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" began in June 2018 as an ambiguous call for change without a specific legislative proposal, with 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), andVelazquez (NY) calling for abolishing ICE.
On July 12, Rep. Mark Pocan (D-WI2) introduced legislation. Here's what it would do.
Does "Abolish ICE" mean ending immigration enforcement?
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
H.R. 6361: Establishing a Humane Immigration Enforcement System Act, Pocan's bill, would establish a commission to report to Congress a plan to transition the essential functions of ICE to other agencies, with a focus on human rights and transparency, and it would terminate ICE one year after the bill becomes law.
Although ICE would end, the "Commission to Study and Establish a Fair and Humane System of Immigration and Customs Enforcement" would be directed to propose a plan that does not reduce the total federal employment, but instead ICE agents would be replaced with personnel responsible for the legal, health, and social-service needs of detained individuals and asylum-seekers. It would also provide recommendations to ensure federal agencies administer asylum requests in a prompt and timely manner.
The bill outlines the sponsors' rationale for abolishing ICE in eighteen easy-to-read bullet points and directs the commission to comply with international standards, including the Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees of 1967, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and the Convention Against Torture.
Pocan issued a joint press release with Reps. Pramila Jayapal (WA-07) and Adriano Espaillat (NY-13) upon introducing the bill:
"Sadly, President Trump has so misused ICE that the agency can no longer accomplish its goals effectively. As a result, the best path forward is this legislation, which would end ICE and transfer its critical functions to other executive agencies."
Before introducing the legislation, Pocan hadproposed in a tweet that ICE's work to combat human trafficking "would be transferred to other agencies that already fight human trafficking." Rep. Espaillat 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.
What opponents say
Rather than hold a vote on the bill, House Republicans voted Wednesday on a resolution in support of ICE, authored by Rep. Clay Higgins (R-LA3). It passed 244--35, with 133 Democrats voting "present."
The resolution tells a different story about ICE than the Pocan bill. It provides a competing argument outlining ICE's recent accomplishments, such as criminal convictions on drug and violent crimes, and highlights the dangers of abolishing the organization. It is also written in plain-language and is also worth reading. Higgins said in a press release:
"ICE plays a crucial role for our nation's security and their service should be respected. Hopefully, this resolution will remind some of my colleagues across the aisle that we have been elected to serve American citizens, not foreign citizens, and certainly not illegal immigrants."
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.