Several prominent Democrats who are mulling a bid for the White House in 2020 sought to bolster their progressive credentials this week by calling for major changes to immigration enforcement, with some pressing for the outright abolition of the federal government’s chief immigration enforcement agency.
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York said Immigration and Customs Enforcement, known as ICE, has “become a deportation force.”
“You should get rid of it, start over, reimagine it and build something that actually works,” she told CNN late Thursday.
Her comments follow similar sentiments expressed by Sen. Kamala Harris of California over the past week. In interviews with multiple outlets, she has said the government “maybe” or “probably” should “start from scratch” on an immigration enforcement agency.
Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, who sought the Democratic nomination in 2016 and is mulling another run, has stopped short of his colleagues’ calls to dismantle ICE. But he has also been quick to note his vote opposing the 2002 law that paved the way for ICE to replace the old Immigration and Naturalization Service following the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
Housed within the Department of Homeland Security, ICE is in charge of executing hundreds of federal immigration statutes.
The debate over the agency’s future follows the outcry in recent weeks over the separation of illegal immigrant children from their parents. President Donald Trump issued an executive order last week limiting family separations as much as possible under the law.
The Democratic calls to scrap the agency underscore the balancing act the party is facing on illegal immigration. Such rhetoric could prove unhelpful to the 10 Democratic senators seeking re-election this fall in states Trump carried in 2016, where conservative views on illegal immigration prevail. But calling for an end to ICE could be a winner for Democrats seeking to rally the party’s ultra-liberal base in the 2020 presidential primaries.
Many far-left anti-Trump activists have celebrated the moves by Gillibrand, Harris and others.
Nelini Stamp, the national organizing director for the Working Families Party, one of many leftist groups that ratcheted up their activity after Trump’s election, called it a “critical moment” in the early maneuverings for 2020.
“Any Democrats who want to be the nominee needs to stand on the right side of this,” Stamp said. “Even if they don’t say ‘abolish ICE,’ they can’t not address it.”
Angel Padilla, the political director of the Indivisible Movement, said ICE “terrorizes communities” and that Gillibrand’s move “demonstrates where the progressive base is.”
Still, not every illegal immigrant advocacy group takes the same view.
Cristobal Alex, president of the Latino Victory Project, rejected abolishing ICE as a “litmus test.” But he said it’s “heartening” that immigration policy in general “is at the forefront of the conversation ahead of 2020.”
Alex said his group has met privately with several potential presidential candidates.
Their focus, Alex said, should be on “stopping the longstanding culture of corruption” in U.S. policy toward illegal immigrants and “the appalling practices” of the Trump administration, not on a move that by itself “amounts to rebranding.”
Indeed, the would-be presidential candidates haven’t yet detailed what they propose in ICE’s place. Harris had introduced legislation before the border separation issue that would curb the expansion of immigration detention centers. She and Gillibrand have at least hinted that they would want the Justice Department’s prosecutorial power less involved in border security.
Whatever the details, the focus on ICE could cause problems in the Democratic primary for some potential candidates with less extreme records on illegal immigration.
Former Vice President Joe Biden voted as a senator from Delaware for the 2002 law — the Homeland Security Act — that paved the way for ICE to replace the Immigration and Naturalization Service. He also voted in 2006 for a Bush administration-backed border security measure. Biden, however, has been critical of Trump’s immigration policy as he considers a 2020 run. Earlier this year, Biden headlined a private event with the Latino Victory Project in Miami.
The activists pushing for ICE abolition, meanwhile, said they aren’t worried about potential blowback or any difficulties for Democrats over charges that they favor “open borders.”
At the Working Families Party, Stamp said she sees the activists taking a position that “offers space” to other Democrats who activists know won’t agree with them. “We give them room to talk about better immigration policy,” she said, comparing the circumstances to the civil rights movement, when the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., was viewed more favorably by white power brokers than more strident leaders like Malcolm X.
“Martin Luther King never said, ‘Black power,'” Stamp said. “But having the left flank that did, made the right folks willing to at least talk to King.”
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