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Some Democrats call to repeal and replace Immigration and Customs Enforcement under “abolish ICE” moniker

While the ongoing debate about the separation and detention of families entering the country illegally has focused on Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and the Office of Refugee Resettlement, at least 12 Democrats have called for “abolishing” a third agency, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). ICE is the Department of Homeland Security’s law enforcement agency that operates in the country’s so-called interior, not at the border where families have been separated, and has a budget of approximately $6 billion.

ICE arrests, detains, and deports aliens accused of committing a wide range of crimes, including human trafficking and other serious crimes, but many criticize the agency for inhuman treatment of immigrants who have not committed serious crimes.

The call to “abolish ICE” is an as-yet ambiguous call for change without a specific legislative proposal. Here’s what it could mean.

Does it mean ending immigration enforcement?

It could, but no legislator has proposed that.

Mijente, a national Latinx organization, has proposed not just getting rid of ICE, but also defunding CBP, ending privately-run detention centers, prohibiting use of the military in enforcing immigration policies, and more. But this sweeping reform hasn’t been endorsed by any Member of Congress.

Even if a legislator were to call for the elimination of ICE with no replacement —-which no legislator has —-immigration enforcement would nevertheless continue. Although CBP patrols the so-called border, the law defines the U.S. border to contain two-thirds of the country’s population. CBP might pick up the slack if ICE were eliminated, and could be tasked to enforce the laws left on the books that ICE currently enforces.

Eliminating a federal agency sounds extreme. But calls to abolish federal agencies are common. Since the start of 2017, there has been legislation introduced to eliminate the Environmental Protection Agency (H.R. 861), the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (S. 370; H.R. 1031), the Export-Import Bank (H.R. 3114), the Department of Education (H.R. 899), and several smaller agencies (H.R. 6100, H.R. 6023, H.R. 5123).

Repeal and replace for immigration enforcement

Rebuild or restructure

The Democrats that have been more specific about what “abolish ICE” would mean have all called for either rebuilding it from scratch or restructuring immigration enforcement, not simply ending it. That’s likely what senators Warren (MA), Gillibrand (NY), and Sanders (VT) and representatives Pocan (WI), Serrano (NY), Jayapal (WA), Blumenauer (OR), McGovern (MA), Grijalva (AZ), Capuano (MA), Espaillat (NY), and Velazquez (NY) are calling for.

Rep. Pocan proposed in a tweet that ICE’s work to combat human trafficking “would be transferred to other agencies that already fight human trafficking.” Rep. Espaillat has proposed abolishing ICE and then creating a commission to propose a new immigration enforcement system. Espaillat, 62, is the first formerly undocumented immigrant to be elected to Congress. He is Dominican-American.

But these lawmakers haven’t enumerated which of ICE’s responsibilities should be repealed, replaced, or transferred, or to where. Pocan’s office told us they plan to introduce a bill next week.

Repeating history

If any “abolish ICE” proposal were to be enacted, it is likely to be one that re-assigns ICE’s responsibilities to other federal agencies —if history is to be repeated. ICE’s primary predecessor agency, Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS), was a part of the Department of Labor from 1891–1933. It moved to the Department of Justice in 1940 during the lead up to World War II, during which INS ran (some) Internment Camps detaining Japanese Americans. And only in 2003 did it become “ICE” in the Department of Homeland Security, when the department was formed in the aftermath of the events of September 11, 2001.

Abolishing ICE could mean returning its violent crime enforcement operations to the Department of Justice and its labor law enforcement to the Department of Labor, while leaving its national security operations in the Department of Homeland Security.

Other calls for government reorganization

Major reorganizations of government agencies aren’t uncommon either. Last month the Trump Administration proposed merging the Departments of Education and Labor and transferring some programs between three departments like musical chairs. And legislation introduced in Congress to abolish the Internal Revenue Service (H.R. 25 by Rep. Woodall; S. 18 by Sen. Moran) wouldn’t end taxation, but it would transfer the responsibility. H.R. 31 by Rep. Hudson would create a commission to propose abolishing other agencies.

Reforming ICE where it is

The last major proposal regarding ICE is to keep the agency but reform its operations. Sen. Kamala Harris, who hasn’t called for abolishing ICE, has proposed reducing ICE’s funding and last year introduced legislation to clarify the rights of immigrants detained by ICE and CBP. Keeping ICE but reforming its operations could be a less disruptive change to immigration enforcement.

However, none of these three tactics to reform ICE are likely to be enacted any time soon — not only because they are opposed by most Republicans, but because both parties are facing stark internal division on virtually all of the wide range of immigration issues being debated today.

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