Abolish ICE? If You Do, It’ll Just Be Replaced By Another Agency

Some activists on the left are calling for Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to be abolished. While that may be a great sound bite, it doesn't really accomplish anything.

In response to the continuing controversy over the Trump Administration’s “zero tolerance” policy toward migrants coming across the border with Mexico and the separation of families that resulted from that policy until the Administration abruptly purported to end the separation of families, some activists on the left are calling for abolishing Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), the agency charged among other things with enforcing the nation’s border walls, but most Democratic politicians aren’t there yet especially since the entire idea seems foolish and ill-informed:

Toward the end of his speech to Nevada Republicans on Saturday, President Trump issued a warning: Democrats were working to abolish Immigration and Customs and Enforcement, or ICE.

“They want to get rid of ICE!” the president said. “Our ICE people are so tough. They’re so much tougher than the MS-13 people.”

On Sunday morning, CNN’s Jake Tapper put the question to Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.): Did the senator, a democratic socialist and 2016 presidential candidate, the most prominent left-wing politician in the country, want to abolish ICE?

“I think what we need is to create policies which deal with immigration in a rational way,” Sanders said, evading the topic of ICE itself.

The stories of undocumented immigrant families being separated have unified Democrats, with dozens of party leaders and candidates fanning out to attack the Trump administration’s border policy. But the abolition of ICE, which has become a defining issue in some Democratic primaries, has not broken through to the party’s leading figures.

The argument, carried out online and in campaign forums, is about how to win a larger debate about immigration. Although Democratic leaders are confident in attacking Trump administration policies, they want to focus on legislation clarifying and curtailing immigration enforcement — and believe that voters want the same.

“Look, ICE is bad, but what allows abuses of ICE is a lack of reform in our immigration system,” Rep. Luis V. Gutiérrez (D-Ill.) said in a recent interview. “I don’t have to fear ICE if I’m documented.”

Supporters of “abolish ICE,” which grew quickly from a hashtag to the chant that followed Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen out of a D.C. restaurant this past week, want more. They argue that questioning the legitimacy of ICE, which was created 15 years ago as part of a post-9/11 government reorganization, gives the left a stronger position in any immigration negotiation.

Ideally, they want ICE to be shut down, just as some conservative activists want to shut down the Internal Revenue Service. Failing that, they want a debate on immigration that questions everything that’s being done to enforce the law

“My read is that ‘Abolish ICE’ is the demand, and defunding ICE is the mechanism to do that,” said Sean McElwee, co-founder of Data for Progress, who coined “Abolish ICE” as a hashtag in February 2017. “In the interim, the movement has largely succeeded in making detention beds and increased funding in omnibus toxic, [and] putting incumbent Democrats on blast.”

For critics, the case against ICE is simple. For most of American history, there was no federal agency tasked with enforcing immigration law within the United States. From 1933 to 2003, enforcement was one task of the office of Immigration and Naturalization Service, but the INS was more focused on controlling immigration at official points of entry.


The first candidates to call for an end to ICE emerged this spring. Dan Canon, a Democrat running in Indiana’s 9th Congressional District, told McElwee in a March interview for the Nation that “ICE as it presently exists is an agency devoted almost solely to cruelly and wantonly breaking up families.” Justice Democrats, a group founded to organize and fund insurgent candidates, endorsed both the “abolish ICE” campaign and the candidates who embraced it, which in April included Randy Bryce, a labor organizer running to replace House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.).

On June 12, the “abolish ICE” campaign scored its first real victory when Debra Haaland, one of two anti-ICE candidates in New Mexico’s 1st Congressional District, won the Democratic primary. Last week, New York gubernatorial candidate Cynthia Nixon called ICE a “terrorist organization” and joined the call for abolition.

On June 26, the campaign will be put to a high-profile electoral test when Crowley faces Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in the primary for New York’s 14th Congressional District. Ocasio-Cortez, making her first run for office, had made “abolish ICE” a centerpiece of her campaign, with bilingual ”Abolish ICE/Elimina Ice” posters appearing in shop windows across Queens and the Bronx.

In two debates with Crowley, the longtime Democratic congressman has never defended ICE. On the trail, he has accused ICE of “fascist” behavior; in a debate broadcast last week on NY1, Ocasio-Cortez said that he had not followed that logic to its conclusion.

“If this organization is as fascist as you’ve called it, then why don’t you adopt the stance to eliminate it?” she asked. “This is a moral problem, and your problem is to apply more paperwork to it.”

