AOC’s vote against ICE: A view from Queens

January 25, 2019

Danny Katch looks at the lessons socialists can take from how activists helped to shift Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to vote against funding the agency she wants to abolish.

NEGOTIATIONS ON Wednesday over Donald Trump’s border wall shutdown followed a familiar pattern: Democrats made massive concessions to an unpopular racist ass, and the corporate media portrayed their cowardice as inspiring resistance.

Buried under the headlines about Nancy Pelosi forcing Trump to delay his State of the Union address came more sobering news: “House Democratic leaders said they were prepared to give him a substantial sum of money for border security — perhaps even the $5.7 billion he has requested — but not for a wall and not until he agreed to reopen the government.”

But there was a bright spot for supporters of immigrant justice and refugee rights.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the new Congressperson from New York City who has joined Bernie Sanders as the most famous socialist in the U.S., stood against the rest of the Democratic Party and voted against two symbolic bills to end the shutdown because they provided funds to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and border security.

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez

“We’re hearing back a lot from our local community, and they’re uncomfortable with any vote on funding for ICE,” she told the New York Post.

Ocasio-Cortez’s vote came three weeks after she joined every other Democrat in voting for similar legislation on the day that Democrats took over control of the House of Representatives.

That vote was a troubling sign of how pressure to be a loyal Democrat and stay united against Trump could undermine Ocasio-Cortez’s commitment to fighting to abolish ICE, one of the cornerstones of her electrifying primary campaign last year.

But her reversal this week indicates the other side of the dynamic: Ocasio-Cortez’s recognition that her new national platform to project left politics rests on support among this country’s new socialist movement and among her district’s diverse and immigrant-heavy constituency.

Her decision to reverse her vote after hearing from immigrant justice advocates in her district is a heartening sign — and more importantly, a signal for socialists and immigrant justice activists to raise our sights about what’s possible when it comes to pressuring officeholders.

We shouldn’t overstate the importance of one vote against funding ICE, but Ocasio-Cortez has taken a courageous stand. That’s all the more important amid new revelations of thousands more family separations than the government has reported — which nevertheless had no seeming impact on the votes of Ocasio-Cortez’s fellow Democratic House members, even those who profess to be left wing.

Modest as it may be, her vote can be a step toward reviving and fortifying the movement to abolish ICE and challenge the bipartisan framework of ever-expanding “border security.”

And it should encourage socialists inside and outside the Democratic Party to start discussing how to take a more active approach to fighting to influence the direction of the new socialists in office.


WHEN OCASIO-CORTEZ joined Democrats in voting to fund the Department of Homeland Security, including ICE, earlier this month, activists from a number of organizations, including the International Socialist Organization, Jackson Heights Immigrant Solidarity Network and Desis Rising Up and Moving (DRUM), started working on a response.

This group, which included both people who had been part of Ocasio-Cortez’s campaign and others who are independent of the Democrats, got in touch with members of her staff to argue why the vote was a mistake. As Lupita Romero of the International Socialist Organization said in an interview:

We heard she was getting advice around her first vote from some of the big [immigrant advocacy] NGOs. They don’t necessarily represent Jackson Heights, which is one of the most organized neighborhoods in the city in terms of a response to the ICE raids, gentrification and policing.

So we wanted her to be hearing from us, rather than take her cues from national organizations that have long ago accepted a compromising framework on immigration.

When word circulated about the coming vote this week, Romero, a resident in Ocasio-Cortez’s 14th congressional district, put out a call over Facebook for constituents and immigrant rights activists to get in touch with their Congresswoman:

As an undocumented immigrant woman from Queens, I was relieved to see AOC champion our demand to Abolish ICE and CPB. However, Democrats plan to vote TOMORROW to “sweeten the deal” with Trump on border security. The details are not out yet, but Ro Khanna, a Democrat of California was quoted saying that “People want to make sure that it’s clear that the Democrats do stand for border security, and not allow the president to determine how we talk about it.” It’s clear is that they are ready to make concession to Trump’s racist hysteria and that Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez will be under enormous pressure to compromise...

All of us living in Queens who want to #AbolishICE today must organize and ask our congresswoman to work with us on building a strategy that doesn’t come from inside party politics, but from our communities and constituencies here in Queens and the Bronx.

Activists reported that conversations with Ocasio-Cortez’s staff seemed to be having a genuine impact, which was borne out by her statement crediting community feedback for her later reversal.


OCASIO-CORTEZ’S vote against funding ICE represents an important development for the immigrant justice movement and opens up the potential for working with her to use her massive platform to cohere a strengthened left wing.

This is an opportunity to build a movement that rejects the bipartisan framework of “comprehensive immigration reform.”

This framework has given up so much ground on “border security” that James Clyburn, the third-ranked House Democrat, is promoting the Democrats as the better wall-builders: “Using the figure the president put on the table, if his $5.7 billion is about border security, then we see ourselves fulfilling that request, only doing it with what I like to call using a smart wall.”

We can try to use Ocasio-Cortez’s vote against funding ICE — and the controversy that will inevitably arise from it — to remind people of all the crimes committed by an agency with a racist mandate to view immigration as an issue of security and potential terrorism.

One possible step: Renew the movement popularized last summer for corporations and local governments to divest from their involvement in the immoral machinery of deportation and family separation.

There are also lessons here about how socialists should approach and work with the new socialist officeholders. It says something that Ocasio-Cortez was receptive to feedback from left-wing groups in her district.

There was much debate on left social media after Ocasio-Cortez’s first vote for DHS funding. Some offered justifications and rationalizations for the vote, while others cited it as proof that the new congresswoman was always going to sell out.

What both approaches have in common is a passive understanding that sees our role as mere spectators, with no role at all in swaying even a socialist officeholder. This is one of the pitfalls of electoral politics.

It’s the role of socialists to create vehicles for people to take an active role in pushing for the policies they want.

Certainly, it’s a new phenomenon for socialists to have comrades in Congress, and the contradictions are heightened by the fact that Ocasio-Cortez and Rashida Tlaib are inside one of the two corporate-run political parties, with hopes in moving the Democrats to the left. The pressures on them to knuckle under to the Democratic leadership will only grow.

But for now, we should try to make the situation work in our favor by fighting for them to be accountable to the movements and working-class constituencies that put them in office, rather than the party on whose ballot line they ran.

To wage that fight, we need a clear understanding — one that Ocasio-Cortez and Tlaib don’t share — that they are in a fundamentally hostile party, and that one of our main tasks in the coming years is to build an alternative left-wing party for them to join.


IN THE meanwhile, all of the left should be prepared to defend Ocasio-Cortez from the attacks that are sure to come, not only from the right wing that demonizes her but from Democrats who have been looking for an opportunity to discipline her radical disobedience.

Some of the arguments about how Ocasio-Cortez is jeopardizing precious unity against Trump will find resonance even among progressives desperate to see Trump go down. So will the idea that she and Tlaib need to play ball with the party in order to advance progressive initiatives like the Green New Deal, Medicare for All, and, presumably, abolishing ICE.

This is the logic of Democratic Party co-optation — the logic that the “realistic” path to Medicare for All is to water it down to a mild expansion of Obamacare, and that abolishing ICE should be reduced to a slogan unconnected from actual questions of funding.

Ocasio-Cortez’s lone vote against ICE can be a step in the opposite direction — toward an independent left that sees its power in popular movements rather than parliamentary maneuvers. It’s the job of socialists to defend and deepen this important development.

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