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To Abolish or Not to Abolish: Is Abolishing ICE Enough?

Updated: Jan 20, 2021

By Yashavi Prakash

Image via The Atlantic

#AbolishICE was a simple hashtag started in 2017 that called for the end of the largest deportation force of this country, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, otherwise known as ICE. The rise in recognition of the movement led for many Democratic candidates and lawmakers to support the dismantling of ICE, and, with that, many of the Trump Administration’s divisive immigration policies. Representative of the 14th district of New York, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, ran her campaign on it voicing that “I don’t believe that an agency that systematically and repeatedly violates human rights...can be reformed”. She continues saying, “I think it has to be abolished and I think we need to figure out a new way of doing things”. Democratic senator Kirsten Gillibrand concurred with Ocasio-Cortez in 2018 telling CNN, “I believe that [ICE] has become a deportation force, and I think you should separate criminal justice from the immigration issues”. She goes on to say that “I think you should reimagine ICE under a new agency with a different mission and take those two issues out”.

While the movement seems to be growing in support, 2018 polls are beginning to contradict the idea that this is a widely held belief in the Democratic party. The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs found that although 57 percent of Democrats view the agency negatively, only 25 percent of Democrats support eliminating the agency.

Why don’t the other 32 percent of Democrats support the abolishment of the agency? Would the agency be better off abolished, or can it actually be reformed? In order to understand this, we must first understand the creation and early culture of ICE, determine whether undocumented immigrants truly pose a threat to the nation’s national security, and ascertain whether or not abolishing the agency is the “end-all be-all” solution to this nation’s controversial history of immigration policy.

The Creation and Early Culture of ICE and Immigration

Before ICE, Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) used to oversee the enforcement of legal immigration laws. However, after 9/11, which was considered as “the biggest intelligence failure in the history of the republic” in a June 2002 TIME article, many Americans were lacking confidence in the country as they felt that their safety was threatened.

In 2003, former President George W. Bush created new immigration agencies under the new umbrella of the Department of Homeland Security in response to the waning support of his administration. He divided the tasks of the INS among a few new agencies: U.S. Customs and Border Protection, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, and Immigrations and Customs Enforcement. While the first two agencies monitor ports of entry and handle visas, respectively, ICE manages detentions and the removal of people who have already been arrested for immigration violations. Former President Bush felt that such a major change would not only make the country feel safer at a time of great fear, but also reassure them that the government was doing something to help.

The philosophy behind the reason to establish ICE represented a change in the U.S. government’s view of immigrants, and many suggest that the establishment was created solely to criminalize immigrants. María Cristina García, a professor of history at Cornell University, elaborates on this telling TIME that “Immigration matters were once handled by the Department of Commerce, then the Department of it’s the Department of Homeland Security.” García believes knowing which department handles the matter “reveals a great deal about how society views immigration”. The shift from the Department of Commerce and the Department of Labor to the Department of Homeland Security conveys the idea that what was once viewed as an economic and workforce problem was now viewed as a national security issue. This reveals a “changed focus” on the idea of potential safety threats represented by immigrants, refugees, and asylum seekers.

This shift in focus didn’t start with the Bush Administration and the attacks of 2001, but rather with the Clinton Administration and his 1996 immigration laws. In the aftermath of the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, former President Bill Clinton signed the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA) of 1996, which expanded the “grounds for detaining and deporting immigrants, including long-term legal residents and was the first law to authorize the now widely used fast-track deportation procedures”. Subsequently, Clinton passed the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigration Responsibility Act (IIRIRA), which made sweeping changes to allow for retroactive deportations and broaden the types of crimes that could result in deportation. Section 287(g) of the Act also allowed the U.S. Attorney General to enter into agreements with state and local law enforcement agencies, allowing chosen officers to perform immigration law enforcement functions of federal immigration agents. Some examples of what deputized officers are authorized to do is to interview individuals to ascertain their immigration status, issue immigration detainers to hold individuals until ICE takes custody, issue a Notice to Appear (NTA) charging document that begins the removal process, and transfer non citizens into ICE custody.

As a result of both immigration laws, many immigrants — including those with legal residency — became deportable for non-violent offenses, many of which weren’t even classified as crimes on the state level. Examples of such offenses include marijuana possession, jumping a subway turnstile, or selling bootlegged DVDs. The system of mass detention and deportation perpetuated by these laws have had a dramatic impact on black immigrants. Data released by DHS shows that black immigrants are detained and deported at higher rates than their counterparts. The stats show a dramatic increase in the number of undocumented immigrants of African descent who have been racially profiled by local police and turned over to ICE for deportation; they are five times more likely to be deported as compared to their counterparts of different backgrounds. Although black immigrants make up only 7% of the total immigrant population, 20% of all immigrants in deportation proceedings due to criminal convictions are black. Clinton’s 1996 immigrant laws, especially Section 287(g) of the Act, not only opened up for more racial profiling by police officers and violations of due process, but also made it more difficult for people fleeing persecution to apply for asylum due to the domestic criminalization of undocumented immigrants.

Are undocumented immigrants genuinely this dangerous to the nation’s national security, or is this misleading propaganda?

Are Undocumented Immigrants a Severe Threat to National Security?

The rhetoric that undocumented immigrants pose a serious threat to society is perpetuated by those in power. These authoritative figures believe that undocumented immigrants are criminals who menace innocent Americans and take advantage of American generosity. This nation’s president, President Donald Trump, has used this rhetoric at the forefront of each of his campaigns, and primarily justifies radicalizing ICE by correlating undocumented immigrants with heavy, inhumane crimes. This is visible in the infamous quote from 2015 where he said undocumented immigrants “are bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.”

