Melissa Lyttle / The New York Times
Saturday, June 30, 2018 | 2 a.m.
That was the seemingly radical message that Chardo Richardson, a House candidate in Florida, published in an online statement four months ago, endorsing a call to eliminate the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency.
“Immigrants are some of the most courageous and industrious people humanity has to offer,” he wrote in an introduction to the immigration platform of Brand New Congress, a grass-roots progressive organization. “We can only benefit from their presence.”
To that point, the idea had largely been passed around on social media; among political candidates, Richardson was something of a lonely voice. But in the months since — as startling images emerged from the border of migrant children separated from their parents — the call to abolish or defund the agency has gained momentum in the midterm campaigns. Case in point: the shocking victory Tuesday by an insurgent primary candidate in New York, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who had made abolishing ICE a part of her platform.
From Massachusetts to Hawaii, progressive candidates undeterred by the immense obstacles to eliminating a federal agency have peppered Twitter with hashtags of support. Deb Haaland, a Native American who stunned the New Mexico political establishment with a House primary victory early this month, supports the idea. A Florida candidate, Matt Haggman, cut a campaign ad promising to “close ICE down.” Cynthia Nixon, who is running for governor in New York, has called the immigration agency a “terrorist organization.”
“We should abolish ICE,” Richardson said in an interview this week, with the conviction of a politician who believes he has a winning idea. “ICE is terrorizing our communities.”
Political strategists point out the political risk inherent in the movement: that Republicans will use it to portray Democrats as extremists who are weak on border control. “The other side is using the slogan to communicate to the country that this is a debate about open borders,” said Cecilia Muñoz, former director of the White House’s Domestic Policy Council under President Barack Obama.
Still, the idea has been gaining momentum as a rallying cry of the far left, and Ocasio-Cortez’s upset victory over an establishment Democrat gave it a newfound political currency. Then, on Thursday night, just hours after hundreds of immigration protesters had chanted “abolish ICE” on Capitol Hill, Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., became the first sitting senator to directly support the agency’s elimination.
“I believe you should get rid of it, start over, re-imagine it and build something that actually works," Gillibrand said on CNN. She later shared the message on Twitter.
It was a powerful gesture, coming from a prominent Democrat who is also considered a possible 2020 presidential contender, and one that could inspire more high-profile politicians to back the idea. (New York Mayor Bill de Blasio added his support Friday morning.) Notably, Gillibrand had backed Ocasio-Cortez’s opponent, Democratic stalwart Joseph Crowley, in the primary.
The call to abolish ICE remains a largely rhetorical, activist position with questionable feasibility. Top Democratic leaders have not adopted the position, and only a handful of other sitting politicians have embraced it to this point.
But fueled by continued anger over the crisis at the border, the movement to abolish ICE is taking hold as an important policy issue for the Democratic Party’s progressive wing. Driven more by their ideology than any concrete political calculus, a small but rising number of progressive candidates are unabashedly pushing the proposal.
Some Democrats point to other progressive proposals that were once similarly dismissed by party leaders but have since gained traction among mainstream Democrats, like Medicare for all and tuition-free public college. The hope among grass-roots activists is that progressive energy will give these same people the political cover to embrace an abolish-ICE policy that has mostly thrived on the fringe.
“ICE operates through the tactics of fear, violence and intimidation, with questionable legality, and tears families apart,” Stephanie Taylor, a founder of the liberal organization Progressive Change Campaign Committee, said in a statement. “We applaud the growing number of progressives who are calling for an end to this terror.”
Their ICE proposal, these progressives hope, could also help galvanize voters in the summer’s remaining primaries and November’s general elections. Some of those who support the position said in interviews that they were especially encouraged by Ocasio-Cortez’s victory.
But while the movement is gaining strength, it has also drawn attention from the right, which has seized on it to bludgeon the Democrats.
In an interview Wednesday with Politico, Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., the majority leader, referred to the Democratic Party as “self-avowed socialists” who wanted “open borders.”
Kellyanne Conway, the White House counselor, has also sought to use the progressive rallying against Democrats.
“Every Democratic candidate could be asked now, maybe, ‘Do you agree or disagree with the new face of the Democratic Party that we should abolish Immigration and Customs and Enforcement?'” Conway said Wednesday on Fox News.
Still, there are indications the proposal is reverberating in the halls of Washington. This week, Rep. Mark Pocan, D-Wis., said he planned to introduce legislation to abolish the immigration agency. In an interview, he said he had received support for the bill from fellow Democratic House members including Pramila Jayapal of Washington, Earl Blumenauer of Oregon and Jim McGovern of Massachusetts.
“I think that you will see more support for it just because this really gets at addressing the core abuses by the administration,” Pocan said.
Little polling exists on whether Americans support the complete shuttering of ICE’s operations, but recent data does show that President Donald Trump’s nativist push to limit both legal and illegal immigration is at odds with public opinion. A Pew Research Center poll released Wednesday said about 70 percent of Americans want legal immigration to at least stay at its present level, but more Americans support its increase than its decrease. A Quinnipiac University poll of American voters found that 50 percent of Americans think the Trump administration has been too aggressive in deportations.
One potential problem is that the abolish-ICE movement could further divide the Democratic Party as it looks to project a unified message heading into the midterms and, beyond that, the 2020 presidential campaign. Eliminating a federal agency is a position that leaves little room for compromise, and moderate Democrats who do not support the proposal risk drawing the ire of the very vocal far left, which already views the party establishment as slow to embrace their ideals.
Strategists and legal experts say the position could also be difficult to pass, especially if it continues to be a partisan issue.
“It would require us to think about immigration policy from a very different perspective, but I think it is possible,” said Sameera Hafiz, a senior political strategist at the Immigrant Legal Resource Center.
Supporters of abolishing ICE are vocal, their call magnified by social media, but they have offered few concrete plans. Pocan said his bill would create a commission that would examine ICE to determine which of its roles should be performed by other agencies.
At this point, however, the issue is still largely the province of the far reaches of the far left. Even progressives do not agree on the elimination proposal.
“I don’t know that abolishing ICE solves anything,” said Veronica Escobar, a progressive who is running for Congress in Texas’ 16th district, which lies along the Mexican border. “The fact of the matter is that ICE does do some things that are necessary to keep the country safe.”
Escobar cited in particular ICE’s work investigating child predators and human trafficking, a point she echoed in a lengthy Facebook post.
The obstacles to eliminating ICE do not deter groups like Brand New Congress, the grass-roots organization that included abolishing the agency in its November 2017 immigration platform, and has encouraged young social activists like Ocasio-Cortez and Richardson of Florida to run for federal office.
The group’s education materials cite the enormous fiscal burden of immigration enforcement, and also assert that other government agencies can do the watchdog work of immigration enforcement with clearer oversight.
Ocasio-Cortez’s victory has only energized the effort.
“As long as progressives keep winning elections and keep pushing the issue and refuse to let the issue of abolishing ICE go, it will become a bigger issue for Democrats,” said Sarah Smith, who is running for Congress in Washington state. “This is just another one of those issues where we have to strong-arm them into listening to us.”