#AbolishICE Means Abolish Deportation | David Bennion
During the 2018 election cycle, #AbolishICE became a potent symbol for a new progressive approach to immigration policy. The hashtag’s most visible proponent was Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, now part of the group of new progressive members of Congress causing a stir in Washington, D.C. As impactful and viral as the concept became, its meaning has been variable and contested.
Activist Sean McElwee articulated the demand in a piece for the Nation last March, writing that “ICE has become a genuine threat to democracy, and it is destroying thousands of lives.” As the idea grew online during last year’s Democratic primaries, candidates like Ocasio-Cortez and New York gubernatorial candidate Cynthia Nixon adopted #AbolishICE as a policy demand. However, as #AbolishICE grew more popular on the left and candidates pivoted to the general election, centrist Democrats put forward alternative interpretations of #AbolishICE. Some claimed that #AbolishICE simply means reining in the worst excesses of Trump’s immigration policy, like large workplace raids and family separation at the border. Cecilia Muñoz, an immigration policy adviser under President Obama, said she didn’t “think abolishing ICE is realistic” and “[i]mmigration enforcement, whether we like it or not, is a reality.”
Even Ocasio-Cortez later watered down her definition of #AbolishICE, claiming that “[i]t does not mean abolish deportation.” Meanwhile, immigrant advocacy group Mijente made literal abolition of ICE--including “a moratorium on deportations”--a central demand in its Immigration Policy Platform for Beyond the Trump Era. The development of the #AbolishICE demand and different definitions of the concept were helpfully summarized by journalists Dara Lind and Tina Vasquez.
A common argument made in support of #AbolishICE is that the agency was only created in 2003 in the aftermath of 9/11, prior to which the Immigration and Nationality Service (INS) had been in charge of deportations both at the border and in the interior of the U.S. The agency has only been around for 15 years, so it shouldn’t be hard to imagine a world without ICE, as the argument goes. But we should not forget that INS threw German, Italian, and Japanese citizens into internment camps during WWII and perpetrated the largest mass deportation campaign in U.S. history in 1954, an operation synonymous with a racial slur. Turning the clock back to 2003--or even 1996, as some have argued--would not be nearly enough.
Repackaging ICE as kinder, gentler deportation agency with a new name will not put an end to the human rights abuses that have been highlighted and exacerbated under the Trump administration. The next Democratic president would simply revert to deporting immigrants en masse, just as President Obama did. Rather, ICE should not only be abolished, but its core function of imprisoning and deporting non-citizens must also be eliminated.
The key insight that undergirds a true #AbolishICE policy is that deportation is not just cruel and economically counterproductive, but more importantly, deportation violates basic human rights. Deportation is inconsistent with basic justice and has no place in a legal system predicated on coherent moral principles. More than any other variable, a person’s country of citizenship determines their income level and life opportunities. Citizenship is universally assigned at birth, either through place of birth or parentage. An infant has done nothing to earn the citizenship bestowed at birth but will benefit—or suffer—their entire life largely due to that designation.
As Ayelet Shachar has argued, citizenship in wealthy countries is a massive, unearned advantage passed from parent to child. This “birthright lottery” resembles the hereditary aristocracy which the founders of the U.S. explicitly rejected. Closed borders cannot be justified under any coherent theory of human rights.
If deportation is the only meaningful deterrent to unauthorized immigration yet cannot be accomplished without violating inalienable rights, then any just society must not erect legal barriers to migration. Unfortunately, the Democratic Party is currently following President Trump in his quest to exclude and exile immigrants. Throughout the recent shutdown battle, the Democrats have positioned themselves as the true champions of “border security,” promising to spend billions on “border protection efforts like new technology and more law enforcement agents.” “Border security” measures provide no security to migrants; rather, more fences, surveillance, and border agents lead directly to more deaths along inhospitable routes in the desert and more lives lost to persecution and poverty in sending countries. But Democrats and Trump broadly agree that unauthorized immigration should be prevented and punished; they quibble only about the most effective way to achieve that objective.
The swing from #AbolishICE catching fire on the left in early 2018 to a Democratic consensus in favor of more border security in early 2019 has been harsh and dispiriting. One bright spot remained when Ocasio-Cortez recently voted against a bill to reopen the government because it would fund ICE, citing recent deaths of children in immigration custody. Perhaps she regretted her earlier climbdown from her stance on #AbolishICE. We hope others will follow her lead and that #AbolishICE doesn’t become just another discarded and forgotten political slogan.