Here's How The #AbolishICE Movement Really Got Started

Photo: Erik McGregor/Pacific Press/LightRocket/Getty Images.
The progressive rallying cry #AbolishICE has gained steam in recent months. The campaign, which pushes for the elimination of the U.S. Immigration Custody and Enforcement (ICE) agency, seems to be born out of the backlash against the administration in light of its zero-tolerance policy, which led to the separation of thousands of migrant families at the U.S.-Mexico border, and the increased attention on the detention and deportation of immigrants.
On social media, the movement has lived under the hashtags #AbolishICE, #DefundICE, #ShutDownICE, #Not1More, and other variations. But the truth is that the idea of eliminating the controversial agency long predates the Trump era.
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"The demand to abolish ICE has existed almost since the beginning of ICE," Ana Maria Archila, co-executive director of the Center for Popular Democracy, told Refinery29. "Since its creation, there were organizations that were saying that the inclusion of ICE as an agency that is designed specifically to separate families, put people in detention, to deport them is a dangerous development in the way we as a country relate to migration."
ICE is a relatively new agency. It falls under the purview of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), which was was created 15 years ago as a response to the Sept. 11 attacks. Prior to 2003, the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) handled all aspects of immigration in the U.S. — legal immigration, border security, and enforcement related to unauthorized immigrants. But DHS took over the INS' responsibilities and three new agencies were created under it to deal with the federal immigration bureaucracy: ICE, which handles immigration enforcement in the interior; the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), in charge of legal immigration; and Customs and Border Protection (CBP), which deals with the border.
For many advocates, ICE has long served as an unrestrained collection of SWAT teams that terrorize communities of color and has a well-recorded history of human rights abuses. For example, a recent report found more than 1,200 sexual abuse complaints from people in ICE custody, with half of the alleged perpetrators being ICE officers. And pregnant women who have been in ICE detention centers have alleged they were denied medical care, even when experiencing a miscarriage; have been shackled around the stomach when being transported; and have been physically and emotionally abused.
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Archila said that organizations that worked with immigrants at the Southern border and with the Muslim community were the first to push back against this new itineration of the enforcement apparatus. But it wasn't until the Obama administration that the idea of eliminating ICE began to take hold among the mainstream immigrants' rights movement, thanks to the work of organizations such as Mijente, Detention Watch Network, United We Dream, and more.
"When it was clear that Obama was going to do only enforcement and not legalization, a lot of the energy shifted towards highlighting the brutality of immigration enforcement," she said.
During his time in office, President Barack Obama earned the nickname "deporter-in-chief" for the way he expanded and solidified the power of ICE, leading to the deportations of millions. But despite his aggressive policies, most liberals ignored ICE's growing power and focused on Obama's effort to create a path to legalization for young undocumented immigrants and their families.
Until President Trump was elected, that is. The Republican's hardline immigration agenda and dog whistling has forced many to reexamine what type of role ICE is playing in the context of unauthorized immigration. Under Trump, the agency has increased the number of arrests of undocumented immigrants, even those with no prior criminal record. And among those deported are immigrants who have lived in the U.S. for decades and posed no threat to the country.
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It's not surprising that, in light of the horror of the border crisis and amplified by progressive activists outside of the immigrants' rights movement, the idea of abolishing ICE has taken hold in the Trump era.
"The Trump regime I think really exposed to the rest of the country what we knew, which is that the rules of enforcing migration are designed to separate families," Archila said. "The extent of Trump’s kind of shameless use of the immigration enforcement machine and the Department of Justice's power to change the rules around how migration is criminalized made it so much more evident that this is entire system is one employed to advance white nationalism."
Though there's a push to dismantle the agency, there are still several ideas of what #AbolishICE should look like in real life. For example, a group of DHS special agents recommended breaking up ICE and reorganizing it in a letter to Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen. Candidates such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez support defunding the agency, opening a full congressional inquiry into its practices, and replacing ICE with a "humane" agency. Several Democrats in Congress have been open to the idea to creating a bill to eliminate the agency and look for replacement options.
But Archila cautioned that there are risks if Democrats and progressives can't come together to define #AbolishICE into policy.
"It's important for us to seize the opportunity to provide a vision. It's dangerous when this is reduced to a hashtag, because hashtags are by definition reductive and simplistic," she said. "The danger right now is that because Democrats have been so scared of pushing back against the inhumane immigration enforcement rules and systems, they're immediately saying these things and running away from them almost immediately. When they do that, the danger is that the right wing will define what 'abolish ICE' means."
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Archila also pointed out the misinformation being spread by conservatives: that abolishing the agency means automatic open borders or allowing MS-13 to run rampant in communities. That's a far cry from what advocates want to accomplish.
"[Abolishing ICE] means no more collaboration by localities and states with anything that results on the deportation of people. It means making sure that there's criminal justice reform so people don't end up in the deportation pipeline," she said.
For advocates like Archila, what the movement to abolish ICE — or more generally, reform the U.S. immigration system — boils down to is having a structure in place that treats immigration as an issue separate from criminal justice and that takes into account the humanity of migrants, regardless of their status.
"When people see the images of children in cages, the vast majority of country is saying, 'I can’t believe this is who we are.' But this is who we are. This is who we’ve been. What's new is the level of cruelty, but the system is not," she said.
She added: "Now that we’ve seen the images of children sleeping in the floor in cages and we’ve heard the cries of children waiting to be reunited with their parents, we can't forget. In the midst of all these discussions — what abolish ICE means, who owns that, where does it come from — the most important thing is to remember that while this is the reality of this country, it's up to us to build a different society."
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