Abolish ICE: Beyond a Slogan

Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

Protesters from an immigrant rights group marching to protest family separation under the Secure Communities program, Los Angeles, California, August 2011

Back in 2013, Marisa Franco was working with the National Day Laborer Organizing Network (NDLON) as the campaign director of #Not1More, a movement that demanded President Obama stop deportations. The campaign, which had the backing of immigrant rights organizations nationwide, was also a response to the unlawful, racist ways that the then-Maricopa County sheriff, Joe Arpaio, was terrorizing immigrant communities in Arizona. (Arpaio was subsequently convicted of criminal contempt over his actions in July 2017; a month later, he was pardoned by President Trump.)

Not1More started with the fight against SB 1070 in Arizona in 2010, an anti-immigrant law that, among many things, essentially allowed for racial profiling. “It was a big shift because at the time, all of us were being told to tie all of our hopes to the promise of comprehensive immigration reform, and we knew it wasn’t going to happen,” Franco told me recently. “We knew our safety wouldn’t happen through Congress. It didn’t seem realistic to us at the time, and even if it did, it wasn’t going to save us from the likes of Arpaio.”

NDLON was one of the organizations that turned away from the doomed legislative effort in Congress, choosing instead to focus on the demand for an end to deportations. The federal agency under the umbrella of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) that is mainly responsible for carrying out deportations is, of course, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE. Franco is now the executive director of the social justice organizing network Mijente. It was during a Mijente staff meeting more than two years ago, prior to the election of Donald Trump, that the organization began to discuss what abolishing ICE might mean.  

But what transformed this activist debate into a surging hashtag was the Trump administration’s family separation policy at the border, which quietly began months before Attorney General Jeff Sessions confirmed in April 2018 the “zero tolerance” policy of prosecuting every undocumented person arriving across the south-western border. By mid-June, Homeland Security was forced to admit that more than 2,000 children had been separated from their parents as a result. It’s important to note that the Trump administration’s family separation policy did absolutely nothing to deter Central Americans from seeking safety in the US. Statistics from Customs and Border Protection (CBP) for August 2018 revealed that apprehensions of migrant families and children along the US–Mexico border increased by 38 percent month-on-month, the fifth highest monthly figure ever recorded.

The public outrage that met the new policy was swift, especially after the journalism nonprofit ProPublica released audio of separated children in detention sobbing for their mothers. There was a slate of reporting about the abuses children were enduring while in federal custody, and images of children in cages went viral. There were nationwide demonstrations toward the end of June, and placards bearing the slogan “Abolish ICE” were ubiquitous. That call was arguably a misdirected protest, since ICE—though the leading agency for deportations—was not actually involved in carrying out the separations; that was CBP. Many protesters were probably also unaware that while the Trump administration’s official policy of separating migrant families was unprecedented, the images of private prison company-run “baby buses” and children sleeping on the floor of “cages” date from the Obama administration.

Eduardo Munoz Alvarez/AFP/Getty Images

Demonstrators crossing Brooklyn Bridge during a march against the separation of immigrant families, June 30, 2018

The American public has directed a great deal of outrage at the Trump administration for policies and practices that were applied by the Obama administration and, during his presidency, resulted in little uproar outside of immigrant communities. Both administrations have detained asylum-seeking families in record numbers, overwhelming both the detention system and the Office of Refugee Resettlement, the federal immigration agency responsible for detaining migrants who are under the age of eighteen—though the full impact of Trump’s policies is not yet known. Both Trump and Obama have also placed children in “tent cities,” and while the Trump administration is reported to be considering detaining children on military bases, the Obama administration beat him to it. (It was also President Obama who brought back the practice of family detention, which imprisons parents and their children together. Three family detention centers remain in the US—two in Texas and one in Pennsylvania, all the result of Obama-era policies.)

There is one important distinction, however: President Obama was responding to a human rights crisis at the border when an unprecedented number of Central American families sought asylum in the US; Trump created a human rights crisis at the border by separating families and disappearing them into an ill-quipped immigration system that has failed to reunite all of them.


In the early days of the Trump administration, the mainstream discussion was focused on what would happen to the Dreamers after Trump announced he was ending Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), but Franco knew the Trump administration would wield Obama’s immigration machinery in harsher, more unprecedented ways. She saw the threat coming. “I was out for three months last year when I had a baby and the few times I called the staff, I remember yelling, like, ‘Sound the alarm! Dreamers now means all immigrants and border enforcement is code for enforcement en total,’” she said. Mijente wanted to show the panorama of what was happening to different immigrant communities and as the #AbolishICE movement gained momentum, the organization, not known to mince words, launched its “Chinga La Migra” tour (the phrase translates roughly as “fuck immigration enforcement”).

