There has been an increasing drumbeat from progressives arguing in favor of abolishing or defunding U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, for instance in a recent column for the Inquirer and during an interview with Sen. Kamala Harris (D., Calif.).
In essence, activists are arguing that ending ICE should be the position of the Democratic Party and a litmus test for its presidential candidates. This is a bad idea.
The focus on ICE is a distraction from the underlying issue: What should America’s immigration law be? The goal for people who want to protect illegal immigrants has to be to change the law to provide them with legal status. The proponents of ending ICE make no distinction between people who are in the United States legally and those who are not. U.S. immigration law, however, does.
ICE’s removals of immigrants who do not have legal status track the law as it exists: If you believe its actions are capricious and cruel, this is because of American immigration laws, not because of some institutional racism within ICE.
Americans largely do not support removing the estimated 11 million people who are in the United States illegally. But Congress has failed to come up with a legislative solution, essentially because congressional Republicans, now egged on by the president, have blocked bipartisan comprehensive immigration reforms.
In the absence of legislation, many illegal immigrants will be removed, often randomly. But the central fact is that ICE is simply the agency charged with carrying out an extremely unpleasant task that is necessarily deeply disruptive to communities.
Arguing for getting rid of ICE is arguing for unrestricted immigration, but in a misleading way. If you believe in having unrestricted immigration or that there should be no removals of any illegal immigrants, even if they have committed violent felonies, then make the argument directly. It is a bait-and-switch to focus on anecdotal ICE abuses to try to obtain policy commitments that mainstream Democrats and independents would not otherwise make or support.
Far from abandoning law enforcement, the Democratic Party should be a champion of responsible and accountable law enforcement and the rule of law, particularly when the Trump administration and its allies are attacking the independence and integrity of the FBI. Forcing Democrats to commit to not enforcing immigration laws would undermine their ability to hold the Trump administration accountable for its lawlessness.
We do not agree with everything ICE has done or does, and it’s clear abuses have occurred. Reforms are needed. But as long as there are restrictions on immigration, there must be an enforcement mechanism for immigration laws, if those laws are to mean anything.
Proponents of ending ICE do not address the profound effects of their position on U.S. border security. It is impossible to have a credible border security strategy without interior immigration enforcement. Trying to apprehend illegal crossers at the border, but letting anyone who gets past stay permanently, will just invite migrants to make the dangerous journey and pay human smugglers. Such a scenario will be a boon for the Mexican cartels and human smuggling organizations.
Of course, Democrats could only defund ICE with control of the White House and Congress. If Democrats obtain that power, defunding ICE, instead of addressing the underlying immigration law, would mean that ICE employees could be fired only to be hastily replaced whenever Republicans returned to power. This would have the paradoxical effect of making immigration enforcement during future Republican administrations much more problematic.
Making ICE a litmus test for Democratic candidates would be a political disaster for Democrats. The vast majority of Americans do not support unrestricted immigration. President Trump made political hay by accusing the Obama administration of allowing “open borders” at a time of record low apprehensions and the most effective border security regime in American history. Having the Democratic Party embrace open borders would actually fulfill the president’s previously baseless accusation.
ICE is not perfect, but abolishing it is not a solution to U.S. immigration problems. If you do not like what ICE is doing, change the law it enforces.
Nate Bruggeman and Ben Rohrbaugh are partners at BorderWorks Advisors LLC. They held senior policy positions at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and U.S. Customs and Border Protection. Rohrbaugh was also a director on the White House’s National Security Council.