What We Mean When We Say Abolish ICE

Undocumented communities are demanding an end to devastating detentions, deportation and incarceration—not the transfer of such policies to a different agency.

Sarah Lazare July 5, 2018

Demonstrators rally against the Trump administration's immigration policies outside of the Texas Capitol in Austin, Texas, on June 30, 2018. (Photo by Tamir Kalifa/Getty Images)

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. 

"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."

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 Pro​gram​.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.

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