To this day, Mijente is one of the only groups that has laid out a clear platform about what it means when they say “abolish ICE,” and their agenda is much broader than simply shutting down ICE. As well as an end to deportations, Mijente is calling for the removal of Attorney General Jeff Sessions, the repeal of laws that criminalize migration, an end to all forms of detention, the defunding of Border Patrol, and a halt to ongoing immigration enforcement programs like Operation Streamline. Franco told me that the question she is most often asked is: “Why not abolish the whole Department of Homeland Security?” Included in that would be Customs and Border Protection, Border Patrol, and ICE—all of the federal agencies that carry out immigration enforcement. Abolishing ICE is already such a lofty goal and a “heavy lift,” she said, and it’s become the focus of activists because of the agency’s primary function: identifying, detaining, and deporting immigrants.

“It’s a really delicate line we have to walk because the second you’re accused of simply wanting open borders, you’re tossed to the wind,” said Franco, acknowledging that the path toward abolishing ICE is murky and complicated. “There’s a difference between radical rhetoric and radical change. We’re looking to make radical change. Right now, we are just trying to build… support for this movement and get people to understand that in this current climate, we’re acting like the courts and lawyers will save us. That is reactive, and a very short-sighted solution. We need a goal, and dismantling ICE is a long-term goal that can happen in stages.”

When Mijente’s Chinga La Migra tour first launched, Franco said Democrats gave the organization the “side-eye,” perhaps thinking this seemingly fringe campaign would do little to help them create a “blue wave” in the November midterm elections. In this political moment in particular, in which party lines are so rigid—and so rigidly policed—signing up to the movement to abolish ICE could indeed be political suicide. But the suspicion was mutual. “We’re not loyal to any one party; we’re loyal to the people,” said Franco. “As long as there’s partisanship [in the immigrant rights movement] and the bottom line for groups is getting Democrats elected, you’re going to see political lines, framing, and demands that only ever benefit Dems.”

But then, on June 26—less than a week after President Trump signed an executive order to end the family separation policy—a twenty-eight-year-old Democratic Socialist, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, pulled off a stunning coup in a New York congressional primary, beating the incumbent Joe Crowley, a senior Democrat in the House. Ocasio-Cortez had campaigned on “Abolish ICE” as a plank of her platform, and helped push the demand into the mainstream. In the months since Ocasio-Cortez’s win, there has been a wave of support from elected officials claiming to be on board with the movement to abolish ICE. Dozens have signed a public letter calling, in part, “to bring an end to the fear and suffering that rampant immigration enforcement causes” in communities “by defunding and disbanding ICE.” An “Abolish ICE” bill has even been proposed by Representatives Mark Pocan (Democrat of Wisconsin), Pramila Jayapal (Democrat of Washington State), and Adriano Espaillat (Democrat of New York).

Republicans hoping to use the issue as a wedge to divide Democrats actually plan to put the bill up for vote. There are signs, too, that the Republican congressional leadership is also moving to use “Abolish ICE” as a weapon in its mid-term elections campaign—as a way of tagging potentially vulnerable Democrats in tight races as progressive extremists. Meanwhile, Ocasio-Cortez has backed away from immigration activists’ idea that Abolish ICE means ending deportations.

I asked ICE itself for comment. “The recent calls to abolish ICE are dangerously misguided and overlook the vital work that ICE officers and special agents perform each day to keep communities safe,” an agency spokesperson told me in an email. “Instead of being insulted with politically-motivated attacks, the men and women of ICE should be praised for risking life and limb every day in the name of national security and public safety.”


Immigration enforcement is deadly, but very rarely for ICE agents. Nine immigrants have died in ICE custody in fiscal year 2018. Since the agency’s inception, nearly 200 immigrants have died in its detention facilities, primarily because of inadequate medical care. As advocates have said for years: ICE appears unable or unwilling to properly care for the people it detains. The most recent in-custody death occurred in July.

In the media, #AbolishICE is generally framed as a radical stance, as if it’s impossible to imagine a world without ICE, even though the agency is less than twenty years old. It was created in 2003 under the newly-formed Department of Homeland Security in the wake of September 11. Ever since, starting with the presidency of George W. Bush, every administration, no matter of which party, has linked curbing immigration to national security.

