Activists staged creative protests across the United States on Monday, rappelling off of buildings, blockading a federal court in San Diego and occupying an Atlanta Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention center. The spate of direct actions follows days of mass marches and acts of civil disobedience, fueled by public outrage at the Trump administration’s harsh immigration crackdown, including Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ “zero-tolerance” policy of escalating deportations and the forcible separation of more than 2,300 children from their parents at the border.
Amid this climate, the call to “abolish ICE” has broken into the mainstream — capturing headlines in major media outlets and even making its way into the vernacular of the Democratic Party. Created in 2003 as a post‑9/11 initiative, ICE is an armed national police force that enforces mass deportations and is overseen by the president of the United States.
The call to scrap this institution emerged in the 2010s from undocumented communities and youth movements fighting unprecedented deportations under President Obama — and was accompanied by demands of, “Not one more deportation.” At the outset, the demand was grounded in a massive push against the punitive and harsh policies of the U.S. deportation apparatus — not limited to criticism of a single federal agency — and developed alongside protests against police and prisons. Now that Trump is at the helm of ICE, the demand for its abolition has only grown louder.
But not everyone repeating this demand is calling for the eradication of the policies enacted by ICE. In total, at least 10 Democratic members of Congress have made a nod towards the need to abolish ICE, but they largely advocate for its policies to be transferred or replaced. Following a trip to the U.S.-Mexico border, Rep. Mark Pocan (D‑Wis.) announced last week that he plans to introduce legislation to “abolish ICE.” Yet, he stipulated that the bill will call for the transfer of “necessary functions to other agencies.” Similarly, Democratic Party heavyweight Sen. Elizabeth Warren (Mass.) on Saturday denounced ICE as immoral and said it should be replaced with something “reflects the morality of the country” — without specifying what such an institution would look like. And Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D‑N.Y.) said Thursday that ICE isn’t working, specifying: “I think you should separate the criminal justice from the immigration issues.”
According to Irene Romulo, an organizer with the Chicago-based grassroots group Organized Communities Against Deportation, merely transferring the devastating policies of ICE to a different agency, or replacing the institution with another, does not honor the spirit of the demand. “As long as they continue to target, detain, deport and incarcerate people they will always be the same, no matter under what department or what name,” she said. The goal, she explained, is the abolition of the cruel and punitive policies that ICE — and the entire deportation and incarceration system — unleashes. In These Times spoke with Irene Romulo and Tania Unzueta, who was part of the undocumented youth movement in the early 2010s and currently organizes with Mijente. As the call to abolish ICE goes mainstream, they argued that now is a critical time to understand where this demand comes from and what it means to the undocumented communities who have long carried its banner.
Where did the call to abolish ICE come from, and what does it mean?
Tania Unzueta: It was undocumented youth in 2009 and 2010 who started saying as a movement we need to focus on deportations. We did this by doing “education not deportation” cases. We’d do entire campaigns to try to stop the deportation of one person. That’s when ICE started to become a target, because it was in ICE’s hands whether they would deport this person or not.
It was also that moment that allowed for groups to break off from the demand for comprehensive immigration reform. Up to that point, the only solution to deportations was for Congress to take actions. We started identifying that there were different bodies responsible for the attacks. One of them was ICE, which is under the president’s discretion.
The demand for something that aspired to be abolitionist was the #Not1MoreDeportation campaign. It wasn’t about whether people were good or bad — it was about ending deportations. To me, the demand for #Not1MoreDeportation comes before the call to abolish ICE.
We had civil disobediences where we shut down detention centers and ICE offices and stopped deportation buses. All of this was in 2013 and 2014. There was a lot of resistance from Democrats and folks who are close to the Democratic Party, because our target was a Democratic president. I think that what has changed now is that people see how bad it can get when you allow this agency to exist under someone like Trump.
