Abolishing ICE Is a First Step Toward Abolishing Borders

Today we bring you a conversation with George Ciccariello-Maher, a writer and organizer based in Philadelphia and a visiting scholar at the Hemispheric Institute of Performance and Politics. Ciccariello-Maher discusses the movement to abolish Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and how activist groups are setting up encampments to occupy ICE buildings. He also talks about how a supposedly progressive Democratic mayor is doing the work of Trump.

Sarah Jaffe: We are talking about Occupy ICE, which has sprung up in quite a few cities now. Do you happen to know how many different places have an occupation or have had one?

George Ciccariello-Maher: I have seen different numbers, but well over half a dozen cities over the past couple of weeks have seen these sporadic occupations, some being evicted, some being more sustained in the long-term. All have been subject to very different strategies for repression by local and federal authorities.

Talk a little bit about the one you have been involved in, which is in Philadelphia.

Philadelphia began an occupation just a week ago, honestly, outside an ICE facility in downtown Philadelphia and set up an encampment that very quickly blocked access by ICE vans to a building. Very quickly … this was pushed out by federal law enforcement in association with … Philadelphia police. They were pushing the encampments beyond the doors to create access to the building.

Now, I think people in Philadelphia were hoping for something like what happened in Portland, where local authorities were really unwilling to go along and be the shock troops of ICE, but in Philadelphia, despite the claims of being [a] sanctuary city and the attempts to cultivate progressive credentials by Mayor Jim Kenney, what you have seen actually is very much a willingness to participate with those federal enforcement agencies.

I want to unpack that a little bit. First of all, for people who aren’t familiar with the terminology, “sanctuary city” has a very specific political meaning, but also a broader meaning of being a safe place for immigrants. Can you talk about the specific policy connections that have gone into calling some place a sanctuary city?

Of course, the category of sanctuary city has been very debated and fraught over the past year — in particular, with Trump attempting to figure out different ways to punish sanctuary cities to withdraw funding. I know there has been some pushback in the courts on that. But in Philadelphia, what we have actually seen is the words “sanctuary city” being used by … a slightly progressively branded mayor, but you have seen in reality just simply a delay of what I would think would be the key policy mechanism, which is a decision on whether or not Philadelphia police will participate in information sharing with ICE.

This is called [Preliminary Arraignment Reporting System (PARS)]. The PARS agreement … would pass arrest information directly to federal officials, allowing for ICE to then sweep in and detain and potentially deport people. This is something that the mayor has not come out and said he is opposed to. What he has done is to delay this decision. You had just the other day a meeting by an excellent organization locally called Juntos with the mayor pressuring him to, among other things, refuse to share that information with ICE officials. In addition to that, there is a long-standing campaign to close down the Berks County Detention Center, which is an immigrant detention center.

The meeting with him came about after the Philadelphia police were involved in evicting the occupation, right?

Absolutely. After Philadelphia police pushed the occupation beyond the gates of the ICE building, then attempted to push them further, what you have is a completely unannounced intervention by the police, again, to fully evict. People have been bending over backwards too far to placate them … and I think my argument consistently is that they are still going to evict you when the time comes, which is exactly what happened.

The camp was fully evicted by Philadelphia police and this looks terrible for a progressive mayor — or so-called progressive mayor, I should say. We are not talking about a very progressive mayor. We are talking about someone who uses a progressive narrative. Regardless, the headlines were not good for Jim Kenney. They looked bad. They looked like here he was not only doing the work of federal officials, but doing the work of Trump. This is really Trump’s work. For a “progressive” Democrat to be doing the work of Trump, of course, looks very bad.

The encampment then moved to City Hall, where the mayor promptly said he had no plans to evict them. This is only possible, of course, because of the public pressure brought by the occupation, the insistence on staying, but then also, the bad press that came about as a result of the repression of that. This is something that we see pretty consistently in occupations, going back to Occupy.

I did want to go back to Occupy because we are seeing … a resurgence of this tactic — in this case, with a very specific demand to abolish ICE…. You have mayors who came in, sort of taking movement demands and claiming to be more progressive than the people who were in charge when the Occupy encampments were evicted…. But the Occupy ICE encampments are not getting that much nicer treatment from mayors who are supposedly more receptive to movement demands.