Is there any truth to this? Unbiased statistics and facts argue no, and there are no studies that show that illegal immigration increases the prevalence of violent crime or drug and alcohol problems.

To start off, undocumented immigrants are rarely ever convicted of a crime, especially a felony crime. As shown in the figure below, the Migration Policy Institute has estimated that 820,000, or 7.5 percent, of 11 million undocumented immigrants have been convicted of crime, and 300,000, or 2.7 percent, of the 11 million undocumented have committed felonies.

Regardless of the clear evidence that undocumented immigrants are rarely convicted of crimes, the Trump administration continues to perpetuate the idea that unauthorized immigration brings violent crime, such as murder, rape, robbery, and aggravated assault. In response of such rhetoric, Michael Light, a criminologist at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, looked into whether the continued increase in illegal immigration over the last three decades caused an equal jump in the crimes previously mentioned.

Dr. Light, in a phone interview with npr, reported on his findings, saying that the increase in undocumented immigration since 1990 “has not increased violent crime over that same time period”.

In a separate study by the Cato Institute, the researchers studied the criminality among undocumented immigrants in Texas. The state records were able to provide an accurate set of data for the Cato Institute to come to “the conclusion that criminal conviction and arrest rates in Texas for undocumented immigrants were lower than those of native-born Americans for murder, sexual assault, and larceny”. For example, while homicides by undocumented immigrants garner the most public attention, native-born Americans are 1.46 times more likely to commit homicide than undocumented immigrants. The results in this study are similar to a study in the U.K. journal Migration Letters where the researchers compared crime engagement rates of youthful undocumented immigrants to that of legal immigrants and their U.S. born peers. The study concluded that youthful undocumented immigrants engaged in less crime, thus challenging the rhetoric that all undocumented immigrants (regardless of age) brought more crime and peril than those who legally reside here.

In the third study, conducted by Dr. Light and his peers, they sought out to investigate the connection of undocumented immigration, drug problems, and driving under the influence in the United States. They learned that the substantial increase in undocumented immigrants, similarly, did not increase the rate of drug and alcohol arrests or the number of DUI dates and drug overdoses. The researchers, in the end, were able to conclude that they found no evidence that undocumented immigration increased the prevalence of any of the previous outcomes.

Many immigrant advocates would agree with this study, as it portrays how they view undocumented immigrants: law-abiding members of society who work hard, pay taxes, and raise their families. Statistics show that many undocumented immigrants do fit this description as about 60 percent of this population have been here for at least a decade. A third of undocumented immigrants 15 and older live with at least one child who is an American-born citizen, and slightly more than 30 percent own homes. As the studies and data show, only a small percentage of undocumented immigrants have been convicted of felonies or serious misdemeanors, and native-born American citizens are more frequently arrested for violent crimes as compared to their undocumented counterparts. The statistics indicate that these individuals are not here to spread crime, and most are good people. If anything, they are only here to build a better life for their children and themselves, and they are willing to do everything that will allow them to get there. Those who continue to spread the propaganda that undocumented immigrants are “rapists”, “murders”, and a threat to society are not only unsubstantiated, but it is also xenophobic given that they go to great lengths to prove something that does not exist.

To Abolish or Not to Abolish?

The beginning of the Trump administration brought hostility in the matters of immigration and deportation. President Trump’s divisive “zero tolerance” policy toward undocumented immigrants has brought more harm to human rights than “good” as he promised. The new, radicalized ICE in the Trump era has called for many immigrants rights advocates to demand the abolishment of the agency due to their notorious reputation of human rights violations in private detention centers.

This leaves many left with the question: is abolishing ICE right; is it enough?

This has to be determined while keeping the practice of decriminalizing migrants and preserving their human rights at its top priority.

To answer the question, we must remember the agency that was active before the creation of ICE: INS. INS was a part of the Department of Justice whose main role dealt with immigration and naturalization. Part of the agency’s role was devoted to turning immigrants into U.S. citizens. This is beneficial to everyone, considering the fact that research shows a large-scale legalization program leads to lower crime rates by improving migrants’ economic opportunities, resulting with a decrease in the current administration’s need to criminalize undocumented immigrants.

This is a practice absent from ICE, leaving for the agency’s flaws to arise at surface level. Because ICE is primarily focused on national security as a whole, the weight and purpose of the agency is so heavily in one direction that it has created a culture where people on the “front lines” — law enforcement officials — reckon that immigrants are a threat to national security.

There needs to be immigration reform, and the current purpose of ICE cannot be left untouched.

AOC is correct, and we cannot continue to preserve an organization that is fundamentally flawed and inhumane. I would argue that ICE must be abolished and reimagined, as Senator Gillibrand said, because ICE is currently a deportation force. Along with the abolishment of ICE, we must also introduce large-scale legalization programs to authorize the ⅔ of the country’s 11 million undocumented immigrants population that has been here for at least a decade. These individuals who pay taxes and contribute to society must be treated like official members of society. In addition to abolishing ICE and stripping away its current purpose of national security, the 287 (g) program — that authorizes police officers to have some functions of an immigration officer — needs to be stopped and reformed as it has incentivized the police to racially profile, stop, and/or arrest Latinos or others who “sound foreign” and to criminalize migrants.

It is not enough to abolish the agency, but a refurbished system must be established to bring real, comprehensive reform, one where propaganda is nonexistent.

Written by writer Yashavi Prakash

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