SALT LAKE CITY — Less than a year ago, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was working as a bartender.
But in late June, the 28-year-old democratic socialist unseated Joe Crowle, the fourth-most powerful Democrat in the U.S. House in a race for New York’s 14th Congressional District.
Her victory — by a substantial margin — sent shock waves through the Democratic party, prompting a debate about whether her win was a fluke, or an indicator that the party’s success lay in moving farther to the left and embracing socially progressive causes.
Ocasio-Cortez’s immigration platform was especially influential, calling for the abolishment of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), the agency tasked with enforcing the immigration laws of the United States. ICE has come under fire for its role in enforcing border policies, which intensified in June when the Trump administration instituted a policy critics say separates families.
Her victory inspired other Democratic elected officials, including Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York and Sen. Kamala Harris of California, to demand the elimination or reform of ICE.
With increasing numbers of politicians speaking openly about eliminating the agency, and the hashtag #AbolishICE exploding on Twitter, it seems the Abolish ICE movement could become an important part of the Democratic platform for the midterm elections.
Or maybe not.
A new pollshows that the majority of Democrats aren’t in favor of abolishing ICE.
Just 24 percent of the public supports abolishing the agency, while 40 percent opposes and 34 percent have no opinion, according to the poll by The Associated Press-NORC Center of Public Affairs Research, which was released last week. There was little difference across partisan lines, with similar minorities of Democrats, independents and Republicans favoring abolishing the agency.
“It was interesting to assess where the public is on this issue and reconcile that with the position that a few Democrats were taking on the campaign trail,” Jennifer Benz, deputy director of the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research.
Sean McElwee, founder of the liberal think tank Data for Progress, was the first person to use the hashtag #AbolishICE on Twitter in February 2017.
McElwee said he isn’t particularly concerned about the poll results. He says the fact that a majority of Democrats don’t support #AbolishICE right now does not take into account the fact that the movement is growing and its popularity is increasing over time.
“It clearly hasn't prevented progressives from winning primaries,” he says. “As the elimination of ICE becomes a point of view more closely associated with the progressive wing of the Democratic Party it will become a position that more Democrats will embrace.”
Nevertheless, with midterm elections on the horizon, the poll results raise important questions:
Will the #AbolishICE movement continue to gain steam and remain a centerpiece of liberal campaign platforms?
Should America indeed abolish ICE?
And would doing so change America's immigration system?
What is #AbolishICE?
ICE came into being after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, when Congress pressured the George W. Bush administration to create a department responsible for domestic security. The backlash against the agency has emerged only recently, coinciding with immigration policies adopted by the Trump administration.
Since being elected, Donald Trump has returned to a policy that President Obama originally embraced but ultimately rejected — that of treating any undocumented immigrant as a priority for removal.
Though actual deportation numbers thus far are lower than those of the Obama years, which involved a record-breaking number of expulsions, the number of ICE arrests has increased substantially — rising42 percent between 2016 and 2017. These sometimes highly visible arrests have generated media attention and sparked outrage among many Americans.
McElwee with Data for Progress says he believes ICE should be abolished because of what he describes as the “racism” of the agency’s enforcement priorities, focusing on people of color and perpetuating the notion that immigrants are criminals and terrorists threatening our society. “It is an agency that violates everything we believe about what it means to be a liberal democracy,” he says.
#AbolishICE or #AbolishTrump?
Others say the #AbolishIce movement’s demands are misplaced.
John Sandweg, who served as acting director of ICE and as acting general counsel of the Department of Homeland Security in the Obama administration, says he sympathizes with protests against the zero tolerance immigration policy that resulted in families being separated at the border.
But, he says, the blame should be placed on the Trump administration — not on ICE, which he says is simply carrying out the directives of the president.
“People who are saying abolish ICE, what they're really saying is that we should get rid of Trump,” says Sandweg. “Blame should be placed not on ICE but on the policies of this administration.”
Doris Meissner, who was commissioner of the Immigration and Naturalization Service (the agency previously responsible for immigration enforcement) from 1993-2000, agrees.
“The real grievance here ... is the way ICE is going about its work, and that’s a matter of policy and priorities that have shifted dramatically from the prior administration,” says Meissner, currently senior fellow and director of the U.S. Immigration Policy Program at the Migration Policy Institute.
The shift she’s referring to is the change from targeting only those immigrants who pose a threat to public safety to any illegal immigrant residing in the United States.
Both Meissner and Sandweg say this new approach wastes limited resources and promotes fear.
The real grievance here ... is the way ICE is going about its work, and that’s a matter of policy and priorities that have shifted dramatically from the prior administration. – Doris Meissner, who was commissioner of the Immigration and Naturalization Service from 1993-2000
There are 11.5 million immigrants living in the United States illegally, says Sandweg, but ICE only has the resources to deport around 2,000 of them each year.
He says because of these constraints, ICE under previous administrations focused on only the most dangerous individuals, those who posed a real and present danger to public safety.
“ICE is now burning resources that otherwise should be spent on arresting criminals, and that means more criminals are going to stay in the United States,” Sandweg argues, adding that the politicization of ICE makes it harder for officers to do their jobs — which actually involve far more than just deportations.
“There is a real risk and a real cost to the administration’s policies, which drive down public perception of the agency and hinders the ability of the agency to do its job,” says Sandweg.
Sandweg points out that ICE is the nation’s second largest criminal investigative agency, responsible for uncovering everything from child sex trafficking, the sale of weapons to North Korea and Iran, to international pornography, fraudulent document rings, stolen art and rare bird smuggling.
“ICE does some incredible work for the country,” says Sandweg. But when ICE loses legitimacy or respect in the eyes of the public and law enforcement, it can no longer be as effective, he says.
In Sandweg’s view, the politicization of ICE has put pressure on local law enforcement and political leaders in large urban areas like Los Angeles or New York City to refuse to cooperate with ICE. That means if ICE is actually investigating the presence of MS-13 gang members in a certain area, local law enforcement won’t assist, he says.
The perception that ICE is looking to deport all undocumented immigrants also hurts ICE’s ability to work with immigrant communities during their investigations, he adds.
“You need someone in the community to give you valuable information about gang members, and when you’ve given the impression that no one is shielded from deportation including potentially your own informants — who’s going to talk to an ICE officer?” he says. "When you start using ICE as a political tool, then really it's public safety and national security that suffers."
A realistic movement?
Meissner says the abolition of ICE would have little practical impact, as other parts of the government would simply assume the agency’s responsibilities.
And Meissner sees McElwee’s call for an end to all deportations as an unrealistic notion, saying it’s unlikely that our laws would be rewritten in such a way as to make it impossible to deport someone who is in the country illegally and commits a serious violent crime.
The rhetoric supporting the ending of all deportations backfires, Meissner says.
“In pure political terms that point of view hands the issue to the other side," she says.
Meissner argues that Trump’s popularity with his base can be partially attributed to tap into the belief that there needs to be more stringent immigration law enforcement and that the left’s ideology of open borders makes it unwilling to give an inch on reasonable immigration restrictions, she says.
Nevertheless, she says, the symbolic importance of #AbolishICE should not be ignored.
“It is capturing a very legitimate outrage at the way in which ICE is currently carrying out its mission,” she says.
And, says McElwee, Democratic candidates’ calls for the abolishment of ICE will likely have a detrimental effect on the agency’s ability to secure funding from Congress, “depriving the agency of the financial and political capital necessary to execute its vision on society.”
Nevertheless, McElwee doesn't know if the movement will change the political makeup of the House in November.
“It’s not clear yet whether #AbolishICE is going to change the 2018 midterm elections,” he says.