On the surface, I suppose it’s understandable why people who are fundamentally opposed to the Administration’s policies are lashing out against the agency charged with enforcing it. In some sense, it’s similar to the arguments that conservatives make when it comes to agencies such as the Internal Revenue Service or the Transportation Security Administration. They see a policy that they find objectionable, and which may indeed be unconstitutional or in violation of Federal law, and they are lashing out at the most easily available target. It’s also the kind of position that makes for great campaign and fundraising fodder, which is why we’re seeing candidates for office on the left are adopting it. In the end, though, it’s really nothing more than the same kind of empty slogan that “Abolish the IRS” or something similar from the right is, and it’s not going to accomplish anything useful.

Even if ICE were abolished tomorrow, the policies and laws that it is charged with enforcing will remain on the books. This means that it will just end up being replaced by some other alphabet soup agency that will be enforcing the same laws and policies. In many respects, I agree with the objections that many of these activists have voiced regarding how ICE has been operating, especially since Donald Trump became President. However, abolishing a government agency, assuming that it’s even possible, isn’t going to accomplish anything of substance. As I’ve told my conservative friends who talk about abolishing government agencies that they don’t like, the only way to actually solve the problems they are complaining about would be to win elections and get into a position where you can change the laws that ICE is enforcing. Otherwise, you’re just wasting your time.

It’s worth noting, of course, that in some sense these calls to “Abolish ICE” are as foolish as the calls form the right to “Abolish the IRS” because they ignore the simple reality that the laws that make these agencies are necessary aren’t going away. In the case of ICE, there is always going to be a need for some agency charged with the responsibility of enforcing our immigration and customs laws at the border and at international airports. Whether it’s called ICE, the INS, or whatever it might be, that agency is going to still exist. The same goes for the laws charged with collecting revenue owed to the Federal Government. These calls for abolition may make for great politics for the base, but they don’t accomplish anything useful at all.

FILED UNDER: Borders and Immigration, Congress, Law and the Courts, US Politics, , ,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010. Before joining OTB, he wrote at Below The BeltwayThe Liberty Papers, and United Liberty Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook


  1. Michael Reynolds says:

    The laws may not change, but the culture of the agency enforcing those laws can and should. The only thing naive about the idea of eliminating ICE is that at present it would only allow Trump to create a new corps of brown shirts. But when the orange stain is wiped from the White House we should clean house on all of Vichy America.

  2. J R in WV says:

    I understand that we will need an enforcement tool for immigration law. That doesn’t mean we should have a fascist group willing to be brutal and violent towards all people, willing and anxious to, for example, arrest a Canadian tourist who jogged over that international border on the beach, for two weeks imprisoned for not having a GPS unit on her wrist in an area with no signs marking the international border.

    Or entering a bus and harassing passengers to show their papers. Or setting up a road block on a Maine Interstate highway. None of that action is even very bright, and I doubt it makes us safer in our beds. Those managers and “officers” should be fired for being stupid and failing to follow the laws and standard practices of American life.

  3. JKB says:

    @Michael Reynolds: the culture of the agency enforcing those laws can and should.

    You mean the culture of government agents and employees following the authorizing laws and enforcing the laws they are tasked with enforcing?

    It is the culture of the federal bureaucrats to ignore federal regulations compliance while prosecuting the unconnected for the same violations. They will even trend toward violating federal statutes. That, of course, has risk if the popular demand turns to looking for the scapegoat. Then the politicians who pressured non-compliance look for someone to hang.

    ICE agents and officers could not, not enforce the statutes passed by Congress governing immigration. The issue is to hot. This whole kerfuffle was about forcing people to face the reality of those laws as written. It also shifted any blame for future non-enforcement. Just as the injunctions shifted the blame from any terrorist acts by people from the “Muslim ban” countries.

    Whether you like it or not, Trump is trying to faithfully executed the laws of the United States. Problem is, many on both sides don’t want that. They wanted a law without contemplating the consequences of that law.

    When we’re saying “the government should intervene,” we’re saying “an organization with guns should threaten to lock people in cages if they don’t comply with its dictates.”
    –Art Carden, Econlog

    And when they lock those people in cages, their children are separated from them. If you doubt, drive down the street past the police with your kid standing in the passenger seat and not strapped down in the back. See what happens to you, to your kid.

