Democrats calling to abolish ICE 'is a gift to Republicans' in midterm elections

Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers, July 2011 (Photo: Staff Sgt. Andrew Satran / U.S. Air Force)

In the chaos of immigrant families being separated at the U.S.-Mexico border, more Democratic members of Congress and congressional candidates are calling to abolish the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, ICE.

The position is popular among the liberal base of the Democratic Party, but some conservative immigration advocates say the extreme position is likely to backfire to benefit Republicans in the 2018 elections and beyond.

According to one estimate, more than a dozen Democrats are running for Congress in 2018 campaigning to abolish the immigration enforcement agency. Candidates are appealing to voters to cut funds for the agency, calling it's $6 billion annual budget a waste of government resources and arguing that federal agents are "terrorizing" immigrant communities and tearing families apart.

Democratic incumbents are also heeding the call. On Monday, Wisconsin Rep. Mark Pocan announced plans to introduce legislation to abolish ICE and transfer its enforcement functions to other agencies.

Over the weekend, a delegation of 30 House Democrats toured immigration detention facilities near the southern border where parents and children had been separated under the Trump administration's "zero-tolerance" policy.

After returning, Rep. Pocan said he would introduce a bill to "abolish ICE and crack down on the agency's blanket directive to target and round up individuals and families."

Pocan charged that "President Trump and his team of white nationalists, including [White House adviser] Stephen Miller, have so misused ICE that the agency can no longer accomplish its goals effectively."

At least three other House Democrats have openly come out in support of abolishing ICE.

Amid protests that shuttered the local ICE office in downtown Portland, Oregon, Rep. Earl Blumenauer said the agency should be "shut down." Over the weekend, Blumenauer issued a call to "abolish ICE and start over," claiming federal agents "treat people like animals."

Seattle's Democratic congresswoman, Rep. Pramila Jayapal, said in an interview last week, "I would love to see ICE go." Jayapal has been an outspoken advocate of Seattle's sanctuary city policy, that limits ICE's ability to coordinate with local law enforcement to remove undocumented immigrants who enter the criminal justice system. She is also the sponsor of legislation to reform the immigration detention process.

In Massachusetts, Rep. Jim McGovern addressed a group of activists over the weekend, insisting that ICE has transformed from an agency that enforces immigration law into "something that is dedicated to ripping families apart."

"The time has come," McGovern continued, "to re-evaluate what we have in place and to get rid of ICE."

In New York's gubernatorial race, former "Sex and the City" actress Cynthia Nixon has emerged as something of a leader in the cause and recently referred to the agency as "a terrorist organization."

As part of an electoral strategy in 2018, the issue is likely to backfire on a Democratic Party that is becoming "radicalized" on the subject of immigration, said Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies.

"This is the kind of thing that can help them lose elections in November," he said, particularly if the position becomes mainstream in the party's thinking.

For Democrats running in safe, blue districts, they can afford to take a more extreme position against Trump's immigration policies and enforcement priorities. Moderates, on the other hand, will almost certainly be branded by their conservative opponents as members of a "pro-open borders party" and unsupportive of federal law enforcement, Krikorian noted.

"I mean, this is a gift to Republicans," he said, suggesting the GOP attack ads will virtually write themselves.

According to Matt O'Brien, director of research at the Federation for American Immigration Reform, the calls to abolish ICE will likely energize the Republican base that came out in support of Donald Trump and his immigration policies in 2016.

"This is a losing proposition for midterm elections," O'Brien said.

"American voters are becoming profoundly disillusioned with legislators who seem to value the interests of illegal aliens over those of taxpaying U.S. citizens," he said. Candidates adopting the position may be rewarded in California, the Pacific Northwest, New York and Massachusetts, but centrist Democrats and independents are likely to be put off, he advised.

There were signs over the weekend that the issue of getting rid of Immigration and Customs Enforcement will be a political litmus test for the left.

Two prominent figures rumored to be potential Democratic presidential candidates in 2020 were confronted with the question Sunday.

After liberal supporters criticized her earlier this year for defending the existence of ICE, Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., said it was appropriate to "critically re-examine ICE and its role and the way that it is being administered and the work it is doing." Asked by NBC's Kasie Hunt whether she supports the abolition of ICE, Harris said, "We need to probably think about starting from scratch."

Vermont Independent Sen. Bernie Sanders failed to satisfy his supporters on the left when he avoided a direct response to the question of abolishing ICE. He told CNN's Jake Tapper that he supported "rational" immigration policies and an end to family separations.

Some strategists, like Hillary Clinton's former campaign spokesman Brian Fallon, believe abolishing of ICE is a winning position for Democrats in 2020.

Earlier this year, Fallon encouraged Democrats to be out front on the issue, tweeting, "Dems running in 2020 should campaign on ending the agency in its current form."

The tweet was part of the public outcry over ICE raids and the Trump administration's policy of deporting all undocumented immigrants, not just those wanted for violent crimes or felonies.

A few months later Fallon encouraged Democrats to move farther to the left, tweeting, "There will be a political premium for the first Dem who comes out for abolishing ICE in current form. Huge symbolic significance/strike against but also plenty to fall back on when you need to defend against 'open borders' canard."

Even if the agency were abolished, it would not eliminate the function of immigration enforcement. Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, was asked to respond to his colleagues calls to eradicate the agency and noted, "I don't know how you abolish an agency without abolishing the function, and I think the function is necessary."

King told NBC's Meet the Press that he supported the idea of reviewing how the agency operates and investigating any misconduct, but not "starting from scratch," as Sen. Harris suggested.

ICE was created in 2002 as part of the post-9/11 consolidation of the Department of Homeland Security. Before DHS, immigration enforcement and removals were carried out by Immigration and Nationalization Services (INS). Today, ICE is not only responsible for that task, but an array of counter-terrorism, counterproliferation and investigative functions.

"As a practical matter, the agency couldn’t be abolished," O'Brien asserted, adding the statements about getting rid of the agency are "nothing but ill-considered, irresponsible political theater."

For both parties, immigration will be a crucial issue in 2018, according to a recent Pew Research Center poll. For 21 percent of Republicans and 19 percent of Democrats, immigration was the topic they most wanted to hear candidates address.

It's not yet clear whether the heightened interest will benefit Republicans or Democrats. Recent polls show overwhelming opposition from Democrats and Republicans to an immigration policy that results in family separations. However, recent polling on border security showed strong public support for enforcement, including an end to the so-called "catch and release" policy.



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