“Abolish ICE” makes for a good rallying cry on the left. Demanding the abolition of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency also provides President Donald Trump with a useful weapon for bludgeoning Democrats politically. He has said as much, and a good portion of the American public will listen to him.
I recently wrote here to condemn the administration’s now-abandoned practice of separating children from their migrant parents. Now I write to oppose calls to abolish ICE.
The reality is that abolishing ICE is not a serious policy proposal; it’s about as serious as the claim that Mexico’s “gonna pay for the wall.”
Elections have consequences. Those consequences are changes in policy, not typically the creation or elimination of whole agencies. If Americans don’t like ICE’s current enforcement polices, the public should demand a change in those policies, or a change in the leaders who promulgate those policies. During the Vietnam War, millions of Americans demanded an end to the war; no one seriously demanded that we abolish the entire Defense Department. Obviously, that would have completely compromised national security.
To a lesser extent, the outright abolition of ICE would compromise public safety. ICE is a law-enforcement agency. It consists of essentially two components: enforcement and removal operations, and homeland security investigations, which is dedicated to the investigation of cross-border crimes such as smuggling dangerous drugs and contraband, the theft of intellectual property, child pornography and human trafficking.
During the last three years of the Obama administration, when I headed the Department of Homeland Security, President Barack Obama gave me the policy direction to focus ICE’s deportation resources on recent border crossers and those undocumented immigrants convicted of serious crimes. We did that. In those years, the number of deportations from the interior United States went down, but the percentage of those deported who were serious criminals went up. We stripped away the barriers that existed between ICE and so-called sanctuary cities. By the time I left office, 21 of the 25 largest jurisdictions that had refused to comply with ICE detainers — written requests to delay the release of people arrested by local law enforcement — had signaled a willingness to work with ICE again in pursuit of the most dangerous undocumented criminals.
As we at Homeland Security asked ICE to focus more on criminals, we heard pleas from many in the enforcement and removal operations workforce whose pay had been capped at an arbitrary ceiling; we put them on the same pay scale with their law-enforcement peers. All this was a good step in the direction of public safety, and it was good for morale. In 2016, my last year in office, the morale within ICE’s 20,000-person workforce increased 7 percent, according to the annual Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey.
Meanwhile, I constantly reminded ICE leadership that controversial, high-profile cases of fathers torn from their families and students pulled from their schools for deportation would turn ICE into a pariah in the very communities where its agents must work, and would threaten to undermine ICE’s larger public-safety mission. I regret to watch that happening now, as ICE is vilified across the country and sanctuary cities are emboldened to proclaim themselves as such. My thoughts are with the hardworking men and women of the agency caught in the middle of this political firestorm.
Calls to abolish ICE only serve to sow even greater division in the American public and in its political leadership, damaging any remaining prospect of bipartisan immigration reform. This is one of the things Americans hate about Washington — that politics has become the end, not the means. Most Americans — whether in Laredo, Texas, or Queens, New York — do not embrace the emotional and absolutist views of immigration on the extreme right or on the extreme left. They simply want to secure the country’s borders, to eliminate the inefficiencies in the system and to treat fairly the undocumented people who were brought here as children and have committed no serious crimes.
None of these interests is being served in Washington right now. It’s just a screaming match. The American public must demand more of its leaders and those who seek that honor. In a democracy, governing requires compromise, compromise requires the acceptance of political risk, and political risk requires political courage. We must hope that sanity, and a little courage, someday, somehow prevail in Washington.
Jeh Johnson was homeland security secretary from 2013 to 2017.
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