Calls to abolish the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency didn’t begin with the recent family separation and detention crisis, but the cry has increased in volume in the last few weeks among activists, congressional candidates, and current representatives, mayors, and senators. On Thursday, Democrats in the House of Representatives proposed a bill that will establish a task force to recommend a new “humane” agency to replace ICE.
The 15-year-old agency has garnered a troubled history of overreach and abuse, and has become a symbol for our fractious debate over immigration. A June report by the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Inspector General found the agency to be noncompliant with detention standards, while complaints data obtained by the news site the Intercept exhibit a troubling pattern of sexual abuse in detention centers. Most disturbing, 27 immigrants have died in ICE custody since 2015, according to the American Immigration Lawyers Association.
Given this history, hard scrutiny of ICE, if not its elimination, may be justified. But it is not clear what the American immigration system without ICE looks like. It is also not clear if those calling to abolish ICE have a coherent and unified vision for what should take its place.
ICE was created as part of an overhaul of the national security apparatus that was led by panic, fear, and confusion in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. Prior to ICE, all immigration functions were under the umbrella of the Immigration and Naturalization Service. When the Department of Homeland Security was established in 2003, the various functions of INS were distributed among new agencies. ICE was entrusted with enforcing federal immigration law inside the United States. Having an agency that is so focused on the detention and removal of immigrants further framed immigration as a criminal issue. In the 15 years since, that criminalization mind-set remains, cemented by the election of Donald Trump, who began stoking fears about those from other countries.
But we can’t know what ICE or any alternative must do until we figure out what our long-term and coherent vision for immigration is.
While the focus on ICE has brought attention to some of the most problematic elements of our immigration system, calling for its removal is also a way to avoid the bigger question: What should the immigration policy of the United States in the 21st century be? Abolishing ICE is a procedural step toward reform and not the reform itself. The harder decisions — how secure we want our borders to be, whether there should be a pathway to citizenship and what that looks like, and how to make our system of processing asylum-seekers more humane and efficient — still confront us. For now, abolishing ICE remains a rallying cry, not a vision.