Potential 2020 Democratic Candidates Rally Around Calls To “Abolish ICE”

The calls to "Abolish ICE" are spreading to potential candidates for the 2020 Democratic Presidential nomination.

The call to abolish Immigration And Customs Enforcement (ICE), the agency that currently has the task of enforcing the nation’s immigration laws is starting to turn into a mantra for potential candidates for the Democratic Presidential nomination in 2020:

Democrats jockeying for the 2020 presidential nomination are calling to dismantle U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement — embracing a stance that until recently been isolated to far-left party activists.

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) has gone the farthest among possible contenders — tweeting Thursday that ICE “has become a deportation force” and should be replaced with “something that actually works.”

But Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) have also seized on the outcry over President Donald Trump’s migrant family separation policy to back a broad reshaping of the country’s immigration enforcement system.

The increasing Democratic interest in tearing down ICE is a reflection of the pull of progressive activists heading toward the 2020 campaign — even as Republicans seize on the shift to tar Democrats as too soft on immigration.

The GOP has stepped up its attempts to yoke Democrats to the abolish-ICE mantra in the wake of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s upset victory over Rep. Joe Crowley (D-N.Y.), on a left-wing platform that included ending the agency.

“This isn’t the first time the 2020 Democrat class has hurried to take drastically new positions to get on the side of the socialist wing of the party, and it likely won’t be the last,” RNC research director Michael Reed wrote to reporters after the ICE comments from Gillibrand, who campaigned early in her career as a critic of illegal immigration.

Trump’s advisers have also gone on offense on the issue, as has Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.). “The energy in the Democratic party is self-avowed socialists, open borders,” McConnell said in a POLITICO interview this week.

Even as prominent Democrats are increasingly flirting with ending the agency, which was established in 2003 as part of the Department of Homeland Security, most Democratic lawmakers aren’t there yet.

Gillibrand sent a fundraising email Friday off her “abolish ICE” call. New York City Mayor Bill DeBlasio, who has also sometimes edged into the party’s 2020 conversation, told a New York radio station Friday, “I think Ms. Ocasio-Cortez is right. We should abolish ICE. We should create something better.”

But many high-profile Democrats who want to see ICE overhauled have not gone so far as to use the word “abolish,” describing their goals as remodeling an immigration enforcement regime that has gone into deportation overdrive under Trump.

Even 19 of ICE’s own special agents called for a major retooling of its mission last week in a letter first reported by The Texas Observer.

“I happened to have voted against the formation of ICE back in 2002,” Sanders told CNN on Wednesday, calling for an end to Trump’s “disastrous” immigration agenda. “What you have right now is an immigration policy that I think most Americans understand is not what this country is about. You don’t rip little children away from the arms of their mother.”

Harris told MSNBC on Sunday that “we need to probably think about starting from scratch” on internal immigration enforcement, adding: “I think there’s no question that we’ve got to critically re-examine ICE and its role and the way that it is being administered and the work it is doing.”

Oregon Sen. Jeff Merkley, a long shot in the 2020 primary race who was the first Democrat to focus public attention on family separations at the border, said in an interview last week that he has “not gone down that road yet” on calling to abolish ICE.

As The Washington Post’s David Weigel notes, this stampede among certain potential 2020 candidates is happening even though it’s not clear whether these calls to “Abolish ICE” will resonate politically:

[W]e do not really know what voters think of ICE, a government organization that is only 15 years old. We know that voters favor “border security,” a term that can be defined in many ways — including support for ICE.

But we also know that many voters have not been impressed by immigration enforcement decisions made by the Trump administration.

In a September 2017 Washington Post/ABC News poll, when asked whether the administration had been “too tough” in enforcing immigration laws, 45 percent of responding voters said yes; 30 percent said they were satisfied. In the only recent poll of any kind that asked voters about ICE — a Harvard Institute of Politics survey of 18-29-year-olds in March — just 25 percent of young voters trusted ICE to “do the right thing” all or most of the time. By comparison, 51 percent said they trusted the military, and 38 percent said they trusted the Environmental Protection Agency.

