In January, United States Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) arrested a 43-year-old Polish doctor named Lukasz Niec shortly after he saw his stepdaughter off to school. Niec was a legal resident of the United States, where he had lived since age five. He had a green card, a family and a job in healthcare, but in 1992 he was convicted of two misdemeanors, which meant he was technically subject for deportation. It was enough for ICE to throw him in jail to await a ruling on whether he’d have to return to Poland. He didn’t, but other immigrants the agency has ripped away from their families since President Trump took office haven’t been so fortunate.
Niec’s story caught the attention of Rep. Mark Pocan (D-WI), who on Monday announced that he will craft a bill to abolish ICE. “I’m introducing legislation that would abolish ICE and crack down on the agency’s blanket directive to target and round up individuals and families,” he wrote in a statement. “The heartless actions of this abused agency do not represent the values of our nation and the U.S. must develop a more humane immigration system, one that treats every person with dignity and respect.”
Rolling Stone spoke to Pocan Monday afternoon about the new bill. After highlighting Niec’s story, the congressman explained how a recent trip to the border to witness the chaos caused by the president inspired him to draft legislation. “Everything Trump has done around this issue has been done without any thought put into it whatsoever,” he says. “They can’t all of a sudden try to enforce the influx of additional people just because he decreed it. You actually have to have a plan. The catalyst for [the bill] was over the weekend Trump saying he’s going to perhaps get rid of due process, as well. You can’t increase the activities of ICE and then get rid of due process and pretend you have a democracy anymore.”
The movement to abolish ICE was popularized in 2017 by writer and researcher Sean McElwee, and the idea has since gained traction among some progressive Democrats, many of which are running for office in November. Randy Bryce, who is vying for the Wisconsin seat that will be vacated by Paul Ryan, and Debra Haaland, who earlier this month won the Democratic primary for New Mexico’s 1st congressional district, are among those who championed the idea earlier this year. “Though ICE abolition is spreading on the left, it quickly meets extreme skepticism elsewhere,” McElwee wrote for The Nation in March. “In part, this is because the mainstream political discourse has a huge blind spot for the agency’s increasingly brutal policies. While elites have generally become concerned with rising authoritarianism, they have mainly ignored the purges ICE is conducting in immigrant communities.”
But no one is ignoring the current border crisis, and as journalists and politicians have traveled to visit detention centers in recent weeks, the idea of axing the agency has found a toehold in the mainstream – and with good reason. Former ICE Director John Sandweg laid out to Rolling Stone last week just how catastrophic Trump’s lack of planning at the border has been. Over 2,300 children have been separated from their parents since the administration’s “zero tolerance” policy took effect last month, and according to Sandweg, many of them may never see their parents again. As the children are passed from one agency to another and flown to foster homes around the country, the government has no real way of tracking them or their parents, whom ICE sends back across the border as quickly as possible and with little regard for whether they’ll be able to see their children again. “You need to free up that [detention] bed for somebody else,” explained Sandweg. “That’s what it’s all about.”
ICE was created in 2003 to replace the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) and installed under the jurisdiction of the brand new Department of Homeland Security. Deportations increased over the next decade, spiking during President Obama’s first term, but the ruthless aggression with which ICE agents have pursued potential illegals since Trump took office has transformed the agency from a somewhat controversial subdivision of the DHS into the most prominent real-life example of the president’s authoritarian tendencies.
“The ICE brand has been so damaged that there’s not trust left,” says Pocan. “People are actually afraid when they see the word ‘ICE,’ whether they’re in the U.S. legally or illegally. It just has an extremely damaged reputation, which is part of the problem we’re facing. There are plenty of ICE duties that can be transferred to other agencies. I asked a 31-year professional about it when I was down on the [border] trip. [Other agencies] can take on the responsible functions, but all of this other stuff just has a negative effect.”
Pocan’s bill calls for the creation of a commission to “provide recommendations to Congress on how the government can implement a humane immigration enforcement system that upholds the dignity of all individuals, while transferring necessary functions to other agencies.”
A common thread among proponents of abolishing ICE is a practical view of the motivations behind the Trump administration’s immigration policy. In his statement announcing the legislation, Pocan referred to Stephen Miller and other members of the president’s team as white nationalists, a term most Democrats and many in the media have hesitated to use. When immigration attorney David Leopold referred to Miller as a white nationalist during an interview with CNN’s Kate Bolduan on Monday, Bolduan objected to the distinction, cutting Leopold off to explain that she’d just done a segment on “civility.”
CNN anchor: “I just did an entire segment about civility here, I don’t know if you want to call Stephen Miller a white nationalist” pic.twitter.com/iXAhpBBynX
— John Whitehouse (@existentialfish) June 25, 2018
Bryce, Haaland and others who have come out in favor of abolishing ICE – including New York gubernatorial candidate Cynthia Nixon, who recently called the agency a “terrorist organization” – have not been shy about labeling the Trump administration as white nationalist, white supremacist and/or racist. Pocan’s bill serves as a legislative manifestation of this kind of unapologetic rhetoric. There are no half-measures here.
“These policies aren’t done for the American people,” Pocan says. “They’re done for the extreme part of Donald Trump’s base who live and breathe for racism. There are certain people in that White House who continually espouse these tactics over pretty much anything else at the federal level. Call it what it is. The whole idea of a wall wasn’t brought up because we need one, or because we have a problem with people coming into the country in mass amounts. This has been declining in the past 10 years. This is being done so that he can go to a rally and those people who at one point in life used to wear sheets and espouse [these] views can now go out in public and be considered mainstream. That is the only reason this stuff is done.”
Prominent Democrats haven’t been quite so blunt, in their words or in their stance on ICE. Even the most progressive members of the Senate have been largely noncommittal on whether they support abolishing the agency. When asked about it on Sunday, Sen. Bernie Sanders demurred, only offering that we need to “create policies which deal with immigration in a rational way.” When pressed in March if ICE should exist, Sen. Kamala Harris replied that it “certainly” should. She has since toughened her stance, saying recently that the agency needs to be “critically reexamined,” but as of Tuesday, no sitting senators have called for ICE to be abolished outright.
For this reason, Pocan’s bill stands little chance of passing, but that doesn’t mean its introduction isn’t a significant step forward for the movement’s supporters, including Oregon Rep. Eric Blumenauer, Washington Rep. Pramila Jayapal and Massachusetts Rep. Jim McGovern, who all endorsed abolishing ICE over the weekend. “What I’d love to have is an intelligent conversation about immigration and about what we’re doing to real people and in real people’s lives through Donald Trump’s actions,” says Pocan. “This just brings that issue into focus and presents facts that we need to look at. I’m hoping it’s a good conversation starter.”