The new abolitionism

June 26, 2018

Danny Katch explains why the spread of the “Abolish ICE” demand not only makes sense in Trumpian times, but offers a welcome way forward for immigrant justice.

THE EXPLOSION of protests against the horrors of separating refugee families has put a spotlight on the almost equally sudden emergence of calls to abolish the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency.

The adoption of the “Abolish ICE!” demand among numerous immigrant justice organizations represents a dramatic left turn for a movement that for the past decade has often seemed powerless to resist compromised proposals from supposed allies in the Democratic Party to accept more deportations and border security in exchange for the ever-more-distant prospect of “comprehensive immigration reform.”

In an influential Nation article titled “It’s Time to Abolish ICE,” Sean McElwee described in March the disastrous impact of these years of Beltway negotiations.

“White supremacy can no longer be the center of the immigration debate,” McElwee wrote. “Democrats have voted to fully fund ICE with limited fanfare, because in the American immigration discussion, the right-wing position is the center, and the left has no voice.”

Protesting the ICE reign of terror against immigrants
Protesting the ICE reign of terror against immigrants

As the idea of a bipartisan immigration solution with Trumpists has become increasingly ludicrous, the call to dismantle ICE as well as Customs and Border Protection (CBP) is becoming a litmus test for left candidates running in Democratic primaries. As NBC News recently put it, the abolition demand:

was confined to the fringes just months ago in a party that has historically balanced calls for better treatment of migrants with support for stronger border security and enforcement.

But as an emboldened left challenges old assumptions about everything from health care to jobs, doing away with ICE has become the latest issue left-wing insurgents can use to differentiate themselves from more established rivals in Democratic primaries, especially as mainstream party candidates increasingly co-opt other contrast issues, like Medicare for All and a $15 minimum wage.

Fifteen Democrats in congressional primaries have called for abolishing ICE, and last week, they were joined by New York gubernatorial candidate Cynthia Nixon, who told the hosts of The View: “Children just aren’t being separated at the border, they’re being separated throughout this country by ICE. I think we need to abolish ICE. That seems really clear.”

The terrain has shifted so quickly that even Bernie Sanders, the person who inspired most of these progressives, is in danger of being left behind.

On Sunday, Sanders refused to join the abolition call and instead meekly called for Congress to pass more “rational” immigration policies — by sitting down with Trump! He sounded all too much like the vapid centrist Democrats he’s inspired so many people to revile.

WHAT EXACTLY would it mean to abolish ICE?

Nixon, like most candidates who have taken up the call, emphasizes the practical dimensions of the demand. “ICE is relatively new,” she said on The View. “They came in after September 11 — we’d been handling immigration and customs for a long time here. We don’t need ICE.”

Her point is that the U.S. should return to the days when the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) oversaw legal immigration and border enforcement, before anti-terror policies created the Department of Homeland Security and two agencies within it — ICE and CBP — solely tasked with detaining and deporting immigrants.

Of course, this country has a history of mass deportations and anti-immigrant repression dating back long before 2001, and abolishing ICE alone won’t reverse decades of laws criminalizing people for crossing the border.

But even the limited call to return to 20th-century policy is an important break with the post-9/11 bipartisan consensus around militarized borders and seeing immigration through the inherently racist lens of “anti-terrorism.”

Beyond these considerations, however, “Abolish ICE” isn’t just a policy proposal. It is an assertion of the principle that no human being is illegal, and that our side won’t ratify the criminalization of immigrants in exchange for some of them gaining a chance at a reprieve.

It’s also a framework for any number of stand-alone demands — no longer shackled to the rotten compromise of “comprehensive reform” — that include cutting funding for ICE and CBP, ending the notorious “bed quota” that fills privately run detention centers, a moratorium on deportations, and recognizing the right of all refugees to apply for asylum without facing imprisonment.

Just as importantly, an abolitionist movement can reinforce the rapidly growing sense that ICE is an immoral agency with which one simply cannot collaborate.