That was before the drawn-out family-separations crisis, which transformed “abolish ICE” from a cause for opponents of “mass deportation” to a simple way for Democrats to criticize immigration enforcement in the Trump era.

The “abolish” language was serious — campaigners want ICE gone — but it was always inspired by conservative efforts to degrade branches of the government by suggesting they be abolished entirely. In 2012 and 2016, multiple Republican candidates for president ran on abolishing the Internal Revenue Service, the EPA and the Department of Education. The latter agency is included in a Trump administration government reform plan, albeit one unlikely to make it through Congress.

Just as “abolish the IRS” campaigners imagine some form of revenue collection to replace it, “abolish ICE” campaigners follow the hooky slogan with several replacement proposals. Ocasio-Cortez has told multiple interviewers that an idealized, post-ICE government would continue to police the border and enforce immigration law.

To a large extent, of course, this attack on ICE is directly related 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. At first, this call was limited to activists who were speaking out against the Administration’s policies. Now, though, we’re seeing signs that it’s quickly becoming a required position among people on the so-called “progressive” side of the Democratic Party, although it’s interesting to note that Bernie Sanders, supposedly the embodiment of that movement, has resisted joining in on the call to abolish the agency. As the Washington Free Becon notes, the Vermont Senator has faced rebuke over the past week for not falling in line on the issue, but so far he seems to be standing firm. As Gillibrand’s statement, as well as similar statements from other potential 2020 contenders Senators Harris and Merkley and New York City Mayor Bill DeBlasio, makes clear, though, this is quickly becoming a position that anyone seeking to court the support of the “progressive” wing of the Democratic Party will need to address.

As I noted last week, it’s somewhat understandable that people who are opposed to the Administration’s policies regarding immigration are lashing out at the agency that’s in charge of enforcing that policy. In some respects, it’s similar to arguments that conservatives have made in the past calling for the abolishment of agencies such as the Internal Revenue Service and the Transportation Security Administration. They find Trump’s immigration policies, particularly the “Zero Tolerance” and family separation policies, objectionable lashing out at the closest available target. It’s also the kind of slogan that makes for a good fundraising and campaign slogan. In that respect, as I said, it’s the same kind of empty slogan as the “Abolish The IRS” nonsense that we see from the right. It gives the base something to rally around, but in the end, it accomplishes nothing.

Even if ICE was abolished today, the laws and policies that it enforces will still be on the books, meaning that will need some other agency under some other name that will end up enforcing the same laws that ICE does and become the target of the same attacks that the left is unleashing on ICE right now. Abolishing a government agency, assuming that’s even possible, isn’t going to accomplish anything of substance unless the laws that it is enforcing are also changed. In this respect, I’d give my friends on the left the same advice I give to my friends on the right when they talk about abolishing a government agency they don’t like. The only way to do that is to win elections and get into a position where they can change the underlying laws that are being enforced. At that point, it won’t matter if the agency is called ICE, the INS (as it used to be known), or whatever other names you want to come up with. Until then, a slogan like “Abolish ICE” is basically just empty political rhetoric.

Finally, it’s worth noting that we’re always going to need an agency to enforce the laws regarding immigration, customs, and border control. Unless you’re in favor of completely open and unregulated borders, which I would submit is not a serious policy position at this point, we are always going to need an agency in charge of enforcing the immigration laws and the customs laws that apply to international travelers and commerce. It doesn’t matter what’s it’s called, it’s still going to exist.

FILED UNDER: Borders and Immigration, US Politics, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held 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 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. Facebones says:

    ICE has become synonymous with deportation, roundups in major cities, and fascist enforcement. It seems to attract goons who relish the idea of throwing children in prison camps and deporting people who were born in this country because they have the wrong color skin.