Irene Romulo: I’m a member of Organized Communities Against Deportations, and we really have been organizing against deportations and tying them to larger campaigns since 2012 to address issues of criminalization and shed light on the violence ICE perpetrates. Our communities have been talking about this for a while. We’ve recognized how abusive their policies and agents are and all the pain and destruction they’ve been causing.
In 2016, we made the demand more public during a civil disobedience action along with BYP100, Assata’s Daughters and people who had been involved with We Charge Genocide. We tied the call to dismantle ICE with the demand to defund the police here in Chicago. We wanted to abolish the institution but not to replace it with something with a different name but the same function. We wanted to get rid of the institution.
Are you concerned that some lawmakers, under the banner of “abolishing ICE,” are calling for the agency’s functions to be transferred to other government institutions?
Irene Romulo: Secure Communities was deemed unconstitutional but then replaced with the Priority Enforcement Program.It is important to say we don’t want an institution that targets, detains or deports our communities — under whatever name. That’s why we called for abolition in 2016 and we still think it needs to happen.
I think people need to remember that our fights are long-term and our organizing needs to be long-term. While things are in the mainstream and popular, it’s great because it changes dialogue. However, we need to go beyond — to recognize this demand, but also organize to make it happen. We need to listen to community members organizing around this work and take their lead.
I am against transferring the same power ICE has to a different agency. As long as they continue to target, detain, deport and incarcerate people they will always be the same, no matter under what department or what name.
Tania Unzueta: I think this is where we’ll be able to tell the difference between who is using “abolish ICE” as a talking point and who is trying to get us towards abolishing ICE. There will be several steps between now and when we abolish ICE. It’s not just about canceling the power, it’s about decreasing the way that immigration enforcement is connected to policing an entire community.
Mijente just put out a policy platform this week about how to shift power away from ICE toward community liberation. It’s about realizing that the way that immigration enforcement happens is going to continue to harm families unless there’s an entire reboot of our immigration system.
I think it’s important that the call to abolish ICE be used for what it is meant to be used for. Immigrant communities and communities of color are being constantly attacked by the federal government. The call to abolish ICE is a way to defend ourselves and our families. It’s not about claiming credit, because there are so many people who have been part of this fight. It’s about making sure the direction is led by communities impacted and directed toward defending those communities, as opposed to becoming a talking point for a Democratic candidate that’s not going to be used to help communities.
There are going to be ways in which elected officials who are not part of the federal government — local officials — are going to do symbolic things either because they don’t have the votes or aren’t part of the government. But there are things politicians can do locally. Local officials can ensure they don’t collaborate with ICE, don’t turn over records to ICE, that they do things within their power.
There are always people who are going to jump on the bandwagon, but we are organizing with our allies pretty strongly to make sure that politicians who talk about abolishing ICE are also held accountable to movements.
Many people are hearing the term “abolish ICE” for the first time. What do you want them to know?
Irene Romulo: People who are learning about this now can take action. They can support people in deportation proceedings, support people in organizations like OCAD, but they can also tie that organizing to other movements. Here in Chicago, the #NoCopAcademy campaign is tied to this as well. It’s not just about abolishing one institution, but abolishing all the other institutions that detain and imprison communities. There are also opportunities for people who are more willing to engage in holding elected officials accountable, opportunities to pressure officials not to vote against laws that criminalize migration.
Tania Unzueta: This is about realizing ICE is a national police force. It is literally a set of people who are armed who are law enforcement and under the directive of the executive branch, meaning the president of the United States. Their actions are not about law enforcement. They are absolutely about politics and who the government sees as disposable. Obama talked about felons not families, and it was the people with felonies who were disposable. Under Trump, everyone who is a person of color and not born in the United States is disposable. It feels like such a dangerous thing to have a national police force that is at the will of the politics of the president of the United States. Trump is a clear example.
Sarah Lazare is web editor at In These Times. She comes from a background in independent journalism for publications including The Intercept, The Nation, and Tom Dispatch. She tweets at @sarahlazare.