By Nick Licata
What does a win look like for the campaign to abolish ICE? Let’s assume for the moment that it is to stop the agency’s increasingly brutal deportation raids because, as The Nation writer Sean McElwee said in a lead article, they have “become a genuine threat to democracy, and it is destroying thousands of lives.”
This is a view shared by a growing number of Democrats. Representative Mark Pocan, Democrat of Wisconsin, accuses ICE’s aggressive enforcement of immigration laws of “conducting raids at garden centers and meatpacking plants” and “breaking up families at churches and schools”. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, Democrat of New York, called to abolish ICE, and Senator Elizabeth Warren, Democrat of Massachusetts, said that given Mr. Trump’s “deeply immoral actions,” the entire immigration system should be reformed. Representative Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash. joined Rep. Pocan in promising to introduce a bill to eliminate the agency.
The call to abolish ICE also gained momentum in the second week of July when well over 100 state and local elected officials from 20 states joined in calling for abolishing the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency. Their released statement said “the lawless federal agency that, since its creation in 2002, has terrorized immigrants and separated families in the communities we live in and represent,” must be ended as soon as possible.
However, while the message of “Abolish ICE” is powerful, it also can be easily misconstrued to mean a decline in pubic safety. The critical question to ask, and one that must be discussed, is how does this strong campaign slogan effect the fall congressional elections? In other words, will a campaign to eliminate ICE turn out more Democrats and Republicans?
The underlying lesson that needs to be remembered is that mobilizing popular opinion is not the same as mobilizing voters. That was proven most painfully when Hillary Clinton won the popular vote but lost the Electoral College vote.
That same lesson played out with the Occupy Wall Street movement’s eventual loss of political influence. Their goals initially had more popular support than the Tea Party’s, but John Wellington Ennis, documentary filmmaker of PAY 2 PLAY, points out that the Occupy movement “viewed officeholders as courtesans for the corporate class” and hence rejected electoral politics, while “the Tea Party turned outrage at the government into electoral gains”, admittedly with the help of corporate money. The bottom line is that the Occupy Movement rejected working within the Democratic Party, while the Tea Party chose to work within the Republican Party, and take it over.
The call to abolish ICE can motivate the Democratic Party’s base, and even a significant portion of the independents, to turn out to vote in the fall. The proponents point out that a clear message of abolishing ICE is less murky and less definitive than simply arguing to reform ICE. There does seem to be fertile ground for believing that. According to a January 2018 poll by New Post-ABC, half of independents and 6 in 10 Democrats feel strongly that immigrants strengthen our country. That same poll found that more than half the country strongly opposes the idea of building a wall.
But politics is like a game of chess, in that a winner prepares for possible future moves by the opponent. The Republicans have already said they intend to use the abolish ICE campaign to mobilize their base. Vice President Mike Pence has said that abolishing ICE would lead to more human trafficking, violent crime and the proliferation of drugs and gangs. This is in direct reference to the ICE office of Homeland Security Investigations, which actually has more employees than the high profile ICE office of Enforcement and Removal Operations whose abhorrent behavior in separating children from their parents had lead its critics to call for abolishing ICE.
The HIS office pursues criminals and terrorists involved in drug trafficking, weapons smuggling, human trafficking, cybercrime, financial crimes and identity fraud. Eliminating this office is the Achilles heel of the abolish ICE campaign. How would anyone defend not pursuing criminal and terrorists? So while those championing the abolition of ICE begin their campaign by focusing on the abuses of ICE’s Enforcement and Removal Operations, the right-wing will focus on how the left supports dropping drug trafficking, weapons smuggling, human trafficking, etc. Pence’s response was just the first missive.
The bill being proposed by Rep. Jayapal would create a commission to look at transitioning some ICE functions to a new agency that would presumably include HIS’s work. This, in fact, is what 19 ICE investigators requested in a letter sent in June to Kirstjen Nielsen, the homeland security secretary. The investigators did not call for the abolition of ICE, as some claim, but rather for separating the investigations division from the immigration enforcement arm so that jurisdictions would no longer refuse to work with them because of the perceived connection to immigration enforcement, which had hindered their ability to investigate cases. But creating a commission would take time and the message of abolishing ICE ignores that subtle proposal. In other words, the campaign is immediately put on the defensive of trying to explain what they mean by abolishing ICE. Long explanations bore and confuse voters; it puts a candidate in a weak position to win an election.
The poll cited earlier supports the argument that a big campaign to abolish ICE could energize conservative voters more than liberal voters particularly if the Republicans accuse liberals, progressives and Democrats as being weak in protecting the public’s safety. The findings showed there is slightly more support than opposition to the federal crackdown on undocumented immigrants. Republicans broadly support the crackdown. Independents lean against it and while more than two-thirds of Democrats say that the crackdown is a bad thing, nearly a quarter say it’s good. I see these results pointing to greater motivation to support ICE’s enforcement activities from Trump supporters than motivation from the liberals to oppose them. The desire for safety from dangerous immigrants, unrealistic as it is given reliable statistics, is so great that 22 % of those who disapprove strongly of Trump’s job as president say that the crackdown on undocumented immigrants is a good thing. And that is based on just concerns about “undocumented” immigrants. The Republicans will focus on how investigations of those involved with drug trafficking, weapons smuggling, human trafficking, and cybercrime would be eliminated. It’s easy to project how a critical portion of the voting public will swing against a candidate that appears to eliminate this protection.
The moral high ground of protecting the welfare of immigrant families may quickly erode if one’s personal safety is being sacrificed. And that is exactly what the Abolish the ICE Campaign will discover in parts of the country that are not solidly liberal. The result could easily lead to both congressional chambers remaining under Republican control as a critical portion of independents and soft Democrats wish to minimize their public safety threat by retaining ICE’s enforcement against criminal elements.
A better approach in pursuing fair treatment of “undocumented” immigrants is to build on the proposal being made by the ICE investigators to separate the investigations division from the immigration enforcement arm. Remove it from ICE. That would lay bare ICE’s enforcement mechanism and avoid a convoluted explanation for defending ICE’s abolition or transformation into a new agency.
This is admittedly an incremental change, but a winnable one; and, one that opens the door for further changes. It puts the Republican’s on the defensive, because then they have to explain why these offices should not be separated, when ICE’s own officers are saying that the current arrangement endangers public safety.
Most importantly it improves the chances for the Democrats regaining control of one of the chambers.
Don’t aim for the sky without keeping your eye on the ball. It’s not a homerun, but it’s better than striking out. The strategy is to keep in the game.