After all the stories and viral videos — the screaming mom dragged away from her horrified young children, the 10-year-old with cerebral palsy who got busted in her ambulance after emergency surgery, the pillars of their local communities who showed for a routine check-up and ended up in detention, the stepped-up raids, and all the arrests in courtrooms, outside schoolhouse doors, and behind churches — Americans are right to wonder if our out-of-control immigration cops have any limits at all.
Amazingly, they do. When it came out a couple of weeks ago that Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) was on the brink of deporting the wife of an Army Special Forces veteran — planning to send her back to Honduras, where drug dealers might seek violent revenge for her husband's past drug-interdiction work there with the U.S. military — the public outcry was so great that even this tone-deaf federal agency backed down, for once.
Before the Trump administration took office in January 2016, the notion that military wife Elia Crawford would be deported by the United States would have been a total non-starter. Attorneys with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security used to routinely find ways to keep military spouses and family members in the country — one of a hodge-podge of practices that, although wildly imperfect, sought to bring some common sense to America's muddled immigration policy. But then our treatment of the undocumented and their family members, backsliding in many ways now for two decades, fell off a moral cliff with the arrival of Trump and his minions. That means it's now typically full-steam ahead for any and all deportation orders, regardless of who gets hurt.
The conduct of ICE and its first cousin, the Border Patrol, has been arguably the darkest moral stain on the sometimes comical but too often diabolical Trump era. And yet these one-off individual outrages — the Indonesian who led Superstorm Sandy rebuilding efforts who took refuge in a church to avoid ICE, or Philadelphia's Carmelo Apolonio Hernandez, the mother of four that ICE wants to send back to the Mexican town where her relatives were killed by drug lords — have a hard time breaking through the bubble, amid the mass chaos of our 45th president. But now we have actual numbers to tell the sorry state of our current Deportation Nation.
In the first year of Trump's presidency, we now know, immigration arrests and detentions spiked by a whopping one-third over 2016 — proof that the president has kept has his campaign promise for a "deportation force," merely by "taking the shackles off" the ready and willing team he already had in place, ICE. What's more, the biggest driver of this increase has been the seizure of undocumented immigrants with no criminal record, which has doubled under the Trump administration.
Those are the grim numbers behind a human rights catastrophe of families ripped apart and entire communities in our country now infected by fear, afraid to drive their kids to school or testify against those who actually are criminals. We've done a decent job in America teaching our kids about the inhumane nightmares of the recent past, to adopt a mantra, "Never again." But the not-so-secret-police-force called ICE that operates with an almost mechanical heartlessness within our borders is what "again" looks like, here in America, in 2018.
It's time to say, "Enough!"
America had survived, magically, for 226 years without ICE, and also with a much, much lower level of deportations, and the cruel and counter-productive program carried our by our current deportation force is exactly what critics predicted and feared when this agency was created in 2002, from the ashes of 9/11. Yet in just 16 years, a domestic deportation army has become so entrenched that proposing to abolish ICE, as some are now beginning to do, seems a radical, out-of-bounds idea. It's not. It's the radical idea we need to be talking about to save America's soul before it gets too late. This conversation is a starting point for electing a new government that will rethink the way we treat undocumented immigration. And the best way to make that break is to abolish ICE.
In 2002, Bill Ong Hing, immigration attorney and now professor at the University of San Francisco School of Law, tried to warn Congress that the creation of ICE was a terrible idea, that linking immigration enforcement to the rapidly expanding "war on terror" would create a "monster" agency so focused on deportation that it would scuttle hopes for sensible or humane immigration policies. Since then, he's watched his dire warnings come true.
Hing told me by phone this week that it was clear "if you put everything under something called the Department of Homeland Security in reaction to 9/11, then immigration — the immigration process, the immigration system — would all be viewed through the message of 'national security.'" Indeed, the first DHS secretary Tom Ridge, the former Pennsylvania governor, believed America would be "safer" with 100 percent deportation.
This radical shift in attitude didn't happen overnight, though — and it's important to note that craven vote-seeking and sometimes talk-radio driven policies by leaders of both major political parties are to blame for the stunning rise in deportations that began in 1996, with a push from a Democratic president turning right as he ran for re-election, Bill Clinton. It was Clinton working with a GOP-led Congress who expanded the roster of deportable crimes, Republican George W. Bush who weaponized ICE in a trumped-up "war on terror" and Democrat Barack Obama who got tagged as "deporter-in-chief" for inconsistent policies that allowed both detentions — which now included a growing gulag of for-profit private detention centers — and deportations to fester deep into the 2010s.
Still, it was Obama who — frustrated by gridlock in Congress, using the controversial tools of executive fiat — took steps toward implanting some common sense in our out-of-whack immigration structure. That included DACA — the program that protects younger "Dreamers" brought to America by their parent — but also memos by his immigration chief John Morton that prioritized deporting immigrants tied to serious crimes, while others among that vast majority of undocumented who were obeying the law and contribute to our economy were allowed to simply check-in with immigration officers. Under Trump, scores of good people have shown up for check-ins — and not returned home.
That's because the legal framework for an immigration police state, led by a president elected largely on a xenophobic screed and chants of "Build the Wall," remained in place. With its proverbial gloves now off, ICE has become a rogue agency that not only has virtually no boundaries for whom it rounds up, detains and sends back to sometimes life-threatening scenarios, but is increasingly accountable to no one. Acting ICE chief Thomas Homan has now threatened to arrest the duly elected mayors of so-called sanctuary cities who've taken steps to protect their immigrant communities. Activists who've criticized ICE have been detained.
This week, the civil servant serving as a spokesman for ICE in California quit his job rather than follow an order from higher-ups to lie to the media in an effort to claim California elected officials had thwarted a recent raid. We need more people — both leaders and everyday citizens — who will take on ICE. Some are getting the message.
"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," Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, an upstart Democrat running for Congress in New York's the Bronx told the Nation magazine.
Hing — although understandably dubious that ICE can easily be abolished at this point — does want a radically different worldview where immigrants are "put into the system rather than putting them out," that doesn't unduly punish human beings "who aren't hurting anyone."
He's absolutely right. Look, ICE won't be abolished with this president and this Congress, and this idea will be a tough sell even with a hoped-for radically different U.S. government in 2021. And of course we need enforcement mechanisms like those we had in place prior to the mid-1990s to deal with serious felons who are undocumented immigrants, and related risks.
But what starting the debate about abolishing ICE accomplishes right now, in 2018, is moving the so-called Overton window of political discourse, back toward an immigration policy becomes rooted in what's best about America, our compassion, and in restoring our relinquished role as a beacon to the world's desperate people. Until we get back to that place, ICE remains the slippery slope to the America we thought could never happen here.