From the blockade of ICE offices in Portland, Oregon, to the refusal of airline workers to work on flights transporting separated children, to the efforts of workers at Microsoft and Amazon to end their companies’ technologies being used to aid immigration authorities, our side is rapidly radicalizing in actions as well as words.

WHILE RADICAL immigrant justice groups have long called for abolition, the idea started gaining steam last year with campaigns to #DefundHate from groups like Detention Watch Network and United We Dream.

Soon, the call for abolition was being taken up by liberal groups like the Center for Popular Democracy and the political action committee Brand New Congress.

The most obvious reason for the proliferation of abolition calls is, of course, Trump — whose openly racist support for mass deportations exposed ICE and CBP as the sick and inhumane agencies they always have been.

Under Trump, the media has paid more attention to ICE outrages, like abducting parents as they drive their children to school, stalking courthouses to seize women looking for protection from domestic violence and snatching a brain-tumor patient right from her hospital bed.

But beyond that, deportations and detentions today are more obviously aligned with a far-right agenda than many progressives were willing to admit when Barack Obama was president.

As McElwee wrote, “The central assumption of ICE in 2018 is that any undocumented immigrant is inherently a threat. In that way, ICE’s tactics are philosophically aligned with racist thinkers like Richard Spencer and the writers at the white-supremacist journal VDare.”

But it would be wrong to see “Abolish ICE” only as a response to Trump administration atrocities that were tolerated under Democrats like Obama and Bill Clinton — especially since that’s exactly how Trump and the whining conservative media are trying to frame the widespread outrage over family separation.

On the contrary, the demand is a clear rejection of the “comprehensive reform” framework that would trade an eventual “path to citizenship” for some in exchange for increased persecution of other current and all future undocumented immigrants.

This rotten compromise imposed on immigrants by Democrats has put our movement in a downward spiral of ever-rightward shifting negotiations for the past 10 years.

The crisis of Trump’s border concentration camps has revealed what might the biggest flaw of the Democrats’ reform proposals. Far from being “comprehensive,” conceding increased border militarization in exchange for a path to citizenship does absolutely nothing for the millions of migrants and refugees who are not here yet, but are arriving today and in the coming years.

By asserting that migration is not a crime, the call to abolish ICE and CBP can allow activists who have long been hamstrung by comprehensive immigration reform to come out full stop for the rights of our sisters and brothers to enter this country.

“THE CALL to abolish ICE is, above all, a demand for the Democratic Party to begin seriously resisting an unbridled white-supremacist surveillance state that it had a hand in creating,” wrote McElwee in the Nation.

Don’t expect party leaders to take this challenge lying down. “I understand the community’s hatred of this law enforcement organization,” Obama policy advisor Cecilia Muñoz said on a Slate podcast. “But at the end of the day, as a policy goal, I don’t think abolishing ICE is realistic.”

“I also think the argument...has the potential to push away folks who ultimately we need on our side in order to make the kinds of reforms in the way ICE behaves and in the immigration laws themselves,” she added.

We can expect this second point — that calls to abolish ICE will scare away moderate voters in the midterm elections and keep Trump’s Republicans in power — to intensify greatly as November approaches.

As is so often the case, what Democrats claim to be merely a disagreement over electoral strategy is, in reality, a fundamental debate — not only about immigration but the meaning of genuine resistance to Trump’s far-right agenda.

The original abolitionist movement against slavery grew rapidly in the 1850s by mobilizing direct resistance to the hated Fugitive Slave Law on the basis that people of conscience had a higher authority to obey than the immoral laws written by slave owners in Congress.

That’s the spirit emerging from people’s horror at Trump’s border policies, and it’s not one that leaders of either party — or their corporate funders — wish to encourage.

For all the rightful talk of Trump’s unique nastiness, nothing does more to “normalize” him than the idea that the trauma and pain he’s inflicting every day can be neatly undone on a couple of election days in 2018 and 2020, just as the system intended.

The call to abolish ICE as an irredeemably racist and harmful institution points in a different direction for a growing left that needs to gain the confidence and vision to be at least as radical as the right we’re fighting.

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