This included the Obama administration, which tried, unsuccessfully, to create a consensus for comprehensive immigration reform in part by proving its willingness to “get tough” on deportations. “This was the go-to approach here in Texas,” explained John-Michael Torres, the communications coordinator at the Texas-based community organizing nonprofit LUPE, “but that has recently started to shift both in our state and nationally because of the work of grassroots organizations making it clear that it’s not acceptable to penalize certain members of the immigrant community in exchange for the promise of immigration reform. That didn’t work as a strategy in the past, and it ravaged our communities in practice. Democrats are just starting to step back their support of draconian enforcement measures paired with the opportunity to adjust your [immigration] status.”

A perfect example of such triangulation occurred when President Obama rolled out the DACA program in 2012, which coincided with the announcement that the administration was “putting more boots on the southern border than at any time in our history.” Obama also sought to “centralize border security” on the pretext of deporting violent criminals and gang members, and brought back the prison-like conditions in family detention centers in response to the number of asylum-seekers fleeing gang violence in Central America. This was the same category of parents and children the Trump administration separated at the border and may soon be able to detain together indefinitely.

Unfortunately, few Americans understood that the “deportation machine” Obama built would eventually be handed off to the next administration. As I have previously reported, the Trump administration has further empowered ICE, increasing its size, expanding its budget (even, recently, at the expense of FEMA), and licensing an even more aggressive approach to enforcement. Even so, many of those who have been mobilized by the Abolish ICE campaign probably do not realize that family separation is not a Trumpian aberration, but an inevitable byproduct of the system.

Family separation has only recently become visible to much of the American public because the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” policy had the dramatic effect of criminalizing every entrant, including asylum-seekers. For millions of undocumented immigrants, however, family separation is an integral and permanent part of how the US immigration apparatus works—even if that has largely gone unnoticed by most Americans.

Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post/Getty Images

A pre-dawn ICE raid on several homes in Alexandria, Virginia, April 2007

No one knows this better than a deportee like Azul Uribe. When she was deported to Mexico nine years ago during President Obama’s tenure, she was technically a “Dreamer” (Obama’s 2012 executive memorandum on deferred action came too late for her). Uribe, whose family lives in Texas, was unaware she was undocumented when she was arrested on a misdemeanor charge in 2006, but the cop who took her in arranged for her to be transferred to the custody of the immigration authorities. Like many “immigration violators,” as ICE calls them, Uribe was subject to a ten-year bar from the United States. This past September marked nine years since she was deported and, as in earlier years, she anticipates finding the coming months hard; the holidays are a harsh reminder that she is unable to be with her family. Deportation itself was the original family separation policy.

Jose Chicas, a pastor in North Carolina who has been targeted for deportation, had never heard of the Abolish ICE movement before I visited him in August. Chicas took sanctuary more than a year ago at the School for Conversion, a center for religious education in Durham. His is one of more than forty public sanctuary cases currently in the United States (and one of six in the state of North Carolina). For immigrants like Chicas, there are no more options. He is in sanctuary indefinitely until an elected official intervenes with the immigration authorities on his behalf, introducing a private bill that could allow him to remain in the United States. His wife, Sandra Marquina, has been fighting for one of these bills on the outside, to no avail. She said that she feels “left behind,” by her state, her elected officials, and the citizens of the country she calls home.

“I feel alone. Trying to get support [for my family] has taught me that not just people in North Carolina, but people everywhere can be so harsh to immigrants. Maybe they do not understand that when we see ICE, we’re totally terrorized because we know they can do whatever they want,” Marquina said. “It was so good to see the attention and love the families separated at the border received. But what about other families? It worries me that the realities of people in sanctuary are being normalized, because it’s not normal. Our family is separated, too.”

Given how administrations of both parties have escalated deportations, it should come as little surprise that none of the people affected by these policies who spoke to me for this piece trusted the motivations of elected officials calling for the abolition of ICE. After all, many are from the same party that quietly accepted campaign donations from private prison companies before doing so fell out of favor. And when Ocasio-Cortez made clear on Twitter that, for her, Abolish ICE “does not mean abolish deportation,” asylum-seeker Alejandra Pablos said it was a “wake-up call.” Pablos, a reproductive justice and immigrant rights activist, has been on Mijente’s Chinga La Migra tour, which she joined shortly after being released from detention. After this, her second spell in detention, which she regards as possible retaliation for her activism, Pablos said she was almost scared into silence.

