Push to abolish ICE takes national spotlight

Protesters brave the cold on Dec. 7, 2017, to rally against a surge of immigration arrests being carried out in New York City courthouses. (Amanda Ottaway/Courthouse News Service)

MANHATTAN (CN) – Special agents in charge of most field offices run by Homeland Security Investigations now support eliminating Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

HSI is one of two subagencies within the department known as ICE, created 15 years ago under the umbrella of the Department of Homeland Security.

Reacting to the recent executive order on immigration by President Donald Trump, federal agents representing 19 of the country’s 26 HSI field offices have written a letter to Homeland Security Secretary Kristen Nielsen that recommends dissolving ICE altogether and spinning off HSI and another subagency, Enforcement Removal Operations.

Though the letter is undated, it was first published Thursday by the Texas Tribune as a movement dubbed #AbolishICE becomes increasingly embraced by the mainstream.

The hashtag first began circulating months ago among a handful of reporters and activists who gather weekly, organized by The Nation’s contributor Sean McElwee, at an East Village dive bar in New York City.

Describing himself as an “Overton Window Mover” on Twitter, McElwee’s handle now reads: “We’re going to abolish ICE.”

With breathtaking speed, the movement McElwee helped conceptualize enjoys the support of U.S. Senator Kirstin Gillibrand, four Democratic members of Congress, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio and a new generation of candidates who have adopted the message on their platforms.

“I don’t think ICE today is working as intended,” Gillibrand said in a statement. “I believe that it has become a deportation force. And I think that you should separate the criminal justice from the immigration issues and I think you should reimagine ICE under a new agency with a very different mission.”

Such ideas might have been politically impossible for a sitting senator to articulate before the extraordinary victory of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in New York’s Democratic primary. This past Tuesday, the Bronx-born 28-year-old defeated 10-term incumbent Congressman Joe Crowley, who was widely anticipated to replace Rep. Nancy Pelosi as Speaker of the House.

“We absolutely do need to make sure our borders are secure and have to make sure that people are safe in passage, but what we have to remember is that ICE was established in 2003, right at the same time as the Patriot Act, the AUMF, the Iraq War,” Ocasio-Cortez told CNN on Wednesday, using an abbreviation for the Authorization to Use Military Force. “And we look back at a lot of that time and legislation as a mistake now.”

While ICE started with a $3.3 billion budget, that figure ballooned to $6.1 billion in 2016.

The HSI special agents recommend spinning off their office to continue investigating national-security threats, child pornography and transnational crime, with deportations taking the focus at its sister agency, Enforcement and Removal Operations.

“HSI’s investigations have been perceived as targeting undocumented aliens, instead of the transnational criminal organizations that facilitate cross border crimes impacting our communities and national security,” the letter states. “Furthermore, the perception of HSI’s investigative independence is unnecessarily impacted by the political nature of ERO’s civil immigration enforcement. Many jurisdictions continue to refuse to work with HSI because of a perceived linkage to the politics of civil immigration.”

Immigration advocates want more than a rebranding, aiming to radically scale back a deportation force that has separated more than 2,300 parents and children under Trump’s family-separation regime.

“Extremist Democrat politicians have called for the complete elimination of ICE,” the president tweeted, the day before the idea was embraced by most of the agency’s leaders.

International backlash at the human rights abuses wrought by Trump’s “zero-tolerance” policy also has animated the movement. Two U.S. federal judges on separate coasts this week slammed immigration authorities for their treatment of families. Another pending lawsuit accuses immigration officials of forcibly injecting immigrant children with psychotropic drugs.

“Its extrajudicial nature is baked into the structure of the agency, and that is why they are able to get away with black sites on our border,” Ocasio-Cortez told CNN, invoking the history of CIA torture.

When pressed on the analogy, Ocasio-Cortez noted that even U.S. Congress members have been turned away from the sites.

Applauding Ocasio-Cortez’s victory, Mayor de Blasio echoed the young Democratic Socialist’s sentiments Friday morning on National Public Radio’s “The Brian Lehrer Show.”

“ICE’s time has come and gone,” de Blasio said. “It is broken. ICE has been sent on a very negative, divisive mission, and it cannot function the way that it is.”