  4. Daryl and his brother Darryl says:

    I’m far more concerned with Dennison’s desire to eliminate due process…

    We cannot allow all of these people to invade our Country. When somebody comes in, we must immediately, with no Judges or Court Cases, bring them back from where they came. Our system is a mockery to good immigration policy and Law and Order. Most children come without parents…

    This would allow law enforcement to grab you, allege you are here illegally, and deport you. Sure…you’re sitting there all fat dumb and happy, thinking you can prove you’re a citizen, so no big deal. Well, who are you going to prove it to? Without a hearing and/or judicial review…there is no protection.
    First they call for political opposition to be jailed.
    Then they call for people who don’t stand for the anthem to be deported.
    Now they are calling for due process to be eliminated.
    What’s the next incremental step in denying your freedom?
    And what are you going to do about it?

  5. Daryl and his brother Darryl says:


    Whether you like it or not, Trump is trying to faithfully executed the laws of the United States.

    Kushner has mis-represented himself on several financial disclosure forms, and sucurity clearance forms, all of which are felonies.
    If Dennison is faithfully executing the laws of the US…he could start in his own house.
    But let”s be honest, JKB…you and the rest of the Dennison cult are really are only interested in caging brown people.

  6. Michael Reynolds says:

    Your interest in the law will end the moment Trump is named as an un-indicted co-conspirator in money-laundering, tax evasion, corruption and treason. So spare me the law and order bullshit. People like you only care about the laws that maintain white privilege and disregard any law that thwarts you.

  7. Hal_10000 says:

    What Michael Said. ICE would be replaced by another agency. No one is talking about abolishing immigration laws or borders. What they’re arguing is that the agency itself has developed such a diseased “corporate culture” — as exemplified in various abuses and legal violations — that it can not be fixed. You have to burn it down and start from scratch.

    I don’t think that will happen for various reason. And it shouldn’t happen under Trump, who would replace with something just as bad only more incompetent. But I don’t think it’s a bad idea. “It will just be replaced by a different agency”. Well, that’s kind of the point.

  8. Gustopher says:

    We need some agency enforcing our immigration laws, but we don’t need this agency with these people.

    The policies that they are enacting are needlessly cruel, and needlessly intrusive — they are turning America into a police state. And, ICE agents are carrying these policies out with glee.

    Reform is going to have to start with a purge.

  9. Andre Kenji de Sousa says:

    I think that one could argue that it makes no sense to have a federal agency solely dedicated to finding and deporting people that crosses the border without authorization or that overstay visas.

  10. Warren Weber says:

    @Michael Reynolds: But when the orange stain is wiped from the White House we should clean house on all of Vichy America.

    What refreshing candor. Even I heard that dog whistle.

    By the best records, “cleaning house” of Vichy France involved the deaths of about 10,000 people. How many Americans do you anticipate will need to be done away with to achieve a proper house-cleaning?

  11. grumpy realist says:

    @Warren Weber: It depends how far you people get towards actually loading people into buses bound for extermination camps.

    In that case, I suspect 100%.

    Remember: facilis descensus Averno

  12. SKI says:

    Even if ICE were abolished tomorrow, the policies and laws that it is charged with enforcing will remain on the books.

    As others have stated, the people and culture could be different.

    My cousin worked there. Shortly after the Inauguration, with the new leadership and the encouragement of the portion that had chafed under the restrictions set by the DOJ under Obama, she resigned in disgust. Her comment to me *at the time* was that she couldn’t be a party to fascism and that the people in charge “weren’t good people”. She has been proven correct.

  13. gVOR08 says:

    Republicans are always talking about eliminating the Fed and the IRS. Rick Perry wanted to eliminate the Departments or Education and Commerce, and a third he couldn’t remember, Energy, the one he now “leads”. Every one made fun of him for forgetting the third, not for thinking he could just scrap departments at will. He also talked about Texas seceding. Trump wants to merge Labor and Education to further the Koch/Mercer/DeVos wet dream of vocational education only.

    No one seems concerned about these Republican proposals to eliminate departments and agencies. It’s as if we expect no better of Republicans. The soft bigotry of low expectations, I guess.

  14. gVOR08 says:

    @Warren Weber:

    But when the orange stain is wiped from the White House we should clean house on all of Vichy America.
    What refreshing candor. Even I heard that dog whistle.

    Don’t pat yourself on the back, that was not a dog whistle.