Donald Trump

Calls to Abolish ICE Gain Momentum as General Election Nears

ICE started operating in March 2003 as an agency working under the Department of Homeland Security

What to Know

  • Experts have said they don't think abolishing ICE would have a major impact unless immigration detention centers were shut down as well.
  • Republicans have opposed the growing calls to eliminate ICE, claiming Democrats supporting the idea seek open borders.
  • ICE prioritizes immigration enforcement, preventing terrorism and ending the illegal movement of people and trade.

A Wisconsin congressman this week introduced legislation to abolish the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency in a demand for change that has become a campaign cry for some Democrats this primary season.

U.S. Rep. Mark Pocan (D-Wisc.) introduced the bill following a trip to the southern U.S. border, where he noticed the “cruel, inhumane and un-American policies taking place at the border that are now a direct result of actions by [President] Donald Trump.”

Though the proposal to eliminate ICE is gaining momentum among incumbent and running Democrats, some immigration experts caution that abolishing ICE wouldn't have a significant impact unless immigration detention centers were also abolished. They say that it's not time to abolish ICE, but it's time for ICE to change its approach to the way it treats migrants.

ICE didn’t respond to NBC’s request for comment.

“It is extremely unlikely that Congress will abolish ICE, especially since the Republicans control both the House and the Senate,” said Stephen Yale-Loehr, a professor of immigration law practice at Cornell. “Moreover, even if the Democrats take control of Congress in November, the chances of abolishing ICE are slim to none. Every agency has to have an enforcement branch; immigration is no exception.”

Pocan’s bill would create a commission to evaluate ICE's "essential functions." The proposed legislation, still in its early stages, came days after Trump signed an executive order ending family separation at the U.S. border.

Pocan and others argue that the agency isn't capable of accomplishing the goals set by the Trump administration.

Reps. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.) and Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.) are among the congressmen who have joined Pocan in expressing a desire to abolish the immigration agency. New York congressional candidate Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has also called for ICE to be abolished.

At least fifteen congressional candidates are interested in de-funding or abolishing ICE, according to NBC News.

Republicans have opposed the calls to eliminate ICE, claiming Democrats supporting the idea seek open borders. But Pocan said that isn’t the case, because ICE isn’t the the only agency tasked with working along the U.S. border. U.S. Customs and Border Patrol is among those that do.

Angelica Chazaro, a professor at the University of Washington’s law school specializing in immigration, said calls for the dissolution of the agency have been a recurring theme.

Activist and The Nation contributor Sean McElwee said terminating the agency might force other organizations to be restructured but that the plan is feasible. ICE is responsible for enforcing employer sanctions and investigating human trafficking in addition to interior enforcement.

“It [would solve] the problem of an unaccountable, ethnic-cleansing tax force trying to create a white ethnostate through violence,” McElwee said. “ICE is targeting people who don’t have criminal violations. It is increasingly clear the agency is not trying to make us more secure.”

ICE started operating in March 2003 under the Department of Homeland Security, which was established by the Homeland Security Act after the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.

ICE prioritizes immigration enforcement, preventing terrorism and ending the illegal movement of people and trade, according to the federal agency's official mission statement.

In a letter last week, 19 ICE special agents urged the U.S. Homeland Security Secretary to enable them to work under a different agency, according to The Texas Observer. The agents wrote they have “been perceived as targeting undocumented aliens.”

ICE was thrust into the spotlight as the Trump administration was criticized for its “zero tolerance” immigration policy that initially separated kids and their parents at the U.S. border. After Trump signed an executive order to keep families together, adults illegally crossing the border could still be prosecuted.

Pocan told NBC the images from detention centers depict ICE in a light that it won’t be able to escape.

“We’ve taken care of a public relations problem, not the problem,” Pocan said. “We’re going to have 5-year-olds in cages, they’re just going to be with their mothers. [The executive order] hasn’t solved what’s going to exist.”

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