Three Democratic lawmakers gave a boost to the “Abolish ICE” movement Thursday, seizing on an effort by the agency’s criminal investigative division to spin off as its own entity.
Introduced by U.S. Representatives Mark Pocan of Wisconsin, Pramila Jayapal of Washington and Adriano Espaillat of New York, the legislation would eliminate ICE within a year of the bill’s passage. Though the proposal is going nowhere in the Republican-controlled House, it’s the latest indication that #AbolishICE is gaining traction in the Democratic Party’s mainstream.
In arguing for the bill, the lawmakers echoed many of the points made last month by top ICE criminal investigators who asked to leave the agency. In a letter to Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, first reported by the Observer, 19 agents with ICE’s Homeland Security Investigations, or HSI, complained that their mission has been jeopardized by the agency’s increasingly zealous pursuit of undocumented immigrants without criminal records. The lawmakers cited the letter in their legislation.
“HSI’s investigations have been perceived as targeting undocumented aliens, instead of the transnational criminal organizations that facilitate cross border crimes impacting our communities and national security,” the agents wrote in the June letter.
On Thursday, the lawmakers said that public confidence in ICE had also deteriorated. Like the HSI agents, they complained that ICE’s $7.1 billion budget was tilted toward detaining and deporting immigrants, and gave short shrift to going after terrorists, human traffickers and drug smugglers.
Officials at ICE did not respond to a request for comment.
Jerry Robinette, the former special agent in charge of HSI in San Antonio, said ICE’s criminal investigation mission is hurt both by having its budget raided to pay for immigrant detention, as well as a refusal by some local law enforcement agencies to partner with ICE. But he said the letter wasn’t intended to repudiate ICE’s broader mission. Eliminating the agency would do little to curtail policies such as “zero-tolerance,” which was largely carried out by the Border Patrol and the Justice Department, Robinette said.
The bill’s authors “want to eliminate the ability for anybody to deport people. Or at lease to minimize the effectiveness of” ICE’s deportation officers, Robinette said.
The lawmakers sought to assuage concerns that they would be doing away with immigration enforcement altogether. “We should eliminate the agency as it stands and start from scratch to restructure its functions,” Jayapal said.
In response to Thursday’s proposal, Texas Senators Ted Cruz and John Cornyn joined a group of Republicans who introduced a resolution supporting ICE.
#AbolishICE also has Democratic critics, including Laredo Congressman Henry Cuellar, who’s drawn the ire of his party’s left wing for his hawkish stance on border security and his support of legislation that would expedite the deportation of unaccompanied minors from Central America. On Thursday, Cuellar told the Observer that eliminating ICE would do nothing to resolve the status of 10 million undocumented immigrants or prevent a return to the “zero-tolerance” policy, which seeks to bring criminal charges against all first-time border crossers, including parents traveling with children.
Cuellar said he’s in favor of a path to citizenship for those here illegally, paired with a guest worker program and enhanced border security measures, and would consider eliminating criminal penalties for those caught crossing the border for the first time.
“If we have an issue on ‘zero-tolerance,’ then we change the law,” Cuellar said. “I think ICE has just been made a lightning rod for the policies that are being carried out by President Trump.”