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Opinion: Push to Abolish ICE Is the New ‘Repeal and Replace’

Lost in the uproar is the fact that the agency does much more than deport people

Activists call for the end of ICE at a June 29 rally in New York organized by the Democratic Socialists of America. Such demands sound a lot like the cries of “repeal and replace” that greeted the 2010 health care law, Ramón and Lapan write. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images file photo)
Activists call for the end of ICE at a June 29 rally in New York organized by the Democratic Socialists of America. Such demands sound a lot like the cries of “repeal and replace” that greeted the 2010 health care law, Ramón and Lapan write. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images file photo)

Immigrant advocates have made #AbolishICE a rallying cry against the Trump administration, and the victory of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in the New York Democratic primaries last month only turned up the volume.

As activists press Congress to defund U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement out of existence, several Senate Democrats have proposed to replace the agency or fundamentally reform it. But one key point bears repeating: Attempting to make policy by hashtag is not a recipe for success. Just as cries on the right to “repeal and replace” Obamacare failed to answer the logical next question — replace with what? —proponents of #AbolishICE haven’t done enough to grapple with what their campaign would mean in the long term.

Lost in the uproar is the fact that ICE — an arm of the Department of Homeland Security — does much more than deport people. Yes, the agency arrests and deports undocumented immigrants. But it also pursues terrorists, child pornographers, cyber criminals, and other transnational criminals through its Homeland Security Investigations division. Other targets include intellectual property infringement, proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, and smuggling and trafficking cartels.

Expanding the ability to go after these bad actors was a key aim of combining the vast immigration and customs authorities into one with ICE’s creation. Simply abolishing the agency over immigration enforcement concerns could wind up hampering the great work this agency is doing against very real threats.

The rushed calls to abolish ICE also skirt serious questions about enforcement.

Pence: Democratic Leaders Must Stop ‘Spurious’ Calls to Abolish ICE

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While we do not agree with the Trump administration’s claim that abolishing ICE would lead to “open borders,” eliminating the agency would leave federal authorities with few resources to deport undocumented people who committed serious crimes.

This scenario could also see a resurgence of state and local laws that require local law enforcement agents to enforce federal immigration law, a development that could cause even more turmoil in immigrant communities if there is not federal oversight of this activity.

If lawmakers replace or reform the agency, they must realize that any alternative will eventually have to enforce the nation’s immigration laws. Democrats would quickly discover that turning simple campaign slogans into reform of ICE’s law enforcement functions will encounter resistance from activists who fundamentally oppose the deportation of undocumented immigrants.

None of this should prevent Congress from pursuing necessary legislative reforms that help the agency and other government bodies enforce the law in a fair and humane way.

We believe that any reforms of immigration enforcement should have three core components.

First, they should preserve the agency’s capacity to enforce the nation’s immigration laws, including the authority to arrest and deport undocumented immigrants. A law without enforcement is not a law, and recent polls have shown that most Americans do believe in enforcing immigration law. However, these measures should be accompanied by oversight and accountability, to ensure that fundamental civil and human rights are respected.

Second, enforcement should be prioritized against undocumented immigrants who have committed serious crimes, a proposal that appeared in the bipartisan DACA-related legislation introduced by Sens. Angus King and Mike Rounds earlier this year.

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Finally, Congress should establish clear divisions between federal, state and local law enforcement authorities. Currently, the absence of clear guidelines on this issue has led states and localities to pass laws that promote or limit cooperation with ICE, a step that can strain police resources and has frayed relationships between agencies. Aside from helping local law enforcement prioritize any aid they would provide to federal immigration agents, such clarity would improve relationships between local authorities and immigrant communities concerned about working with these officials due to fears of deportation.

Any revisions to our immigration enforcement system should come with fixes for our immigration courts. Reforming the agency that arrests and deports immigrants without reforming the system that determines whether they can remain is likely to lead to more dysfunction. We need enough judges and court resources to process cases fairly and efficiently, and enough independence to be a check on overzealous immigration enforcement.

Will these measures appease the backers of #AbolishICE? Probably not, but they point to concrete measures that can help move the debate past sloganeering and toward the real work of strengthening our immigration system while addressing the needs of local immigrant communities.

Cristobal Ramón is a policy analyst with BPC’s Immigration Project. He previously worked at the National Immigration Forum.

David Lapan is BPC’s senior director of communications and public affairs. He previously served in the U.S. Departments of Defense and Homeland Security.

The Bipartisan Policy Center is a D.C.-based think tank that actively promotes bipartisanship. BPC works to address the key challenges facing the nation through policy solutions that are the product of informed deliberations by former elected and appointed officials, business and labor leaders, and academics and advocates from both ends of the political spectrum. BPC is currently focused on health, energy, national security, the economy, financial regulatory reform, housing, immigration, infrastructure, and governance. Follow BPC on Twitter or Facebook.

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