Absolutely. You saw something similar during Occupy in the sense that with Democratic governments in Philadelphia, Atlanta, Oakland — the occupations were repressed in the same way, were evicted despite the attempts by those Democratic mayors to spin what it was that they were doing.

What you have seen … is a slightly more progressive brand of Democrats. In Philadelphia, you have Jim Kenney instead of Michael Nutter and you have, at the very least, some kind of reliance on some kind of progressive claims. Jim Kenney has said some slightly progressive things when it comes to mass incarceration and policing. We haven’t seen much change in practice.

We have seen a progressive district attorney, which has made a lot more difference. Those who were just arrested at the Occupy ICE protests were given small citations and were released within an hour. This is kind of unprecedented…. But this question of who the mayor is has definitely allowed those occupations to leverage the claims being made by these progressive Democrats, even if it hasn’t resulted in much in practice.

Moving forward, people are still planning nationwide mobilizations around family separation, but the Abolish ICE demand has really taken off in the last few weeks. It has gone from being a demand of a few fairly far-left immigration organizations to a demand that we are seeing everywhere and that politicians are now sort of signing on to. I am wondering about your thoughts about the growth of this as a demand and then, how folks are moving on it.

I think it is really interesting. I think we are used to abolitionist language seeming really extreme or long-term or pie in the sky, and yet, we have seen this claim take root and spread. Partly because of the real brutality of what ICE is doing and the transparency of what is going on.

I think it is also really important to remember that one of the first things … we should do … is to historicize, to think about the fact that ICE is not that old. ICE is a new institution…. Abolishing it really should not be that difficult. That points both toward the potential and the possibility of this claim to actually come about. I think that is why you see many Democrats, or some Democrats at least, talking about the abolition of ICE, but it also points toward the dangers, because we are in a strange situation where you are talking about abolishing something, but it is really just an intermediate demand because the last thing we want is to see ICE simply replaced by [the Immigration and Naturalization Service], by Border Patrol doing the same exact work or going back to an old status quo, which is not good enough for us.

I think we need to be very careful to tether the demand to abolish ICE to the demand to not replace it. This is actually what a lot of Democrats have been insisting on: “We will find a better replacement.” No. We don’t want any replacement for this. We want to roll back the powers that have been granted even to Border Patrol in recent decades and the dramatic expansion of that agency and the dramatic expansion of its budget and expansion of its ground force on the border. We want a radical transformation, ultimately, that points toward border abolition by the end.

One of the things that has come back up – to sort of link back around to this question of sanctuary cities and the question of local police cooperation with ICE – the argument that is used against things like police and prison abolition is often that it is “unrealistic,” that you can’t do this and that regular people won’t relate to this. It is interesting to see the way that this demand is challenging that whole idea.

Yes, absolutely. If anything, it is too easy to abolish ICE. I don’t mean that to be glib. The struggle is actually going to be a very hard one, but again, we don’t want to get caught up in acting as if that is our ultimate goal and then we get trapped in the mere replacement with something else.

I think what we can do and what we need to do is to constantly present this insistence and this argument that this is a new agency, it didn’t need to exist when it was created after September 11, it doesn’t need to exist now and we need to abolish it on the way to building a different kind of world, on the way to other kinds of abolition. Here, I actually think that what is crucial as well, is to resist, on the one hand, the separation of Black and Brown and immigrant struggles from each other and to actually insist on what we are seeing in policing on the one hand, and ICE and migration and Border Patrol on the other are very similar phenomena and that the abolitionist claim should actually be very much understood in similar ways for both.

We want to abolish the police because we want a very different kind of society and we want to begin to imagine that society through the process of fighting for abolition. We are not going to get abolition right away, but in so far as we push back the power of the police, the power of Border Patrol and ICE, we begin to imagine a very different kind of world.

How can people keep up with you and how can people keep up with the occupation of ICE in Philadelphia?

There is a lot of information on Twitter about the ICE occupation in Philadelphia. #NoICEPHL. Please follow Juntos on Twitter. Also, be aware that what is said on Twitter is not always true when it comes to what is going on — on the ground. So, come out to the occupation, see them. A lot of the drama you hear about is maybe a little overblown and people on the ground are really just working to build and to continue this occupation and to press these demands moving forward.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

Interviews for Resistance is a project of Sarah Jaffe, with assistance from Laura Feuillebois and support from the Nation Institute. It is also available as a podcast on iTunes. Not to be reprinted without permission.