“Abolish ICE” has become the new rallying cry of the left, which is trying to turn the fury Americans are feeling about the horrors at the Mexican border on the little-understood agency known as U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
The effort gained a burst of currency when one of its proponents, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, won a stunning victory over House Democratic Caucus Chairman Joseph Crowley in last week’s New York Democratic primary.
Now you are hearing that idea, in one formulation or another, from more prominent figures in the party, including some who are being talked about as possible 2020 presidential contenders.
ICE “has become a deportation force,” Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-New York, told CNN. “Get rid of it. Start over. Reimagine it.”
But replace it with what? Democrats don’t have a clear answer for that, which is why they are heading into dangerous political territory.
Demonizing a government agency is an old, tired strategy — one that rarely if ever has worked.
Just ask the Republicans. They have more than a little experience in this regard.
Democrats “are drifting into a trap,” Trump ally Newt Gingrich told me, acknowledging that he knows what it is like to fall into this one.
When the GOP took control of the House under then-Speaker Gingrich in 1995, its right wing vowed to eliminate no fewer than four federal departments: Education, Energy, Commerce, and Housing and Urban Development. Republicans saw those departments as symbols of everything that had gone awry in a sprawling, increasingly intrusive federal government.
“We learned that every one of those agencies have interest groups that desperately want them to survive,” Gingrich said. “We just weren’t clever about it.”
Still, the proposal remains alive in conservative circles and is put forward again like clockwork during GOP presidential primary season.
In 2011, Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s White House hopes effectively came to an end when he announced during a debate: “It is three agencies of government when I get there that are gone. Commerce, Education and the … what’s the third one there?” The department he forgot is the one he now heads as President Donald Trump’s energy secretary.
Oops. The reason ideas like this never get anywhere is that most Americans see these agencies as having vital missions to perform. GOP plans to get rid of the Education Department, for example, were seen as an attack on teachers and children.
Similarly, calls to eliminate ICE are likely to be perceived as undermining the security of the nation’s borders — and the integrity of the government employees who carry out its mandate, many of whom risk their lives to do so.
That is why wiser Democratic leaders have tried to temper the anti-ICE rhetoric coming from their base.
It is true that ICE — like much of government — might benefit from some fresh thinking about how it is structured and how it operates.
The agency was created in 2003 as part of the major government reorganization that took place in the wake of 9/11.
Part of its role in the massive new Department of Homeland Security was to run enforcement of immigration law in the interior, combining some of the functions of the old Immigration and Naturalization Service and the U.S. Customs Service.
There are fair criticisms that ICE has become unwieldy and that its reputation sometimes interferes with its ability to do its job. Detention and deportation, which grew sharply under President Barack Obama, have also become more common since ICE’s creation.
But ICE is not responsible for what we’ve seen at the border in the past few months, particularly the heinous practice of separating parents from their children.
To blame a faceless agency is to give a pass to Trump’s”zero-tolerance” policies and to the hateful rhetoric that has helped create a political environment in which some Americans find this acceptable.
What’s more, Democrats are making it all too easy for Trump and his allies to falsely portray a call to abolish ICE as another way of clamoring for open borders.
“How can the Democrats, who are weak on the Border and weak on Crime, do well in November,” the president tweeted Tuesday. “The people of our Country want and demand Safety and Security, while the Democrats are more interested in ripping apart and demeaning (and not properly funding) our great Law Enforcement!”
This is the fight that Trump wants to have, over security and law enforcement, rather than massive detention centers and frantic parents who cannot find their children. It is one he can win — and Democrats calling to eliminate ICE will have given him a potent weapon with which to do it.
Karen Tumulty is a Washington Post columnist covering national politics.
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