“No one said this was going to be easy. Abolishing ICE could take years, but I’m here for as long as it takes,” she said. “In the communities I’m a part of, abolishing ICE means ending deportations. It concerns me that people use our immigrant communities for street cred or to gain votes… It’s great to say, ‘hashtag Abolish ICE,’ but there’s a duty that comes with that.”

Jennicet Gutiérrez sees it as part of her job to ensure that politicians don’t co-opt the message of Abolish ICE. Gutiérrez is an organizer with Familia: Trans Queer Liberation Movement, the only national organization specifically focused on Latinx LGBTQ communities. This is a critical moment in the fight for immigrant rights, Gutiérrez said. Americans are paying attention to the immigration system as never before, but whom will they listen to?

“I want to make it very clear that abolishing ICE is absolutely about shutting down detention centers, ending deportations, and defunding and dismantling the agency,” she said. “We won’t stand by anymore while our people are put in cages and punished because of their gender identity or sexual orientation. I’m happy for the support of any politician using abolish ICE, but that doesn’t mean they have my endorsement. That’s not what this is about. This is about freeing my community.”

The movement to abolish ICE has repeatedly been dismissed as little more than the left’s “new rallying cry,” accompanied by the accusation that the slogan lacks “a real plan.” In July, former DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson wrote an op-ed arguing that “abolishing ICE is not a serious policy proposal”—perhaps an unsurprising point of view from the man who oversaw ICE during the peak of the Obama administration’s mass deportations. “If Americans don’t like ICE’s current enforcement polices,” Johnson wrote, “the public should demand a change in those policies, or a change in the leaders who promulgate those policies.”

But there are existing and emerging models for what it looks like to chip away at ICE and put something else in its place. Starting in 2011, ICE officials began moving queer and trans immigrants from detention centers all over the country to California’s Santa Ana City Jail, which, at the time, had the only segregated unit for LGBTQ migrants in the country. In 2016, after countless appearances at city council meetings and a hunger strike conducted outside the jail, Gutiérrez and two other members of Familia successfully pressed the city to end its contract with ICE; all remaining ICE detainees were transferred out in May 2017. More and more cities have withdrawn from agreements with ICE. In June, the Williamson County Commissioners voted to terminate its contract with ICE for the operation of “Hutto,” Texas’s notorious T. Don Hutto detention center, where numerous allegations of sexual abuse have emerged.

In September, Keisha Lance Bottoms, the mayor of Atlanta, Georgia, announced that she was permanently terminating the city’s relationship with ICE and that the city of Atlanta would no longer detain immigrants on ICE’s behalf. The mayor’s decision was an important reminder that much can be done at a local level to protect immigrant communities. For example, local law enforcement agencies do not have to honor ICE detainer requests, which are at the center of the Trump administration’s attacks on so-called sanctuary cities. The significance of the mayor of Atlanta’s decision can hardly be overstated. The American Immigration Council has called the city’s immigration court “one of the worst places to be in deportation proceedings,” where the denial rate of asylum applications is 98 percent. Mayor Lance Bottoms just made it much harder for ICE to carry out mass deportations.

Developments like this make activists all the more confident that ICE can be abolished. Tiara Gendi is an activist who works with the Black LGBTQIA+ Migrant Project (BLMP), an organization housed within the Transgender Law Center that seeks to protect and defend Black queer and trans migrants. Gendi has seen firsthand that, even with BLMP’s limited resources and inability to provide direct services, there can be a community-based alternative to a violent immigration system.

Members of BLMP gather resources from their communities to help house newly-arrived asylum-seekers and help them navigate the US, from providing them with access to information in their language, to pointing them to pro-bono legal services, or pooling their resources to help immigrants in need pay their phone bills. It also means creating deportation defense campaigns for detained immigrants like Udoka Nweke, a gay Nigerian asylum-seeker who thanks in part to the work of BLMP, was recently released from the Adelanto Detention Center after being detained there for nearly twenty months.

“Abolishing ICE isn’t just about rebelling. For me, my drive to abolish ICE comes from my understanding that there are resources that already exist that can help immigrants migrate and settle into the United States without first putting them behind bars, without criminalizing them,” Gendi said. “It does take resources, but if we can do it with our limited budget and resources, the US can do it. Just think of the money this country spends on ICE and maintaining its [detention] system. Give us that same budget and watch what we do with it, watch what it looks like when you treat immigrants with care and safety instead of violence.”

This essay is published in partnership with Rewire.News, a journalism nonprofit specializing in reproductive rights and social justice issues.

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