Prominent Democrats have decided that the Department of Immigration and Customs Enforcement should be abolished. We aren’t surprised the “Abolish ICE” slogan has caught on, given the party has been moving left on the immigration issue for years. And for now, “Abolish ICE” is nothing but rhetoric: Even the agency’s most strident opponents, perhaps wary of adopting a position too far outside the mainstream of public opinion, have been vague about what they would do after abolishing the agency. Hence Kirsten Gillibrand wants to abolish ICE, but also to “start over, reimagine it, and build something that actually works.”
Nonetheless, the slogan is a useful shorthand for the Democratic position on internal immigration enforcement: as little as possible. Democrats have pointed to ICE’s newness — it was created in 2003 — as evidence that the agency is inessential. But internal enforcement happened before 2003; it was simply performed by Immigration and Naturalization Services (INS). The creation of the Department of Homeland Security in the wake of 9/11 prompted a reshuffling of the executive branch’s national-security apparatus. The wing of INS that handled green cards, citizenship, and work permits was reconstituted under U.S. Customs and Immigration Services, while the “enforcement” branch of INS was combined with certain customs operations to become ICE.
ICE is thus composed of two parts: Enforcement and Removal Operations, which enforces our immigration laws within the borders, identifies illegal aliens, and conducts deportations; and Homeland Security Investigations, which conducts investigations into smuggling, human trafficking, and assorted criminal activity. Because this investigative wing of ICE is also responsible for conducting worksite enforcement — taking action against employers who hire and profit off of unauthorized workers — it may be that ICE’s structure could be improved: The agency’s enforcement-and-removal wing may be better suited to enforcing the law against these businesses than is the investigative wing.
But of course this isn’t what “abolish ICE” is about. The Democratic party already has coalesced around the policy that only illegal immigrants who are convicted felons should be deported; internal enforcement against non-felons would then be unnecessary. We suspect it is the enforcement of our immigration laws itself that the Left objects to. A significant chunk of illegal immigrants are people who overstayed their visas. Abolishing our internal-enforcement agency would mean that these immigrants were de facto free to stay in the country so long as they did not commit a felony. And though ICE does not police the border, illegal border-crossing would be incentivized in a world without internal enforcement, as those who managed to make it into the country would not be subject to deportation. Without ICE, the U.S. would have an immigration system with mostly meaningless limits.
We would be happy to discuss ways to reform ICE and make it a more effective tool of internal enforcement. That is not the conversation Democrats want to have. “Abolish ICE” is at once an empty rhetorical flourish, a poorly conceived policy, and a sign of how much the Democrats have radicalized on immigration.