ICE Was Designed to Terrorize Immigrant Communities

Janine Jackson: Images of weeping toddlers torn from their stunned mothers’ arms, of children in cages—or what some insist you call “chain link-fenced holding areas”—and of three-year-olds representing themselves in deportation or asylum proceedings: These have outraged and galvanized many Americans in protest of the Trump administration’s racist, cruel, anti-immigration and anti-immigrant policies.

Outrage is justified, but if we intend to translate it to substantive change, we’re going to need to build out from this immediate, visible crisis, to connect it to all of the other factors and actors that make today’s headlines possible. So what now for those who recognize family separation of immigrants to the US as no outlier, but part of a broader social agenda that goes well beyond the US/Mexico border?

Our next guest has been organizing against immigration enforcement and the criminalization of Latinx and immigrant communities for years. Jacinta Gonzalez is senior campaign organizer at Mijente, the national political hub for Latinx organizing. She joins us now by phone from Phoenix. Welcome to CounterSpin, Jacinta Gonzalez.

Jacinta Gonzalez: Thank you so much for having me.

Families Belong Together” has broad appeal as an idea, broad surface appeal, if I may say. Even media who are trying hard have had trouble finding people giving full-throated endorsement of the idea of pulling children from their parents who are trying to enter the country —that is, beyond, “Well, they brought this on themselves.” But the power of positive messaging aside, is it your sense that “families belong together” is just not a sufficient organizing principle for bringing about the real change that we want to see? How do we need to grow that idea?

I think what we saw clearly with this newly created crisis by this administration is that when we simply demand things like “family unity,” what we get is family unity behind bars. And so for us, it was really necessary to be able to raise awareness of not only what was happening with the devastation of young children being separated from their parents, but also with the criminalization of migration and mass prosecutions of folks who are entering this country. Because with this analysis, we’re able to actually make demands that would get to the root of the problem, instead of just treating the most horrific manifestation of the actual policy.

Right. In your very straightforward piece, “How to Stop Child Separation? Stop Sending Their Parents to Prison,” that you wrote last month for Truthout, you talked about, if we really want to go forward from this, and if we want to use our very warranted feelings of upset and anger at what we’re seeing to really end the crisis, there are a number of elements of that work that we could be looking at. What are some of things that you’re pointing to that folks might direct energy to?

We put out a policy platform that describes that there’s both movement demands that we’re making, but there’s also really concrete things that both Congress can do, different government agencies can do, to try to get us a little bit closer to the real solutions to some of these problems. For us, a primary demand or a central tenet is the abolishment of ICE as an agency. We know that family separation has been happening, not only at the border, but also when deportations are taking place and parents are being separated from their families. But also community members, more broadly, are being separated from their loved ones, and from people that they share their lives with.

And so we think that ICE as an agency should be completely abolished, which means that there should be a moratorium on deportations, there should be a defunding of the agency, we should end all forms of detention, and those are very concrete demands that can be accomplished now.

But we also point to the need to decriminalize migration. You know, the laws that are on the books that are allowing Jeff Sessions to throw the book at people are laws that were written in the 1930s by a legislator that was openly advocating for lynching, that was against interracial marriage and that promoted the criminalization of migration. And so it’s time for us to take a strong stand and decriminalize that as well, by taking away Section 1325 and 1326 that allow for these prosecutions to happen.

I think we did start to see, maybe, an advance over the conversation that we had around DACA and the Dreamers, which was very much about, “Let’s not punish these innocent children for the crimes of their parents,” and it was this very invidious and kind of confused understanding of what “crime” is, and of what it means to try to isolate—to me it reminded me, frankly, of the welfare reform conversation around 1996, where we had media talking about, “Yes, let’s punish these lazy mothers, but how do we protect their children?” It’s a very artificial conversation.

But I feel as though things have maybe moved on a little from that to where we can see a distinction between “crime” and criminalization, you know, making things a crime. I don’t know, am I too optimistic there, or do you think people are starting to understand what it really means to criminalize immigration itself?

I think we see tendencies going both ways. So I actually think there’s a lot of things that are really exciting about seeing people broaden their analysis of criminalization and their understanding of policing, understanding that Immigration and Customs Enforcement and Border Patrol are policing agencies, and so that a lot of the same critiques can be applied to ICE also apply to the police. And so it broadens the conversation and the possibilities of what we can do and what kinds of alliances we can build, particularly between Black and Latinx communities.

But you also have, I think, a tendency in the center to try to say that this is not the time for radical demands that actually give different possibilities. That we should say things like, “Well, we’ll give you the wall, but legalize this many people.” And I think we’ve seen a couple of rounds of that. You know, we had legislators saying that they would negotiate with Trump on some of these policies, knowing full well the far, far right-wing agenda that he’s pushing.

