In our political debate these days, no one is ever just “wrong.” No policy is ever just “bad.” Everything is an existential threat to our democracy. And anyone and everyone connected with the policy or agency needs to go.
Take the recent debate about people trying to enter the United States through the Mexican border and the deportation of undocumented immigrants presently living in the United States.
I should start by saying that I think that the policy of separating families at the border was truly draconian. I was heart-sick every time I saw a child crying for its mother.
And despite a court order, the Trump administration revealed that it deported 19 migrant parents whose children under age five remain in U.S. custody and then argued that it should not be required to reunite them. That is a practice more worthy of North Korea than the United States of America.
But, for a growing number of progressive Democrats, stopping or even changing the policy is not nearly enough. They want to eliminate the agency that has become the symbol of the Trump administration’s immigration policies – ICE.
Following the attacks on September 11, 2001, the Homeland Security Act of 2002 established the U.S. Immigration and Custom Enforcement (ICE) agency under the jurisdiction of the Department of Homeland Security. When it was formed, several existing agencies (e.g. Customs Service) were merged or absorbed by ICE. Today, the agency has more than 20,000 employees with over 400 offices in the United States and 46 other countries.
ICE has two primary functions. The investigations function includes arms, drug and human trafficking, transnational gangs, money laundering and internet child pornography among many other areas.
However, it is the enforcement and removal operations function that has become embroiled in controversy. This function includes the enforcement of the country’s immigration laws – including the arrest, detention, and removal of certain immigrants from the United States
Under President Obama, this division of ICE prioritized the removal of undocumented immigrants who had committed serious crimes in the United States. Under President Trump, the agency has been far more aggressive deporting some undocumented immigrants who have lived in the United States for decades without any significant law enforcement problems.
It is important to note that ICE is not the agency separating families at the Mexican border. That agency is Customs and Border Patrol which is responsible for patrolling and securing our borders with Mexico and Canada. Interestingly, no one has called for the abolition of that agency.
Local political response
Nationally, among the very first members of Congress to call for the elimination of ICE is Worcester’s-own Congressman Jim McGovern. Speaking at an event in Amherst, McGovern said that ICE was “ripping families apart” and that we need to “get rid of ICE.”
McGovern is not exactly sure what would replace ICE but he told me that there are other agencies including the FBI and the Department of Justice that do some of the same things. He is currently working with others on a bill that would create a commission to “explore how we might create new agencies.”
Noting that the department was much less of a problem under Obama, McGovern said that Trump had “weaponized ICE.”
By contrast, Massachusetts Congressman Michael E. Capuano does not want to eliminate or dismantle ICE.
Although he voted against the establishment of ICE in 2002, Capuano said that he was now focused on “stopping Donald Trump’s hateful policies of ripping families apart.” He noted that the policies put in place by the Trump administration were the real problem and not the agency enforcing the policies.
Giving Trump an opening
Until recently, Trump was getting clobbered in the court of public opinion for his heartless separation of children from their parents. Even many Republican office holders and about 40 percent of Republicans nationwide do not have the stomach for this approach.
But, the call to eliminate ICE has given President Trump a political argument to make that stirs up his base. And as he typically does, he is not afraid to lie and distort the facts to make his point.
On multiple occasions, Trump has delivered virtually the same message: “The Democrats want open borders and they don’t care about crime.”
Of course none of that is true.
Trump has expanded his message by falsely accusing Senator Kamala Harris D-California among others of “supporting the animals of MS-13” because she wants to abolish ICE and replace it with an entirely new agency.
But the more people I talk to, the more I realize that Trump’s lies are taking hold. Virtually every Trump supporter I engage in a conversation says that he supports Trump’s policies because he is against “open borders.”
In political terms, this means that some Democrats are taking a political gift – the disastrous policy of separating families and the images of crying children desperate to find their mothers – and changing the conversation to talk about ICE and open borders. Just a few months before the November mid-term elections that makes no sense whatsoever.
Many Republicans who were horrified by the images of children in cages are more than happy to go on the offensive against an open border policy.
Two solutions that will work
If someone is concerned about the operation of ICE, there are two ways to handle the problem. The first is through congressional action.
Congress could, as recommended by a number of ICE agents, separate the two primary functions of ICE into two separate agencies. In a letter to the Director of Homeland Security, agents from 19 of 26 ICE field offices worry that the investigations function is getting lost in the effort to enforce immigration laws.
Additionally, Congress could pass laws that guide immigration policy including how deportations are handled so that the policies more accurately reflect its will.
The second and more obvious solution is to change administrations. Under Obama there was criticism of ICE but nothing like what we have seen under Trump. That is because Trump has changed the policies he expects to be enforced. The agents of ICE are simply following the directives of his administration.
In my opinion, overly aggressive deportations and the separation of children from their parents is entirely Donald Trump’s fault. We need to place the blame squarely where it belongs. What good is winning the battle to reform ICE if it lessens your chance of winning the war and taking control of Congress?
Once Democrats are back in control of the Congress, we can discuss sensible reforms to ICE – stay focused.