Senator Kirsten Gillibrand of New York is a textbook taqiyya Democrat: She presented herself as a moderate when representing a relatively conservative House district and now, after pronouncing herself “ashamed” of her previously moderate positions on issues such as gun rights, she is doing a pretty good impersonation of a left-wing radical, most recently by calling for the abolition of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), the sister agency to the U.S. Border Patrol charged with overseeing the deportation of illegal aliens, among other duties.
Abolishing ICE is the Democratic cause du jour, part of the party’s current rush to the left. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the self-described socialist who won a Democratic House primary over party-caucus chairman Joe Crowley in New York in June, ran as much against ICE as she did against President Donald Trump and Representative Crowley. A petition in California calls for the abolition of the agency; Representatives Mark Pocan, Pramila Jayapal, and Adriano Espaillat (Democrats of Wisconsin, Washington, and New York, respectively) have introduced legislation to dissolve it; Representative Yvette D. Clarke (a New York Democrat) denounced the agency as “the Gestapo of the United States of America,” and Josh Marshall of Talking Points Memo described ICE as a “rogue agency.” Sean McElwee of Data for Progress, an early and tireless advocate of abolishing the agency, wrote in The Nation: “The call to abolish ICE is, above all, a demand for the Democratic party to begin seriously resisting an unbridled white-supremacist surveillance state that it had a hand in creating.”
Mara Liasson of National Public Radio wrote: “Many Democratic strategists were asking why — just when the Democrats were winning the immigration debate — they should adopt a slogan that could backfire on them going into the midterm elections.” But what’s in question is not merely a slogan. It is a rhetoric, true, but it also is a genuine worldview, one that equates those charged with enforcing U.S. immigration law with the Nazi secret police and insists that the act of law enforcement itself is a “white supremacist” undertaking, propositions that may not do very much to help Democrats win back those Rust Belt voters who turned to Donald Trump in 2016. Democrats are settling on a strategy of meeting Trump’s purported radicalism with radicalism of their own rather than with Clintonian triangulation and difference-splitting.
In a sense, that is the Democrats’ perverse tribute to President Trump. On key initiatives such as judicial appointments and corporate-tax reform, Trump has governed in more or less the same way that a President Scott Walker or a President Marco Rubio might have, but he is a rhetorical maximalist, a full-time Kulturkampf commando. The Republicans’ problem in 2016 was that Larry Kudlow’s people had the power but Sean Hannity’s people had the numbers, and they’d heard all they wanted to hear from the Chamber of Commerce. The Democrats’ problem in 2018 (and, most important, in 2020) is similar: that theirs is a party in which rich, elderly white people call the shots and young brown people with a hell of a lot less money do the work. They want Democratic leaders who will offer them what Trump offered Republicans in 2016: politics without mercy, and without caution.
Of course abolishing ICE is a batty idea, but, then, so have been Republican calls to abolish (pay attention now, Rick Perry) the IRS, the Department of Energy, the Department of Education, the Department of Commerce, etc. Calls to abolish departments sound good — they sound radical, which is approximately the same thing in our current angry political moment — but they generally are foolish or meaningless. What’s important is not dissolving agencies but dissolving programs.
Consider the Department of Energy. It irritates some conservatives, as Vox’s Matthew Yglesias put it, because it “was established during Jimmy Carter’s administration and it perhaps sounds like it might have something to do with solar panels.” DOE did indeed emerge from the neo-Malthusian terror of the late 1960s and early 1970s, back when Population Bomb author Paul Ehrlich was promising that “in the 1970s hundreds of millions of people will starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now. At this late date nothing can prevent a substantial increase in the world death rate.” DOE is sometimes used as an instrument of industrial policy, which Republicans don’t like except when they’re in charge of it, and it suffers from the same ailments that afflict any comparable federal bureaucracy. But if you drive past Pantex, the facility just outside Amarillo where many of the nation’s nuclear weapons are assembled and serviced, you’re looking at an important part of DOE’s portfolio — one that isn’t going away so long as we have nuclear weapons. DOE maintains its own little special-forces operation, the Federal Protective Forces, who are charged with defending nuclear facilities, responding to nuclear incidents, and tracking down stolen nuclear materials. Those tasks aren’t going away, either. Perhaps they could be consolidated with other defense operations, but very seldom has anybody ever spoken the words “That would be done a lot more efficiently if we put the Pentagon in charge of it.”
The Department of Education does a lot of squishy and destructive stuff, too, and eliminating those programs would be worthwhile. But it also administers Pell grants, college aid, and veterans’ programs that few if any Republicans are serious about eliminating. The IRS is a ghastly and corrupt agency, and one might make a case for abolishing it on the grounds that it is institutionally irredeemable, which is of course the argument the Democrats are making against ICE. But if the IRS were abolished tomorrow, somebody — maybe we could contract the job out to the Swiss — would be put in charge of collecting the taxes. And whoever ends up collecting the taxes will probably have many or most of the same powers as the IRS, the same institutional incentives, the same potential for abuse, and the same problems.
We want to collect taxes. Do we want to enforce immigration laws?
Talk-radio rhetoric notwithstanding, there are very few plain and thoroughgoing supporters of genuinely open borders on either side of the political divide. Open borders are not without historical precedent (immigrants arriving in Victorian England did not need so much as a passport stamp, and the United States itself had effectively open borders for many years) but are not really on the agenda in this age of terror and overreaction to terror.
What is in the offing is the decriminalization of unauthorized entry into the United States — and all that angst and wailing about children of illegal immigrants separated from their incarcerated parents, like the call to abolish ICE, is really a stalking-horse for that issue. Senator Gillibrand et al. are serious about abolishing the law-enforcement agency responsible for immigration issues because they do not really believe that illegal immigration should be a criminal-justice issue at all, but rather think it should be closer to a civil offense (which is what overstaying a visa is, under current law) or a bookkeeping issue.
The bill abolishing ICE would establish the inevitable blue-ribbon commission to study the agency’s core responsibilities and how they should be carried out in a post-ICE world. Senator Gillibrand owes her constituents a straight answer about whether apprehending and deporting illegal aliens is in fact a core responsibility of those charged with enforcing U.S. immigration laws. If it is, then she ought to explain why apprehending and deporting illegal immigrants (some of whom will have children) would be less horrifying and scandalous if it were handled by an agency not called “ICE.” If it isn’t — which is to say, if our national government is to abandon the task of apprehending and deporting those present in the United States illegally — then Senator Gillibrand and her Democratic colleagues should say so honestly and take that case to the voters.
Democrats may take seriously the bumper-sticker slogan “No Person Is Illegal.” Beto O’Rourke, the Democrat running against Senator Ted Cruz in Texas, has shown himself awfully wormy on the question, insisting that he is “open to doing whatever it takes” to reform immigration practices but unwilling to endorse ICE’s abolition even as he left unchallenged a Houston activist’s insistence that the agency is a “terroristic organization,” a charge also made by Cynthia Nixon, who is running for governor of New York. In July, the House of Representatives considered a bill expressing support for the law-enforcement personnel responsible for investigating and policing illegal immigration.
O’Rourke voted against it.
Beto O’Rourke’s yard-sign game is tight, but if he cannot explain the difference between law enforcement and terrorism, then he and his fellow Democrats are simply playing make-believe. Cynthia Nixon is excellent on that score, but one suspects that the voters of Texas — and New York, and Wisconsin, and Washington — may be less inclined to sit back and enjoy the show. And they might keep in mind that the born-again fire-breather Kirsten Gillibrand used to pretend to be a moderate, too.