    Every country needs to enforce the laws and the borders, but ICE’s heavy handed tactics have become so toxic that the department needs at the very least a complete teardown and rebuild with a new name and a new director.

    Will this resonate with Democrats? Well, elections have now become all about turnout. Both parties are so entrenched that there might be 5% of the electorate that will actually change their party line vote. Energizing the base is the best play, and the entire D base is against ICE and kiddie jails.

  2. MBunge says:

    Hmm. Wasn’t there just a post around here that claimed there was…

    no significant legislative movement

    …calling for open borders? I wonder what happened since that post to make abolishing America’s border enforcement agency a mainstream Democratic position?


  3. Daryl and his brother Darryl says:

    This is a waste of the Democrats time.
    It’s still about the economy. The $1.9T tax cut is NOT doing what we were promised.
    Worker’s pay is still flat.
    Instead of Corporations raising wages and hiring people…$503 billion has been spent on share buybacks…72 times as much as on one-time bonuses or raises.
    40 percent of all stocks are held by the top one percent.
    Most of the rest is held by the wealthiest 10 percent…so the tax cuts were a pure gift for the rich.
    The deficit is exploding…badly enough that Kudlow has to tell bald-faced lies about it.
    The stock market is flat.
    Run on the economy…the corruption…the incompetence. (The NoKo problem was solved? WTF? What’s happening with Iran? Dennison is ready to give Ukraine to Putin?)
    Win Congress…then clean up ICE.
    There is no doubt it is abusive and over the top in the way it does things.
    But calling abolishing it is not smart politics.

  4. Daryl and his brother Darryl says:

    Linking abolishing ICE to open borders is simply a lie.
    You are a liar.
    A chicken-shit liar.

  5. Michael Reynolds says:

    For about the millionth time let me say that Democrats need to decide what their immigration policy is. I am very sympathetic to the idea that ICE is an agency with a sick culture. But if this is a prelude to open borders we will be massacred at the polls. This is the danger in not taking a clear stand – your issue can be hijacked and defined by others.

  6. teve tory says:

    OT: Republicans are going to push the “United States Fair and Reciprocal Tariff Act”

    Yes, the US FART Act.

    These guys are as dumb as they are amoral.

  7. JKB says:

    “Abolish ICE” is the child’s level of understanding. But Trump can fix it by edict. He’ll issue an E.O. stating that from now on, ICE will be NICE (National Immigration and Customs Enforcement). That’s all they want. Their calls, as with all the simple calls, are at best only likely to have an impact on the name of the agency enforcing the legislation passed by Congress.

    Of course, Democrats do have a bill in play that would prohibit the federal government from arresting any parent, for almost any crime, in most of US territory. The “lawyers” on the Hill strike again with shoddy written legislation. Sadly, this is a bipartisan trait of those who staff Congress.

    Democrats’ proposed legislation to prohibit so-called border separations would actually prevent federal law enforcement agencies almost anywhere inside the United States from arresting and detaining criminals who are parents having nothing to do with unlawfully crossing the border and seeking asylum.

    Every Senate Democrat has now signed on to cosponsor a bill written so carelessly that it does not distinguish between migrant children at the border and U.S. citizen children already within the United States. The bill further does not distinguish between federal officers handling the border crisis and federal law enforcement pursuing the ordinary course of their duties.

  8. Mikey says:

    Abolish ICE? Sounds ok but it seems to have narrow appeal and we can already see the Trumpist fools making shit up about it.

    Probable better thing to hammer home: The White House promised ’70 percent’ of the tax cut would go to workers. It didn’t.

    The Republican tax reform package that was supposed to raise wages and spur hiring has instead funded a record stock buyback and dividend spree, benefiting investors and company executives over workers.

    That’s something every working American can relate to.

  9. Stormy Dragon says:

    It should be noted that even parts of ICE want to abolish the agency:

    ‘Even the cops don’t like us anymore’: Under Trump, ICE is despised and divided

    The homeland security investigation side of the agency (the ones stopping criminals we actually should be concerned about) are finding it harder to do their jobs because the more visible enforcement and removal operations side is giving them such a bad name that no one wants to cooperate with them anymore.