So I think we also have to see the opportunity of being able to have more people understand the criminalization, and I think we also have to be wary of not taking advantage of this moment, because it’s unveiling what the system truly is meant to do. And so these are the moments where we can actually provide other options and alternatives to folks beyond what many mainstream Democrats have been presenting as solutions.

Absolutely. Well, I want to talk about that vision. The International Red Cross just released a report talking about the “New Walled Order,” as they put it, saying that criminalizing aid and public services for immigrants and migrants is setting back advances by a century. And what they’re calling for is just a simple separation from immigration policy, and from those policies with regarding access to food and healthcare and legal advice. So they’re also applying it to the French mayor who said that distributing food at a migrant camp was illegal. And the Italian government that’s saying NGOs can’t go out into Libyan waters with search and rescue missions, and all of that.

I feel that that international vision is necessary to broaden the context of what’s happening at just the US/Mexico border, which you’ve just indicated is not only about the US/Mexico border. But I think an international vision, and a bigger picture of migration worldwide, would help here.

Yeah, definitely. We have to have a broader vision of migration, because migration has been happening for centuries, and given the increases in wealth disparities and the added crisis of climate change, we’re going to be seeing more and more of it. And, unfortunately, for a lot of countries, the response has been a militarized criminalization of migration that is creating a worse human rights crisis, but also creating economic incentives for people to try to continue to promote an agenda dealing with it that increases countries’ abilities to incarcate, to surveil, to police.

And so I do think we have to understand this within a broader context, and also understand it, again, within this framework of, if we continue to have a system that responds to everything with punishment and criminalization, we’re going to continue to confront this failure over and over, and not just in migration. We’re seeing it with reproductive issues, we’re seeing it with climate justice, we’re seeing it with the legal justice system that this country also uses, and so I think we have to have a broader analysis that connects all of those dots.

Let me just bring you back, finally, if I could, to the idea of abolishing ICE, which I think is fascinating. I’ve heard it said, it’s one of those things that’s presented as, “Well, you can’t get rid of a government agency,” even if it’s an agency that only recently came into existence. And part of what I hate, frankly, about corporate media is the way that they try to limit our political possibilities. So abolishing ICE is the kind of idea that the corporate media will tell us is laughable and impossible—until we do it, and then they’ll act like they invented it. And I just wonder, how do you encourage people to think around the ideas and the limitations that they’re getting from news media, for example, and do the work outside of that? I feel like work that occurs outside the media lens in some ways is free from some of the limitations that media try to present to people about what is possible and what can happen.

Yeah, I mean, you know your idea is being taken seriously when a former Department of Homeland Security chief is saying that it shouldn’t be promoted as a policy demand.


There is this process of where, well, we’re in an actual conversation about it, which means that it is possible and could be done. And so I think it’s important to use that energy in the moment that is there.

ICE as an agency was only created with the purpose of detaining and deporting people; it was, in fact, designed as an agency to terrorize immigrant communities. And so I think it is very possible and realistic to get rid of it. There are a million other agencies that help in different parts of immigration laws in this country, and you don’t need ICE to be able to do the other functions. So I think it’s very possible to completely get rid of it, to have a moratorium on deportations, defund ICE as an agency, restructure resources. And there doesn’t have to be a replacement. I think we have to be very concerned with people who are advocating that it be readjusted and housed within the Department of Justice. I think we’re seeing the worries of what can happen with a Department of Justice that is only aimed at incarcerating people. Housing our immigration policies there would only make that worse.

So I actually think we have to be able to reimagine different structures, and I think what we’re seeing is that, also, the American public has an appetite for it. We saw it with the most recent victory of different congressional representatives that are running in New York, but I think we’ve seeing it with over 100 candidates coming out publicly to support the demands, so I think we’re also seeing that we’re able to do it as a policy, and it’s a platform that people will vote for.

Let me just ask you, finally, if you have any thoughts in terms of media coverage that you’d like to disappear right now, but also some that you would like to encourage reporters to do more of on this issue as we go forward?

I do think that it’s important to continue to do reporting on what is happening with the Department of Justice and migration. We saw the first impacts of criminalizing people who are crossing the border, but we’re going to see a higher and higher uptick in people being prosecuted for other types of things, like working without documents or coming back to be with your children here. We’re seeing that more and more, the Department of Justice and Jeff Sessions are promoting an agenda to lock as many people up as possible. Migration is one component of that. The war on drugs is another component of that. The war on dissent is another component of that. These are all agendas that folks are moving from Washington, DC, that have long roots in white supremacy, and they need to be fought back against and they need to be documented, because we can’t realize what’s happening until it’s too late, and communities are serving year-long sentences as a result.

We’ve been speaking with Jacinta Gonzalez of Mijente. They’re online at Her article, “How to Stop Child Separation? Stop Sending Their Parents to Prison,” can still be found at Jacinta Gonzalez, thank you so much for joining us this week on CounterSpin.

Thank you so much for having me.