Many calls in the US to "abolish ICE", including from a recently elected socialist, are actually calls to return to the notorious immigration police of the last century.
For several months, immigration policy in the US has erupted into a full blown crisis. Images of children in cages, even children from Central America, have disturbed the consciences of millions of Americans. The crisis is so bad that even right-wing politicians like Senator Ted Cruz and Speaker of the House of Representatives Paul Ryan have expressed dismay over the current policy of separating immigrant children from their parents.
The current situation cannot hold, but not because caging children is anathema to US politics. In fact there is a long tradition of caging children in the US and separating them from their parents, from the enslavement of Africans (whose family members were often sold and never heard from again) to the genocide of Native Americans, whose children were shipped off to boarding schools through the Twentieth Century. Continuing to today, migrant children from Central America were encaged under the Obama administration, and juvenile detention centers continue to encage mostly Black and Latino children. The most notorious recent example is that of Kalief Browder, a 16-year-old who was detained on New York’s Riker’s Island for three years after being accused of stealing a backpack, later committing suicide after his release.
The Kalief Browder’s that still sit in cages throughout the US will see no relief from whatever reforms come to deal with the current immigration crisis. And the reforms are likely to come. The legitimacy of the US’s racist border policy depends on a change to this disastrously cruel policy. It will likely be changed in order to ensure that Mexican and Central American and other immigrants can continue to be policed and exploited and terrorized, just perhaps with a bit less visible cruelty toward the children.
The rallying cry that has arisen, with a surprisingly radical tone, is to “Abolish ICE,” that is, to put an end to Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the federal immigration police force. New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand–who is likely to be a contender in the 2020 presidential election–has called for an end to ICE. Cynthia Nixon, the Sex And The City actress running for Governor of New York, has called ICE a “terrorist organization.” Some ICE agents have even called for the agency’s dissolution.
The last example should clarify what is really going on here. ICE agents–much less Kirsten Gillibrand–do not want to transform US immigration policy. On the contrary, these ICE agents see the soiled name of ICE as an obstacle to enforcing current immigration policy. This is why such a rallying cry has taken off across the mainstream, and not because any of these people really want to abolish anything.
What may be surprising is the case of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
Seemingly out of nowhere, Ocasio-Cortez defeated incumbent Joe Crowley for his seat in Congress representing parts of the Bronx and Queens in late June. Crowley was an entrenched, mainstream Democrat and a likely successor to Nancy Pelosi as the leader of the Democratic Party caucus in the House of Representatives. Ocasio-Cortez, on the other hand, is a 28-year-old member of the Democratic Socialists of America winning her first election.
Alongside her Bernie Sanders-style campaigning over working-class issues, Ocasio-Cortez has taken up the call to “Abolish ICE,” which has probably encouraged and even pressured others to do the same. Incredibly, however, her call is hardly different from the likes of Gillibrand. Rather than transform US immigration policy, Ocasio-Cortez wants to replace ICE with its predecessor, Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS), or something similar to it.
In a series of tweets from a month before the election–though completely unnoticed by those on the Left falling over themselves at “the birth of a new socialist movement”–Ocasio-Cortez noted:
About 10 years ago I worked in Ted Kennedy’s foreign affairs/immigration constituent office. I REGULARLY fielded calls from panicked mothers who came home to missing family members. ICE was created in 2003 along w/ the Patriot Act. It was a weapon waiting for a tyrant. . . .
In fact, the folks who panic about the idea of #abolishICE seem to forget that we had a system before it: the INS. The INS forwarded crimes to the Department of Justice. That is exactly how it should be done. . .
If a person commits a crime, they should go through due process as outlined in our Constitution. Period.
That’s how it was until 2003. ICE changed all of that, and created an extrajudicial black-box system that has deported >10k US citizens(!) Here’s what must be done:
We must #abolishICE. It’s very structure is about as undemocratic and authoritarian as it gets in the US. We have to replace ICE with an updated INS-like structure that handles crime through the same court system we’ve had for well over 100 years.
This is shocking stuff coming from an avowed “socialist.” One wonders if she has any idea that “panicked mothers who came home to missing family members” lived the same experience under the INS. One also wonders if she is aware of such “undemocratic and authoritarian” institutions such as the FBI, the law enforcement agency in the Department of Justice.
These comments on Twitter are not just a fluke, they are her official immigration policy. In an interview with National Public Radio shortly after the election, Ocasio-Cortez reiterated these same points:
Interviewer: [Y]ou’re still going to have immigration officers, right? You’re still going to have customs officers, if you got your way. I mean, there’s going to be border enforcement. It’d just be under a different name.
Ocasio-Cortez: Well, I think it’s a different name and a different approach, you know? Before ICE, we had Immigration and Naturalization Services, but it wasn’t until about 1999 that we chose to criminalize immigration at all. And then once ICE was established, we really kind of militarized that enforcement to a degree that was previously unseen in the United States.
Ocasio-Cortez continued: “I do think that we have to have a secure border. We need to make sure that people are, in fact, documented.”
