Grassroots Activists: “Abolish ICE” Means Disband, Not Reform the Agency

After weeks of controversy over the Trump administration’s crackdown on immigrant and migrant families, the call to “abolish” US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) is generating plenty of headlines, but it did not go mainstream overnight.

Over the weekend, “Abolish ICE” was heard in protest chants and scrawled on banners across the country as thousands of people took to the streets to rally against the separation and incarceration of migrant families. Democratic socialist Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who rocketed into the spotlight after beating an establishment Democrat in a New York City congressional primary, famously ran on a platform that included abolishing ICE. Democratic stars like Senators Elizabeth Warren and Kirsten Gillibrand are embracing the idea, at least in name, and progressives in the House are reportedly crafting legislation that would end ICE’s role in immigration enforcement after a commission identifies an “alternative.”

Now, Democrats are wringing their hands over the proposal to disband ICE, worried that it may be too divisive for undecided midterm voters. The right wing smells blood, with President Trump repeating racist falsehoods about criminal gangs, and outlets like Fox News gleefully reporting that the Democratic Party is fracturing over an issue once constrained to its left flank. Liberals have been quick to assure the public that “Abolish ICE” really means reforming immigration enforcement, rather than a call to end the mass criminalization of immigrant communities altogether.

However, the “Abolish ICE” slogan is not new, nor is it a position crafted by Democratic strategists and policy wonks. As immigrants’ rights activists Tania Unzueta, Maru Mora-Villalpando and Angélica Cházaro recently pointed out at Medium, a “motley crew of undocumented people, women of color, queers, and grassroots organizers” promoted an abolitionist framework around immigration by demanding “not one more deportation” or #Not1More during the Obama administration, setting the stage for the current moment. For those dedicated to ending mass incarceration, “Abolish ICE” is not just a protest slogan or a half-baked, pie-in-the-sky proposal. Mijente, a leading Latinx racial justice organization, just released a full policy platform for overhauling the immigration system that explains how and why ICE should be disbanded.

Angélica Cházaro is an assistant professor of law at the University of Washington and a member of Mijente and Northwest Detention Center Resistance. On Monday, Truthout asked Cházaro about the current debate over #AbolishICE and the abolitionist roots of a slogan that is rapidly changing the mainstream political landscape. Meanwhile, her fellow activists were busy participating in a direct action demonstration against detention and deportations in San Diego.

Truthout: How long have activists demanded that ICE be abolished? Is this because immigrants and people of color have long been disproportionately criminalized and incarcerated?

Angélica Cházaro: Activists have been protesting ICE since the agency’s birth in the post-9/11 moment of nationalist, Islamophobic panic. The record numbers of deportations under the Obama years led many groups, including those that took up the mantle of #Not1More, to call for a moratorium on deportations and for ICE to be dismantled. These groups understood that the way forward wasn’t through continuing to push stalled out Comprehensive Immigration Reform efforts, but through a grassroots movement to end ICE, led by those most impacted by ICE’s targeting of communities of color. Under the Trump administration, the Department of Justice has joined our list of targets, as [Attorney General Jeff] Sessions uses every tool at his disposal to continue to criminalize and imprison immigrants and other people of color.

While President Trump and the right-wing media use “Abolish ICE” to attack Democrats as “lawless radicals” who are deeply divided on immigration, Democrats are debating the idea, and some are basically arguing that “Abolish ICE” actually means “reform ICE.” Considering the harm ICE has caused, can the agency be “reformed?” Or do we need to rethink the entire immigration system and the militarized border?

One of the biggest dangers of this time is that the call to “Abolish ICE” will become a call to reform the agency — to create a system of “humane” detentions and deportations. For those actually facing detention and deportation, there is no “humane” way to be caged or exiled. The call to “Abolish ICE” is a call to completely restructure the US’s approach to the social crisis of migration away from the current criminalized and militarized approach.

The slogan “Abolish ICE” has been around since the Obama administration. Under Trump, it’s going mainstream. Is this a good example of how grassroots movements can push the political conversation forward with demands considered too “radical” by some reformers?

Grassroots movements, often working with very few resources, are the ones pushing the most visionary demands, because they understand at a visceral level the type of change that will be needed to root out the violence of immigration enforcement. The groundwork laid by these movements offers a base on which to build out the current efforts to abolish ICE.

Last week, activists held a “People’s Tribunal” on ICE outside an immigration court in Seattle while Maru Mora-Villalpando — a longtime US resident who believes she was targeted for deportation proceedings due to her activism against incarceration and deportation — appeared before an immigration judge inside. What did the tribunal conclude about ICE?

The People’s Tribunal put ICE on trial at the same time that ICE was forcing [Mora-Villalpando] to appear in court to defend against her own deportation. Our judges found ICE to be guilty of violent expulsions of our people, guilty of targeting activists, guilty of racial profiling, guilty of engaging in mass surveillance, guilty of enriching private actors, and guilty of separating families and communities. The judges concluded that given the seriousness of these actions, there was no choice but to abolish ICE. The tribunal ended with Maru exiting the courthouse and leading a march up the street to another rally that was taking place in solidarity with Muslim communities, because the Supreme Court had upheld the Muslim Ban that morning, and we know all our struggles are linked. 

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.