  10. Andre Kenji de Sousa says:

    Most high income countries does not have a organization with police force at federal level SOLELY dedicated to finding people that overstay visas or that entered the country illegally. There should be a good debate about that.

  11. SKI says:

    What strikes me most about this post is that it screams “Inside the Beltway” in its framing and its faux-hand-wringing.

    The reality is that DHS has been a Frankenstein’s monster grouping ever since its formation post-9/11. With respect to ICE in particular, by combining the customs authority traditional broad scope (100 miles from the border, no requirement for Constitutional niceties like warrants and due process) with a law enforcement agency – all in the guide of “homeland security from terrorism”, we have militarized immigration enforcement and created a true monster. Recognizing that doesn’t mean advocating for open borders or even being radical and left-wing.

  12. SKI says:

    James helpfully tweeted out a link to this February article that articulates what I was getting at above: https://newrepublic.com/article/147099/dismantle-department-homeland-security

  13. de stijl says:


    You have the right grasp.

    The current version of ICE is gripped by paranoia and the use of force as a purgative release. We need immigration police, we do not need border Brown Shirts. The top-down direction, because this is under the Trump administration will be aggro, but pros will understand the ephemeral nature of one administration over another.

    What has happened is that aggressive policing of the border has crossed a moral line into Othering of potential immigrants as animals not worthy of decency and civil rights. I want aggressive policing of criminals, I do not want a proto-fascist police force charged with eliminating foreign contaminating filth.

  14. de stijl says:

    ICE is like any cop shop: 30% are decent folk, 30% are bully-boy thumpers, and 40% are weather vanes.

    There will always be the 30% thumpers – it’s practically axiomatic. Bully-boys know where to butter their bread.

    The trick is to affect the 40% weather vane people. If the culture can be turned, the decents will lead the way, but the weather vanes are key to sustained change.

  15. BKW says:

    Yes change ICE to NICE
    No one will want to get rid of NICE.
    Also it sounds like something from Get Smart

  16. An Interested Party says:

    “Abolish ICE” is the child’s level of understanding. But Trump can fix it by edict. He’ll issue an E.O. stating that from now on, ICE will be NICE (National Immigration and Customs Enforcement). That’s all they want. Their calls, as with all the simple calls, are at best only likely to have an impact on the name of the agency enforcing the legislation passed by Congress.

    Funny that you should describe it as a child’s level of understanding…it’s very easy for everyone to grasp the insidiousness of ripping children out of the arms of their parents to “enforce” border security…and it’s terribly ironic that someone who has complained about the gruff, nasty federal agencies in the past doesn’t seem to mind if ICE treats people hideously…of course, most of those people are different from the commentator, and not just in their legal status…

  17. Andre Kenji de Sousa says:

    @de stijl:

    We need immigration police,

    That’s questionable. Most countries does not have a “immigration police” – a government office whose ONLY function is to go after people that overstay visas or enter the country illegally. That something that people that are complaining about “abolish ICE” did not explain.

  18. Tyrell says:

    That’s no way to attract the center.

  19. TM01 says:

    Yeah sure. Similar.

    Expect Trump never weaponized ICE to target law abiding American citizens with whose views he disagreed. Unlike some former presidents did.

    And I’m not aware of conservatives driving IRS heads out of restaurants. Or of them posting the names and addresses of agents in public forums.

    Other than that tho… yeah… Pretty much the exact same thing.

    Abolish ICE is indeed the same thing as saying Open Borders. To say otherwise is completely dishonest.

  20. de stijl says:

    @Andre Kenji de Sousa:

    The reason to separate out immigration law enforcement from standard day-to-day policing is to make sure that all citizens can interact with the police with a minimum of fear.