The most obvious question to this last statement is: why? Why do we have to have a secure border? Why do we need to make sure that people are documented? The answer is, capital needs these things. And if you want to succeed in the Democratic Party, you cannot call for open borders. This is probably non-negotiable, and this is precisely why the Democratic Party is the graveyard of social movements. No struggle for immigrant rights can really expect to accomplish much if it is calling for the INS and secure borders. The Democratic Party acts as a graveyard not just for those inside of it, who accept these limitations, but also for those who go around making excuses for these things because they like Ocasio-Cortez’s class rhetoric even though they pretend to remain proudly independent of the party.
Just a note on the INS for those unfamiliar. It was the predecessor to ICE–the INS was “abolished” in favor of ICE in 2003 as a part of the creation of the Department of Homeland Security after September 11, 2001. The INS was the organization responsible for rounding up Japanese-Americans and placing them in internment camps during World War II. Shortly after, the INS was one of the departments that oversaw the notorious “bracero” guest worker program, which brought millions of Mexican laborers into the US to work in some of the most difficult and heavily exploited work in the country, before being sent back home with no rights. In the decades since, the INS terrorized immigrant workers with workplace raids which destroyed people’s lives, ripped them from their families and, in many cases, successfully disrupted workplace organizing campaigns.
It is hard to believe that anybody even remotely around immigrant struggles would be so ignorant or naive as to propose the INS as a good example of immigration policy. On the other hand, some people actually think the Democratic Party could be a force for radical change, so it’s hard to tell. In fact, there is long tradition of progressive reformers with left-ish sounding messages supporting policies that are ultimately quite backward–in order to position themselves in the Democratic Party. Whether they are cynically jockeying for power or offering what they think is the best possible solution under the difficult circumstances is irrelevant. It is their actions that matter.
The significance of all this is that both the Democrats and the Republicans are seeking a solution to the current crisis. Specifically, this is the crisis of the media showing immigrant children in cages and telling stories of them being ripped from the arms of their parents. Once the media can be convinced to stop telling these stories, the crisis will be over.
Somebody like Ocasio-Cortez will be able to play a key role in delivering a solution to this crisis. Efforts to “abolish ICE”–or rather, repeal and replace it with the INS–will be made much easier by Leftists who line up to tell fairy tales about how great life was for immigrants before 2003. Whether she endorses the final legislation or simply plays along with a corrupt process and pretends it will produce positive results before pulling out at the last minute–a favorite tactic of liberal Democrats–she will be able to rally support for her party’s efforts.
The future of the party
Far from challenging the Democratic Party leadership, Ocasio-Cortez has already been hailed by Tom Perez, leader of the Democratic National Committee, as being the “future of our party.” Perez knows well what a valuable role she is playing in exciting young people, such as his own college age kids. She has embraced a number of Democratic Party candidates around the country and can be relied on to continue to do so, while giving radical sounding demands–”Abolish ICE!”–a way of fitting into mainstream Democratic policy positions.
Efforts to support her, even turning out people to hear her speak, will bolster efforts toward fundraising for the party, registering people to vote (as Democrats), and making excuses for indefensible positions–like bringing back the INS. This is how party politics works. This is why parties exist. Basking in the glow of socialism does not make these things go away, they just make them more palatable. Tom Perez is much more savvy than his predecessors in understanding this. Whether the Left is more savvy than Perez is an open question.
What Perez understands is that there is now a template that may be applied in some areas of the country for winning elections. In these places, where the DSA and other left-wing groups are well organized, the Democrats can fall back on a base of support for their ground campaign for turning out the vote, raising money and building other campaign events. So long as the candidate is socialist enough to get these people excited, they will be able to support violent, racist institutions like the INS, helping the Democrats pursue reform efforts that may otherwise be unappealing to progressives. This is exactly what political parties do. This is why they exist.
The fact that it feels so exciting and engaging does not change anything–it merely makes it more effective. That people get excited by the soaring rhetoric of a Barack Obama or a Bernie Sanders without even considering that they are in fact being manipulated in order to help some other people gain power is one of the great mysteries and challenges of party politics.
This is why the Democratic Party is the graveyard of the Left. It can take the aspirations of radicals and feed the radicals what they want–left-wing rhetoric preached in the media and to large crowds–so long as they accept the limitations of the system. Incredibly, people who understand this process well and have preached its dangers for decades are suddenly rethinking all of this after the election of a single socialist candidate as a Democrat.
It is as though these Leftists had never even considered that such an election result would look exciting and popular, or that a socialist movement could have better things to do than to dive into electoral campaigns. Say, the class struggle for example.
Yes, the election of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was historic, and offers opportunities for many on the Left to fulfill their lifelong dream of having a mass socialist movement. But perhaps the Left can take a break from hyperventilating for a moment and focus on developing a strategy for resisting the reformed INS that she is offering to bring in. Perhaps they might even consider that this would actually build a stronger Left, even if it seems a bit less exciting in the short term.