Abolish ICE? A Guide to the Partisan Fight Over This U.S. Agency

(Bloomberg) -- Since April, when the Trump administration began a “zero tolerance” policy toward people caught illegally entering the U.S., one of the agencies charged with enforcing it, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, has been the focus of protests and praise. A growing number of Democrats have called to “abolish ICE,” even as Republicans have rallied behind the agency. While the debate raged loudly before June, when President Donald Trump abandoned a policy of separating families who’d crossed the border illegally, both Republicans and Democrats have kept the ICE debate alive, hoping the issue will bring more of their supporters to voting booths in the November congressional elections.

1. What does ICE do?

Immigration and Customs Enforcement is the federal agency responsible for finding and removing people who are in the U.S. illegally. It doesn’t patrol the border, that’s the job of the Customs and Border Protection agency.

2. Why are there calls to abolish it?

Under the “zero tolerance” policy, the U.S. began separating parents and children caught entering the country illegally or seeking asylum. ICE was responsible for holding the parents in detention after their prosecutions began and was also involved with transferring nearly 3,000 children to the custody of Health and Human Services shelters, with many kept in makeshift detention centers. After reports of children wailing and abuse at the facilities, public outcry and judicial rulings helped pressure Trump to reverse course, and the government began to reunite separated migrant families. Even before “zero tolerance,” ICE arrests in the fiscal year ending in September 2017 had risen 30 percent over the previous fiscal year. ICE has stepped up raids on businesses that employ undocumented immigrants and arrested or deported many people who had been living in the U.S. without incident for years.

3. What are Republican saying?

Trump has frequently praised the agency and called on his supporters to do the same. On Twitter, he’s said that Democrats want “open borders” and that abolishing ICE would lead to “rampant and uncontrollable” crime. Republican candidates have used the issue to attack Democrats as weak on border enforcement. A Politico/Morning Consult poll that same month found that 79 percent of Republicans wanted the government to keep ICE; 54 percent of independent voters and 34 percent of Democrats also wanted to keep it.

4. What are Democrats saying?

They’re split. Some have been able to harness the abolish ICE movement to push for immigration reform. One liberal candidate, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, beat a veteran House of Representatives member, Joe Crowley, in the New York Democratic primary in part by focusing on the issue. But while it’s easy for candidates in heavily Democratic districts to rail against ICE, the party is seeking to flip at least 23 House seats now held by Republicans in order to take control of the chamber after the Nov. 6 election. So there are Democrats who are trying to steer the immigration debate in a different direction. For example, Senator Chris Van Hollen of Maryland, chairman of the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee, disagrees with the idea of abolishing ICE while criticizing what he called the administration’s “gross abuse” of immigration enforcement. Further complicating things is the fact that “abolish ICE” chants are heard after all types of confrontations between border enforcement agents and migrants, even ones where ICE wasn’t involved.

5. What does ICE say?

The agency highlights its role in arresting criminals. But more than a dozen special agents in charge of ICE’s Homeland Security Investigative Division wrote a letter to Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen saying that the crackdown on immigration has made it more difficult to conduct investigations into national security issues. And the Department of Homeland Security, which oversees ICE, issued an Inspector General report at the end of 2017 that cataloged compliance violations for ICE detainees “that undermine the protection of detainees’ rights, their humane treatment, and the provision of a safe and healthy environment.”

6. Will ICE be abolished?

Probably not. At the moment, there aren’t enough votes to pass a congressional measure to eliminate the agency. In July, three Democratic Representatives introduced a bill to implement a “humane immigration enforcement system,” eventually leading to the termination of ICE. Republican House Speaker Paul Ryan stopped it, but it was unclear whether even a majority of Democrats would vote for it. Instead, Republican lawmakers passed a resolution symbolically supporting ICE.

7. What would happen if it was?

Despite the President’s claims that abolishing ICE would mean open borders, nothing would change since that’s not ICE’s job. ICE is one of three Department of Homeland Security agencies charged with immigration control, so its responsibilities could be divvied up between Customs and Border Protection and Citizenship and Immigration Services. Since the Trump administration has given ICE greater latitude for arrests and treatment of undocumented immigrants, it’s possible that other agencies wouldn’t be as aggressive in enforcing immigration policy.

The Reference Shelf

  • Trump’s 2017 executive order outlining his immigration agenda.
  • The White House fact sheet on ICE warns of what might happen if it were to be abolished.
  • A Bloomberg news article on the politics behind the House resolution backing ICE.

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