In a stunning upset, Democratic primary candidate Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez defeated 14-term incumbent Joe Crowley in New York’s 14th district primary. Ocasio-Cortez’s platform consisted of many progressive policies such as Medicare-For-All and free public college. However, one of her bolder ideas was to abolish ICE. 

With the idea being thrust into mainstream discussion, it’s important to discuss whether abolishing ICE is an effective solution to the immigration issues in the US. While Ocasio-Cortez and other supporters of the “Abolish ICE” movement are well-intentioned, analysis of the issue reveals that abolishing ICE is a misguided reaction to the Trump administration’s strong enforcement of immigration law that ignores alternative measures.

What Is ICE?

Immigration and Customs Enforcement, commonly referred to as ICE, is a branch of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) created in 2003 that “enforces federal laws governing border control, customs, trade and immigration to promote homeland security and public safety”. ICE is made up of three branches, each with their own tasks regarding immigration.

The first branch is Homeland Security Investigations, or HSI. HSI monitors criminal activity that involves immigration to the US. Some of the criminal activities that fall under HSI’s jurisdiction include weapons smuggling, transnational gang activity, and human trafficking.

The second branch is Office of the Principal Legal Advisor (OPLA) which represents the DHS in cases involving “criminal aliens, terrorists, and human rights abusers”.

The final branch is Enforcement and Removal Operations, or ERO. ERO is responsible for identifying undocumented immigrants, detaining them, and removing them from the country.

Why Is ICE Important?

One of the reasons why ICE is valuable is because of its stated purpose: to enforce immigration law both internally and at the border. Consider a scenario where ICE does not exist at all. Imagine a reality where undocumented immigrants would have zero likelihood of being deported from the country, as they would be incentivized to cross the border since there would be no consequences for them if they avoided getting caught. Without an agency like ICE whose duty is to enforce immigration law, illegal immigration into the country would increase, exacerbating the state of the immigration crisis. 

Additionally, the HSI division of ICE stops criminal activity; protecting Americans from drugs smuggling, weapons smuggling, human trafficking, and other serious crimes. In fact, as part of Operation Predator, HSI has arrested over 16,000 child predators, proving that they do have a positive impact on communities in the US.

Why Are Progressives Critical Of ICE?

Progressives have argued that ICE has treated its detainees inhumanely, is hostile to undocumented immigrants, and acts in a manner beyond the limits of the law. Beyond the Trump administration’s zero-tolerance policy, separating children from parents, sexual assault, and deaths in ICE facilities are the main focal points for this criticism.

And this assessment is indeed accurate. Investigative reporting by the Intercept found that there were 1,224 sexual assault complaints in ICE facilities with 59% of these complaints listing an officer being the perpetrator. Additionally, 64% of ICE facilities comply with PREA (Prison Rape Elimination Act) standards, meaning that many prisoners do not even have access to proper resources to report sexual assault.

Another issue within ICE facilities is substandard medical care. A report from Detention Watch Network (DWN) found that there were eight deaths due to inadequate treatment in ICE detention centers during the Obama administration. And for all but one of these cases, ERO inspectors rated the facilities as “passing” both before and after the detainees’ deaths. Although these issues put ICE’s ability to enforce immigration law into question, abolishing ICE is not the right solution to these problems.

Why Is Abolishing ICE Ineffective?

For starters, much of the recent criticism directed at ICE has been because of the zero-tolerance policy. However, this criticism is rendered invalid by the fact that Customs and Border Patrol separates children from parents, while ICE detains and reunites children with parents.

But even if ICE separated children from parents, abolishing ICE accomplishes nothing. Tammy Duckworth, Democratic Senator from Illinois, put it this way, “You abolish ICE now, and you have the same president, with the same failed policies.” Those who believe abolishing ICE will stop the separation of children from their parents are misunderstanding the reality of the situation: the Trump administration implemented the zero-tolerance policy, not ICE.

Furthermore, backlash against ICE has interfered with HSI’s ability to work with local law enforcement. In a letter to DHS Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, 20 HSI Division Leaders asked that they be separated from ICE because local law enforcement was unwilling to work with an agency associated with ICE. Through abolishing ICE, and in turn, HSI,  Congress would be erasing the important role ICE plays in protecting the public from criminal activity.

What Are The Effective Solutions?

But just because ICE and the zero-tolerance policy are different and HSI performs valuable work, doesn’t mean ICE gets a free pass for the inhumane activities that have occurred in detention centers; ICE needs to improve its facilities.

DWN recommended that ICE allow prisoners with medical issues to automatically be released from ICE custody and cut ties with private prisons where medical care is inadequate. A report from the Office of the Inspector General indicates that increased inspections by the Office of Detention Oversight could help detect systemic deficiencies within detention facilities.

Overall though, the culture of ICE also needs to change. ICE’s culture of hostility towards undocumented immigrants starts from the top, with recently-retired ICE director Thomas Homan becoming notorious for making statements like, “If you entered this country illegally, you should be looking over your shoulder and you should be worried.” Statements like these show an unwillingness on ICE’s part to preserve the dignity of undocumented immigrants.

Ultimately, if ICE wants to improve its reputation, the first change needs to start with its attitude towards undocumented immigrants. If ICE can preserve the dignity of undocumented immigrants while simultaneously enforcing immigration law, the United States will be able to honor human rights and protect the American public from genuine criminals.

Image Attribute: Pixabay