New York gubernatorial candidate Cynthia Nixon made herself clear this week: She believes it's time to eliminate the U.S. Immigration Customs Enforcement (ICE), the federal law enforcement agency in charge of arresting and deporting immigrants.
“ICE has strayed so far away from its mission. It is supposed to be here to keep Americans safe but what it has turned into, frankly, is a terrorist organization of its own that is terrorizing people who are coming to this country,” Nixon told an Upper West Side church on Thursday. The church is providing sanctuary to undocumented immigrant Debora Vasquez-Barrios, a Guatemalan mom who ICE wants to deport over a 2011 traffic violation.
Eliminating the agency is part of the platform of candidates such as NY-14 candidate Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez , FL-27 candidate Matt Haggman, and NM-1 candidate Deb Haaland. And calls come from beyond the political scene: Just take a look at how Twitter and even comedian Samantha Bee has jumped on the abolish ICE train.
But, how did we get here?
ICE didn't exist until 2003. The Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS), which was created in 1933, handled immigration in the U.S — including overseeing legal immigration, border enforcement, and the handling of undocumented immigrants.
But after the Sept. 11 attacks and the creation of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), the system changed. DHS was now in charge of immigration and three new agencies were created under it: ICE, the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), and Customs and Border Protection (CBP). Each now handle a different aspect of the federal immigration bureaucracy, with ICE being in charge of handling arrests and deportations of unauthorized immigrants.
The creation of ICE inevitably led to more deportations, while INS didn't have as many resources to do in the past. Now, undocumented immigrants with no criminal record are at risk of deportation just because they were unauthorized in the United States. ICE, on itself, was a game changer.
It's not a surprise then that President Barack Obama was able to really utilize the young agency, earning him the nickname of "deporter-in-chief." But despite the tireless work of immigration advocates, who pushed against Obama's aggressive policies and said that he was not off the hook just because he wanted to create a path to legalization for just young undocumented immigrants, most liberals and progressives didn't really paid attention to ICE.
Enter President Donald Trump. His hardline immigration agenda, combined with his dog whistling, have made many people reexamine the role of ICE in the context of unauthorized immigration. The agency has increased the number of arrests of undocumented immigrants under the Trump administration, even those who have no prior criminal record. Some of those deported have lived in the country for decades and presented no threat to the United States.
The position has still not gotten hold among more mainstream Democrats, however. For example, former White House Domestic Policy Council Cecilia Muñoz, who served under Obama, told Slate last month that abolishing the agency is not realistic.
"If we want to protect immigrants, if we want to protect our values, if we want to have an immigration system that functions and is rational, then I think we need to be willing to address how do we think immigration enforcement should be conducted, what’s a way to do that, that actually values people’s lives and their civil rights," she said. "The abolish ICE argument doesn’t touch those questions, and I think that’s a mistake."
Sen. Kamala Harris, a potential presidential contender in 2020, also rejected idea during an interview earlier this year. As a former prosecutor, the California Democrat said that she believes people who commit "serious and violent crimes" needs to face consequences and the same principle applies to undocumented immigrants, who she believes should be deported if they commit those types of crimes. Therefore, she said, "ICE has a purpose, ICE has a role, ICE should exist."
An alternative to eliminating the agency altogether is cutting its funding, advocates say. For example, the campaign #DefundHate proposes "cutting off the flow of money that allows the Department of Homeland Security to deport and detain our community members."
For Ocasio-Cortez, one of the first candidates this election cycle to make abolishing ICE a part of her platform, it boils down to a moral stance Democrats should take.
"The fact that our campaign has led the nation in the call to abolish ICE is an example of the clear and ambitious leadership that we hope voters choose in deciding the future of the Democratic Party," she told Refinery29.
The question now is whether voters will take progressives up on the idea.