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Why it's time to abolish ICE

Protesters call for the abolition of ICE in California. Photo: Pedro Rios/AFSC

By: Ronna Bolante

You probably saw the pictures: Children crying in cages. Parents deported without their kids. Families ripped apart. 

When the Trump administration started separating families at the U.S.-Mexico border earlier this year, people were rightfully outraged. As images flooded the media, people across the country took to the streets in mass protests and pressured elected officials to end the cruel treatment of immigrant families. 

Abolishing Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE)—an idea that once seemed radical—was now recognized by many as necessary. The call to abolish ICE took hold, gaining support from numerous individuals, organizations, and even elected officials willing to take a stand against the country’s deportation machine.  

“Abolishing ICE resonates with a lot of people today because they are affected by the stories about family separation,” says Pedro Rios, director of AFSC’s U.S.-Mexico Border Program in San Diego. “But it’s important to remember the agency has a long history of tearing apart families and hurting our communities.”  

Separating families since 2003 

Pedro has witnessed firsthand the terror and trauma the agency has caused since its creation in 2003. That year, ICE agents raided the home of a volunteer he worked with—a grandfather looking after his two grandchildren at the time.   

“Agents arrived at the break of dawn, and they placed all the family members—including the children—on the couch, being extremely abrasive toward them, before taking the grandfather away,” Pedro says. “The case cemented for me that we had entered a new era in how immigration enforcement was carried out in our country’s interior.” 

Since then, Pedro and volunteers from local human rights committees have responded to many more ICE raids. Just a few months ago, they documented a home raid where ICE agents shut off the electricity, barged in the door, pointed their guns at children, and didn’t provide a warrant until after they had extracted the father.     

“I was with several community members documenting the raid outside,” Pedro says. “I thought, if ICE is this egregious when people are watching them, how bad are they when people aren’t watching?”  

If ICE is this egregious when people are watching them, how bad are they when people aren’t watching? 

— Pedro Rios

Violating human rights 

There is no shortage of stories of how ICE terrorizes immigrant communities—raiding businesses to round up workers, arresting people near schools and courthouses, and showing no mercy for people who have known no other home but the U.S. for decades.   

The agency has a long history of violating human rights. ICE agents and police officers colluding with ICE have engaged in racial profiling and warrantless searches, detained people without probable cause, and fabricated evidence. The agency has been the subject of more than 1,200 complaints of sexual and physical abuse. ICE also provides deadly substandard medical care to those in detention. In 2017, 12 people died in ICE custody.  

Unfortunately, some businesses are also profiting handsomely from ICE’s activities. In fiscal year 2017, ICE deported an estimated 226,000 people, and the agency now detains an average of 45,000 people every day. ICE’s cruelty toward immigrants is fueling the mass incarceration industry—including detention centers run by for-profit prison corporations that benefit from human suffering.  

“The very mission of ICE is at odds with values we hold dear, like treating all people with dignity and respect,” says Kathryn Johnson, AFSC policy advocacy coordinator in Washington, D.C. “An agency that was created to tear apart communities and was founded on the belief that mass deportations make our country safer cannot be reformed.”   

“The very mission of ICE is at odds with values we hold dear, like treating all people with dignity and respect,” 

—Kathryn Johnson

Abolishing ICE is possible and necessary 

Rally calling for immigrant rights in Des Moines, Iowa. Photo: Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement

As of this writing, more than 180 elected officials—members of Congress, state legislators, mayors, and more—have expressed their support for abolishing ICE.  

And despite rhetoric to the contrary, the idea of abolishing a government agency is nothing new. Various administrations have created and dissolved agencies to respond to changing needs and politics.  

ICE was established in 2003 as part of the U.S. government’s response to 9/11, which also included mass surveillance, racial profiling, and increased militarism. Before ICE was created, immigration enforcement was handled by Immigration and Naturalization Services (INS). When the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) was established, with an “anti-terrorism” focus, INS was added to DHS and divided into three agencies: ICE, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, and Customs and Border Protection (CBP). Although INS had serious problems, the agency didn’t have as broad a mandate as ICE or CBP—nor nearly the same level of brutality. 

One contributing factor is that since its very inception, ICE has treated immigrants as a security threat—seemingly forgetting that immigrants have long been valued members of our communities.  

“We don’t need an abusive police force to arrest people for their immigration status and deport them from our communities,” Kathryn says. “The question shouldn’t be whether ICE can be abolished, but rather, how can we generate the political will to make that happen?” 

