immigrant children were being held. “This is not a political issue.”

Constance Wu, star of the immigrant-focused sitcom Fresh Off the Boat and the forthcoming film Crazy Rich Asians, visited the tent camp for children in Tornillo, Texas, last month to help lead protests there. Still, she felt encouraged. “From the top down, it seems like it’s getting worse, but bottom up, it’s getting better. We’re getting more people activated, more people aware,” Wu told me, holding a sign that read “CRUELTY IS NOT STRENGTH.”

Yes, there were some mentions of the president and his sadism – on signs, on clothing and in rhetoric from the stage. A good number of those had the word “fuck” preceding his name. However, the chants of “abolish ICE” outnumbered any denunciations of Trump himself.

A policy that was a hashtag a little more than a year ago had a prominent place on the platform of newcomer Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, 28, the Democratic Socialist from New York’s 14th District who defeated incumbent Rep. Joe Crowley in the state’s primary last week. Senators Elizabeth Warren and Kirsten Gillibrand are seconding her calls, along with New York Mayor Bill de Blasio. California’s Kamala Harris, who spoke at Saturday’s L.A. rally, said she wants to see the agency “re-examined.”

There is a vocal contingent of establishment Democrats and pundits, however, who behave as though they agree with Trump’s claim that a progressive stance on ICE means that “they’ll never win another election.” On Sunday morning, Senator Tammy Duckworth of Illinois managed to toss water on that fervor and on the energy behind Ocasio-Cortez. “If you abolish ICE now, you still have the same president with the same failed policies,” she told CNN. “Whatever you replace it with is going to still reflect what this president wants to do.” Duckworth – who made history recently by bringing her newborn to the Senate floor – is also worried that going “too far to the left” would ostracize Midwestern voters. She shrugged off Ocasio-Cortez’s stances as “the future of the party in the Bronx, where she is.” (Never mind the fact that the Bronx-born Ocasio-Cortez is running to serve the people of Queens.)

Protesters carry signs during a rally in front of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement facility in downtown Los Angeles on . Protesters who were blocking the entrance to an Immigration and Customs Enforcement facility in downtown Los Angeles have been led away in handcuffs. A group of 17 protesters sat down in the street, blocking the entrance to the facility Monday morning. The protesters, including faith and community leaders, locked arms and chanted, "Shut down ICEImmigration Protest , Los Angeles, USA - 02 Jul 2018

Protesters carry signs during a rally in front of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement facility in downtown Los Angeles.

Naysayers like Duckworth – including her colleagues in the senate Amy Klobuchar, Richard Blumenthal and Bernie Sanders – are failing to see the forest for the trees here. Neither Duckworth nor her fellow critics can possibly know how the call to end ICE will play out with Democratic voters in November – let alone in 2020. The movement has just begun inching toward the mainstream, and yet there seems to be a particular urgency to nip it in the bud. I don’t know if abolishing ICE is the answer. I do know that it is strange to see Democrats telling us not to even bother considering the question.

By echoing House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi’s haughty take on the Bronx native, Duckworth used conventional assumptions about Midwestern voters even as more than 50,000 people were on the streets of Chicago this past weekend to protest ICE. As an Ohio native myself, it is sad to see a politician of color, in particular, be this short sighted. Too many at the heart of the Democratic base, particularly African American and Hispanic voters, have seen the system fail them, long before Trump was president. Those Democrats who urge a singular focus on the bogeyman in the Oval Office ignore their base’s demands for systemic change. If the DNC truly wants investment from the voters it needs the most later this year, it needs to stop being so cautious.

The Democratic establishment could learn a lot from coastal communities like Los Angeles, which has the highest population of Central American migrants per capita in the nation. Here is where a person like Jose Luis Garcia, a lawful Mexican immigrant, is scooped up by ICE and detained for weeks or even years at a time. Angelenos are precisely the people Democrats should be listening to on this issue. “We’re the heart of the values, but we’re also practical,” Garcetti said, citing a lengthy list of community benefits to embracing immigrants. The coasts are not the redheaded stepchildren of the DNC apparatus, valued when it is convenient and dismissed when there are moderates to pursue.

Here’s the thing: Abolishing ICE might not even be that revolutionary. While Duckworth is right to note that ICE is being used differently under Trump, that doesn’t mean Americans need it. ICE is an outgrowth of the expansion of the national security industrial complex that sprouted up after 9/11, replacing the Immigration and Naturalization Service. It should take more than 15 years for something like ICE to become an irreplaceable institution of American jurisprudence. I have yet to see any of these Democratic defenders make a convincing argument for why we must have ICE.

Nineteen ICE agents wrote a letter last week to Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen suggesting that the agency be dissolved and reorganized into two separate entities so that they may resume paying attention to the many law enforcement priorities unrelated to Trump’s crusade against undocumented migrants. That alone should bolster calls to rethink ICE, and not to – as Duckworth suggests – maintain it and wait for a new president who we trust not to exploit its obvious weaknesses.

The greatest trick that Trump pulls on the American public daily is to be so extreme that we can’t imagine someone else like him. He has made a joke of our politics, but he has only done so more colorfully than a Mitch McConnell or a Jeff Sessions. There will be others in Trump’s wake who are even more competent at exploiting the weaknesses of this nation’s government and its various agencies. Other than trying to win in November, the DNC needs to start thinking less like politicians and more like repairmen.

That’s why these attempts to silence the “abolish ICE” conversation are flawed. November may be the most significant midterm election in years, given that it is possible that the Democrats could win the 24 seats they need to regain House control and the 28 they need for the Senate. The latter may prove essential should the current Senate minority manage to slow or block Trump’s choice to succeed Justice Anthony Kennedy on the Supreme Court if a replacement is not yet confirmed by then. Voters surveyed strongly prefer a Congress that can hold Trump in check, to the degree that is possible. But as we all saw this past weekend, shackling the president isn’t all Americans want or need.

There will be plenty who show up to cast a ballot this fall for governor, state rep or Congress based purely on the fact that it will be a middle finger to the president. But Ocasio-Cortez and the Democrats who have joined her call to abolish ICE are not acting as mere reactionaries in a political moment that grows more partisan by the day. If they truly want to win in November and not just signify how civil they are, Democrats should adopt or at least be willing to discuss positions that already have their voters marching in the streets.