Dan Canon is running for Congress in Indiana’s ninth district this year. A career civil-rights lawyer, Canon filed one of the cases against gay-marriage bans that eventually became the landmark Obergefell v. Hodges, and he proudly wore a Notorious RBG shirt under his suit to the Supreme Court. He is currently representing individuals suing Donald Trump for inciting violence at his rallies.
Canon has also defended clients swept up by Immigration and Customs Enforcement raids, and fought a Kafkaesque deportation system that, at one point, wouldn’t even disclose the location of his client. Now Canon believes ICE should be abolished entirely.
“I don’t think a lot of people have any kind of direct experience with ICE, so they don’t really know what they do or what they’re about. If they did, they’d be appalled,” Canon told me. “ICE as it presently exists is an agency devoted almost solely to cruelly and wantonly breaking up families. The agency talks about, and treats, human beings like they’re animals. They scoop up people in their apartments or their workplaces and take them miles away from their spouses and children.”
The idea of defunding ICE has gained traction among immigrant-rights groups horrified by the speed at which, under President Donald Trump, the agency has ramped up an already brutal deportation process. Mary Small, policy director at Detention Watch Network, said, “Responsible policymakers need to be honest about the fact that the core of the agency is broken.” Her group led the charge to defund ICE with its #DefundHate campaign last year.
Groups like Indivisible Project and the Center for Popular Democracy have also called for defunding ICE. Brand New Congress, a progressive PAC, has the proposal in its immigration platform.
“ICE is terrorizing American communities right now,” said Angel Padilla, policy director of the Indivisible Project. “They’re going into schools, entering hospitals, conducting massive raids, and separating children from parents every day. We are funding those activities, and we need to use all the leverage we have to stop it.”
Though ICE abolition is spreading on the left, it quickly meets extreme skepticism elsewhere. In part, this is because the mainstream political discourse has a huge blind spot for the agency’s increasingly brutal policies. While elites have generally become concerned with rising authoritarianism, they have mainly ignored the purges ICE is conducting in immigrant communities. For example, in their recent book, How Democracies Die, Daniel Ziblatt and Steven Levitsky do not mention ICE at all. Centrist pundits like Jonathan Chait have dedicated thousands of words to the threat of “PC culture” on college campuses, but haven’t found time to question whether an opaque and racist deportation force might pose a larger threat to democracy than campus editorial pages.
Others tend to dismiss ICE abolition as more of a troll than a serious policy demand. Josh Barro, a senior editor at Business Insider, argued that progressives have not paired the proposal with “a plan to do the function without the hated agency.”
But the goal of abolishing the agency is to abolish the function. ICE has become a genuine threat to democracy, and it is destroying thousands of lives. Moreover, abolishing it would only take us back to 2003, when the agency was first formed.
ICE was a direct product of the post–September 11 panic culture, and was created in the legislation Congress passed in the wake of the attacks. From the start, the agency was paired with the brand-new Department of Homeland Security’s increased surveillance of communities of color and immigrant communities. By putting ICE under the scope of DHS, the government framed immigration as a national security issue rather than an issue of community development, diversity or human rights.
That’s not to say America’s deportation policies only got bad in 2003, nor that it hasn’t been a bipartisan project. When he was a senior advisor to then-President Bill Clinton, Rahm Emanuel wrote that Clinton should work to “claim and achieve record deportations of criminal aliens.” When Republicans gave Clinton the chance to do this with the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996, he jumped at it.
IIRIRA set up the legal infrastructure for mass deportations and expanded the number of crimes considered deportable. Clinton’s blessing also harshened the political atmosphere around immigration. As recently as 2006, Democrats still explicitly used anti-immigrant sentiment as a campaign tactic. During his failed Tennessee Senate run, Harold Ford Jr. ran ads warning that “Every day almost 2,000 people enter America illegally. Every day hundreds of employers look the other way, handing out jobs that keep illegals coming. And every day the rest of us pay the price.”
Even Barack Obama, while he made pains to distinguish between “good” and “bad” immigrants, presided over aggressive deportation tactics in his first term in order to build support for a path to citizenship that never came.
The central assumption of ICE in 2018 is that any undocumented immigrant is inherently a threat. In that way, ICE’s tactics are philosophically aligned with racist thinkers like Richard Spencer and the writers at the white-supremacist journal VDare. ICE’s modus operandi under Trump bears a striking resemblance to the strategy proposed by white supremacist Jared Taylor in 2015:
The key, however, would be a few well publicized raids on non-criminal illegals. Television images of Mexican families dropped over the border with no more than they could carry would be very powerful. The vast majority of illegals would quickly decide to get their affairs in order and choose their own day of departure rather than wait for ICE to choose it for them. The main thing would be to convince illegals that ICE was serious about kicking them out. Ironically, the more ICE was prepared to do, the less it would have to do.
This is a near-perfect summary of ICE under acting director Thomas Homan, who has repeatedly made clear that all undocumented residents should be afraid of his agents. “You should look over your shoulder, and you need to be worried,” he boasted in Senate testimony last year.
Homan does not apply any light touch when expressing his authoritarian tendencies. He has threatened to jail and prosecute local officials in so-called “sanctuary cities” that do not fully comply with ICE mandates. The agency has also clearly been targeting political opponents for deportations and has worked to deport individuals for speaking to media about ICE.
Homan’s authoritarian saber rattling has essentially been ignored in the mainstream political dialogue, but the candidates and activists I spoke with hear it loud and clear. So do the communities they represent.
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who is challenging Joe Crowley in New York’s 14th Congressional District, which covers part of the Bronx and Queens, told me she believes that “After a long and protracted history of sexual assault and uninvestigated deaths in ICE’s detention facilities, as well as the corrosive impact ICE has had on our schools, courts, and communities, it’s time to reset course.”
New York’s 14th district is among the most diverse and immigrant-heavy in the country. Ocasio-Cortez not only supports defunding ICE, but also wants a full congressional inquiry into ICE enforcement and detention practices. She further argues for a “a truth and reconciliation process for victims of any potential sexual assault, neglect, and misconduct discovered as a result.”