Lucy Duncan, AFSC Friends Relations director, says that abolishing ICE should also be a rallying cry for Quakers, who have played critical roles in movements to end state violence rooted in racism and xenophobia.  

“Quaker abolitionists like Benjamin Lay, John Woolman, and Lucretia Mott didn’t call for the reform of slavery, they were clear the institution had to end,” Lucy says. “As a Quaker who believes none of us is free until we all are, and that I have a moral prerogative to stand against agencies that abuse fellow humans, I believe we must do more than stand with immigrants as witnesses to their suffering. Abolishing ICE is a first step on that path.” 

Communities are seeing some wins 

While working to abolish ICE, communities across the country are simultaneously organizing locally to protect people from the agency’s abuses.  

Numerous reports have documented the negative impacts when local law enforcement collaborates with ICE, which leads to widespread racial profiling, denies immigrants their due process rights, and stokes distrust between immigrant communities and law enforcement. In several states across the country, AFSC is working with communities to stop local law enforcement from cooperating with ICE to round up and detain immigrants.  

This March, after years of public pressure, New Jersey’s Hudson County ended its controversial partnerships between local law enforcement and ICE. Cities like Newark and Jersey City—where many residents are foreign-born—have also adopted strong and meaningful policies to not collaborate with ICE. 

“I’ve seen the destruction caused when ICE is allowed to operate unchecked, and I’m proud of the work we’ve done to protect the rights and lives of all New Jersey residents,” says Chia-Chia Wang, advocacy and organizing director of AFSC’s Newark Immigrant Rights Program. “Until the federal government stops its relentless persecution of immigrants, it’s up to us to provide refuge in whatever ways we can.” 

“Until the federal government stops its relentless persecution of immigrants, it’s up to us to provide refuge in whatever ways we can.” 

—Chia-Chia Wang

AFSC is part of the ICE Out of California Coalition, an alliance of more than 150 groups. Photo: Pedro Rios/AFSC

On the West Coast, AFSC has played a critical role in the ICE Out of California Coalition, an alliance of more than 150 local, regional, and statewide immigrant rights groups and social justice organizations. The coalition scored a major victory last year with the passage of SB 54, known as the “sanctuary state” bill, which clearly limits how local enforcement collaborates with ICE. Today, AFSC is advising local police departments on policies and practices to ensure they comply with the new law.  

“The passage of this bill has been the most concrete work our coalition has done to limit ICE presence in California,” Pedro says. “It will help to protect immigrant community members and takes a strong stand against the abhorrent human rights violations taking place in our communities.” 

More work to do 

Some communities are moving in the opposite direction, passing anti-immigrant bills into law that prohibit municipalities from limiting collaboration with ICE. AFSC is working with communities in Iowa to mitigate the impact of one such state law. 

“It’s a badly written law, and it’s racist to its core,” says Erica Johnson, director of AFSC’s Immigrant Rights Program in Iowa. “When the bill became law, we heard from people who moved out of the state and went to places they perceived as more welcoming.” 

AFSC is working to limit the harm of the new law while also continuing to partner with others in pushing for a repeal of the law.  

But even in Iowa’s current political climate, Erica has seen how public opinion is shifting and why now is the time call for a deep change, such as abolishing ICE. And she has seen what can happen when people who have no experience with ICE learn about its surveillance and racial profiling and the harms it has inflicted on the immigrant community.   

In 2017, immigration enforcement increased by 67 percent in Iowa. And in May of this year, ICE raided a worksite in Erica’s hometown of Mount Pleasant.  

“People are forced to move from the theoretical, ideological talk-radio conversations about immigration laws to the reality of what enforcement looks like, because it’s happening in our backyards,” Erica says. “They see what has happened to local families, schools, economies, and they recognize the injustice. And we can begin to have a conversation.”  

Like any movement for social change, bringing an end to ICE requires time, hard work, and struggle, notes Kathryn.  

Although it’s unlikely to advance this election year, legislation has been introduced in Washington, D.C., to abolish ICE. In the meantime, AFSC, partner organizations, and many others will continue to urge Congress to stop abuses by ICE by defunding the agency as well as CBP.  

“Even if abolishing ICE isn’t possible this year or next, it’s important to change the discussion about immigrants and help people push the boundaries of what kind of world we could live in,” Kathryn says. “We want to live in a world where members of our communities aren’t torn from us and instead all people are treated humanely. Abolishing ICE is one step toward creating that world.”