ICE By Any Other Name

Photo Credit: Joe Piette

Since the beginning of the “Zero Tolerance” immigration policy, the U.S.Immigrations and Customs Enforcement agency has been directly implicated in some of the most visible human rights violations on American soil in recent memory. ICE has detained domestic violence victims, deported long-established members of communities, placed hundreds of adults in custody at the southern border who await deportation back to horrendously dangerous situations, and sent a wave of terror through immigrant communities nationwide. In response, there has been an incredibly well organized and well intentioned movement calling to abolish the agency.

However, the call to abolish ICE is an invitation to an untrustworthy government to play whack-a-mole. ICE operates with a unique amount of self-direction, but the “zero tolerance” mandate that informs most of their recent abuses was delivered from the Trump administration; it did not originate within the agency. President Trump campaigned on a platform of vicious anti-immigrant rhetoric; far from being a talking point or mere political bait to draw out voters, this administration has turned violent nationalism into an actionable pillar of the GOP. It is dangerously naive to think that government abuse towards immigrants will simply stop with the abolition of the agency.

Instead, it sets up the perfect opportunity for President Trump to seemingly give in to demands by abolishing or reforming the agency, then transferring the same responsibilities elsewhere. While it’s often noted by opponents of ICE that the agency was only created after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, many of the activities ICE executes today used to be performed by the now-defunct U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service. Tasks being shuffled between departments or agencies is simply how bureaucracies operate, and would represent nothing new. President Trump could abolish the Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency, then immediately create the U.S. Unregistered Aliens and Border Control agency, giving it the same authority.

Photo Credit: Sam Gehrke

This is similar to how the executive order ending family separation played out, where an apparent win can quickly turn into a possible net loss over the slightly-longer term. President Trump signed an order on June 20, 2018 ending the practice of family separation and mandating putting children and parents back together. This felt like a small victory. However, in the same document ending the practice of family separation, President Trump made a policy change allowed indefinite detention, opening up the reality that we may soon have virtual prisons along the border, detaining families of immigrants for undetermined amounts of time with questionable access to legal representation, and with little oversight and transparency regarding treatment. One abusive practice ends, and another, different one is put in place, but due to the collective sigh of relief after the executive order was signed, the new policy receives a fraction of the pushback.

At the time of this writing (August 2018), there are still 500 immigrant parents who have not been reunified with their children, and over 400 children detained in the U.S. whose parents were deported elsewhere. Yet, U.S. protesters are exhausted, their attentions elsewhere, and the continuing issues surrounding reunification as well as the looming construction of de facto prisons at the borders are receiving comparatively little attention. This is not a new phenomenon, but is important to remember as we contemplate the possible outcomes of our calls to action, and the unanticipated consequences that can follow what might look very much like victory.

ICE has become a lightning rod for the left; anger and calls to action over the abuses at the border have resulted in the a collective laser focus on the agency. “Abolish ICE” has become a catch-all term to capture the outrage around how people at the border are being treated, and the impatience to see it resolved. Using this issue as a line in the sand, however, eliminates any kind of nuance of argument and doesn’t allow for creative strategic thinking. It also creates unnecessary and dangerous divisions within the Democratic party, particularly before a critical midterm election cycle. The GOP knows this, and they are exploiting it. While the GOP didn’t create the Abolish movement, they stand to benefit from it if liberal voters start eviscerating their own party before going into the voting both.

It is absolutely possible to have a principled stance against abusive immigration proceedings without feeling it necessary to abolish Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and representatives who may not agree with the Abolish agenda do not deserve to be blacklisted on that basis alone. It’s a good thing to have a high bar for your elected representatives, but when your government is inflicting trauma on children and the vulnerable, effectiveness is more important than ideological purity.

Abolishing ICE has become a litmus test for liberals, especially for elected officials. If this end up being a single-issue movement, it could threaten to severely limit any power liberals could have over future laws regarding human rights. It interprets any disagreement as a moral betrayal. Protecting the rights of immigrants and undocumented persons in the context of border security is a deeply complex issue. Distilling it to a binary where Abolishing ICE represents the correct moral position and questioning abolition is interpreted as a tacit endorsement of ICE’s practices and a vote for the GOP is reductive and likely punishingly misrepresentative.

Photo Credit: Master Steve Rapport

This spotlight on ICE also discounts the amount of coordination that is going on between agencies. For example, The Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) is jointly responsible for contracting out the operation of detention facilities on the border that house children, which have been the sites of some of the most harrowing tales of physical and sexual abuse of minors. Meanwhile, if it’s specifically the border detentions that Abolish ICE protesters find the most disturbing, that is almost exclusively under the purview of the US Customs and Border Enforcement agency, which operates alongside ICE under the Department of Homeland Security. There are many hands on this set of issues, and it may make more sense to hold more than one agency responsible for the implementation of an abusive set of policies.

We do not have an ICE issue in this country, we have a human rights issue. The root of the problem is not that ICE is committing radical abuses of power against immigrants, it’s that a government agency is allowed to intimidate, coerce, abuse, indefinitely detain, and deny due process to anyone. A holistic approach may be to push for protective policies for immigrants that transcend agencies, which would be a better guarantee of future rights protections. Responsible immigration policy is notoriously difficult to craft, but attacking a single agency is strategically shortsighted, may not actually help the majority of the people we care about protecting, and has a side effect of dividing the party before a historic mid-term election.