    If you report a crime or are a witness, local police should not care about your immigration status and actually should be prevented from inquiring about it. Police cannot do their job effectively if a large swath of residents will not voluntarily interact with them out of fear of detention and deportation. Thus, the so-called “sanctuary” cities where local police are prevented from inquiring about someone’s immigration status.

    Normal, law abiding folks deserve law enforcement. When undocumented people will not voluntarily interact with local police, a whole host of very bad problems arise: exploitation, abuse, extortion, etc. People who are un-policed are easy prey.

    Making local cops responsible for immigration policing is a really bad idea.

  21. de stijl says:

    @de stijl:

    The reason to separate out immigration law enforcement from standard day-to-day policing is to make sure that all citizens can interact with the police with a minimum of fear.

    “citizens” should be “residents” or “people”

    Sorry for the confusion.

  22. Kari Q says:

    “Abolish ICE” is the child’s level of understanding.

    Which makes it a perfect campaign slogan. It’s succinct, easily understood, and fits on a bumper sticker.

    That doesn’t mean it’s necessarily the right policy prescription or that it will ever happen, but it’s good rhetoric. Plus, no one likes to support people who rip children out of their parents arms and put them in cages, which is what ICE is in most people’s minds. Candidates should hit this hard.

  23. de stijl says:

    @Kari Q:

    It is always astonishing when people who seemingly want simple answers to complex questions always demand nuance when their sacred cow is suddenly being gored.

    “Deport all illegals!” and “Build the wall!” are cool in their minds, but “Abolish ICE!” requires that we engage in detailed analysis of immigration policy and suffer admonishments to not rush pell-mell into uncharted land where there may be unintended consequences.

    People are desperate to cast the “Abolish ICE!” crowd as for open borders (see MBunge and JKB, and then we have TM01 literally saying “Abolish ICE is indeed the same thing as saying Open Borders.”) because that is the simple answer to a complex question.

    As Stormy Dragon noted, we have ICE itself suddenly deploying a PR campaign that is basically a #NotAllICEAgents effort showing pictures of all the good stuff they do that doesn’t involve ripping children from their parents and detaining them in cages.

    My simplistic bumper sticker slogan is sacrosanct. Whereas your bumper sticker slogan is foolish and naive and ignores the underlying complexity of the situation as it exists on the ground, and we really need to have a serious policy debate on this topic right after I call you Un-American for even broaching the topic at all.

    I’m surprised that none of the usual suspects (whatever Jenos is calling himself these days) hasn’t used the MS-13 gambit yet.

  24. de stijl says:


    Expect Trump never weaponized ICE to target law abiding American citizens with whose views he disagreed. Unlike some former presidents did.

    When did Bush45 or Obama (only Presidents since the agency was created) use ICE to “target law abiding American citizens”?

    Not only are you a liar, but you spuriously insulted my honor. You flat out accused me of antisemitism. I will never forget that and will never forgive you. Once a month or so I will remind you of that.

  25. Tyrell says:

    @Daryl and his brother Darryl: I have seen photos of these demonstrations and some are carrying signs saying “No Ice, No Borders, No Nations”. That is how radical and extremist some of those people are.

  26. SKI says:

    @Tyrell: Ah, the good old nutpickin’ attempt. Some small segment of people are extreme so everyone else remotely associated with a similar, but different, position is also radical extremists.

    Does that make you a racist who wants to bring back slavery? A Nazi who thinks the Third Reich should be reformed? After all, people who also defend ICE and Trump publicly share those views…

  27. SKI says:


    Abolish ICE is indeed the same thing as saying Open Borders. To say otherwise is completely dishonest.

    Says the completely dishonest poster.

    I am not calling for open borders. I am calling for a major restructuring and unwinding of DHS that would include abolishing ICE.

  28. de stijl says:


    SKI played out your reasoning.

    I also have seen photos of American born-and bred Nazis carrying signs. Are you, therefore, complicit in the death in the death of Heather Heyer in Charlottesville?

    Your words:

    That is how radical and extremist some of those people are.