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Abolishing ICE Is Still a Good Idea
After Trump’s ouster, the movement has become a mere hashtag
2018 was a good year for the “Abolish ICE” movement—the previously little-known and “radical” idea that the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency should be eliminated. Ironically, the surge in attention occurred thanks to the immigration hawkishness of the Trump administration, which had begun separating immigrant parents from their children. Anger over this policy was so intense that the Abolish ICE movement gained steam and attracted the attention of prominent elected leaders.
Sadly, the idea then receded from view almost as quickly as it had appeared. But the subsequent loss of momentum does not change the underlying insight that in a fundamental sense, restricting movement is an inhumane policy: It opposes natural and valuable human impulses. America’s approach to immigration needs more freedom, not less.
A Viral Idea
Perhaps the moment when it really seemed as if Abolish ICE might get a serious hearing came when U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who represents parts of New York City, raised the idea in a widely discussed 2018 tweet. Still, her story illustrates a typical reaction. Initially, she seemed to be endorsing the Abolish ICE movement, consistent with her history of protesting detention facilities and speaking out against Trump-era immigration policies. But while using the phrase “Abolish ICE” in social media and making clear that she opposes the brutality of ICE’s officers, she supports, lamentably, immigration enforcement and deportation as America’s default immigration policy. She and her colleagues in Congress want merely to overhaul immigration enforcement, rather than drastically cut, or simply eliminate, the exceptionally complex tangle of immigration laws that inevitably turn millions of otherwise decent, peaceful people into supposed “criminals.”
Ocasio-Cortez’s response to the Abolish ICE movement is hardly unusual. Many people paid attention to the movement in 2018 when it first went viral but later backed off. The Media Cloud platform, for instance, can be used to show how often national news organizations used the phrase “Abolish ICE” from 2018 to the present. The trend is very clear. The largest wave of attention occurred in 2018 when the Trump administration’s actions triggered protest. Then, in 2019, Abolish ICE gained attention again when Ocasio-Cortez voted against the agency’s funding. Since then, attention given to Abolish ICE has remained low, comparable to early 2018 levels.
Why a Viral Idea Went Dormant
The rise and fall of Abolish ICE in the popular imagination touches on the ways that people think about migration. For many, immigration law enforcement abuses, such as the allegations of widespread sexual abuse by ICE personnel, are an example of “bad apples” theory. In other words, they think, with some justification, that abuses happen because of unusually corrupt law enforcement officers. From this perspective, calls to abolish ICE—or any other law enforcement agency—seem misguided. Why throw out the baby with the bath water?
Other people might rely on their political affiliations when they think about abolishing ICE. The abolitionist call may seem more appealing to Democrats when Republicans are in power. They assume that a Democratic President, such as Joe Biden, will be better on the issue.
Deeper partisan frustration might also play a role. Trump was an unusually antagonistic president whose actions, ranging from the “Muslim travel ban” to the Jan. 6 insurrection, have eroded public confidence in state institutions. Not surprisingly, calls for radical reform can have a stronger appeal when such an inflammatory figure is in office. Once a more conventional politician is in office, strong reforms seem less urgent.
This wouldn’t be the first time that party loyalties shape reform movements. Social scientists, myself included, have documented how the anti-Iraq War movement deescalated once George W. Bush left office and Barack Obama assumed the presidency. Similarly, the shift from Trump to Biden was likely an important factor in reducing demands to abolish ICE.
Biden and Our Lost National Conversation on Immigration
Biden is not Trump. The current president does not make a habit of testing the limits of democratic institutions, nor does Biden seem to use the immigration system to target specific religious groups, as Trump did with the notorious 2017 “Muslim ban.” Still, that doesn’t mean that immigration policy problems have suddenly disappeared. Under our current system, they can’t.
After all, immigration is intrinsically a normal and routine activity. If people need to lift themselves out of poverty, they often take the initiative and move to a place with better jobs. If a woman needs a job in a far-off place, she often feels it’s best for her family if her spouse and children come with her.
In the face of these natural human responses, migration restrictions cause all kinds of problems. They keep people poor. They separate families. They violate the rights of Americans who want to hire immigrants, trade with them or marry them. Nor do immigrants weigh down the economy. Like any other group of people, most immigrants want to work and contribute to their community.
Most arguments against freeing immigration point to issues that disappear upon further investigation. For example, many people imagine that immigrants bring crime. The opposite is true. Immigrants are jailed less often than natives. One recent study found that the only increase in crime associated with immigration occurs when natives commit more crimes against immigrants, as immigrants, especially undocumented ones, are more vulnerable to crime since they want to avoid any attention to their status by law enforcement. In a different vein, people often worry that migrants will put an undue stress on social services. But a highly regarded 2017 study from the National Academy of Sciences found this to be untrue. Immigrants often arrive healthy and young so, on net, they use relatively few public services.
From this point of view, it’s tragic that the Abolish ICE movement didn’t signal the start of a national conversation over immigration. Do we actually need to deport people who want to mow your lawn or work in a gas station? Do we actually need fences and cameras at our borders? If we can see the benefit in people’s freedom to move between New Jersey and New York, then can’t we see the benefit in their freedom to move between Tijuana and San Diego? Wouldn’t the benefits of having a vibrant workforce of immigrants with “can do” attitudes outweigh the short-term housing costs associated with an influx of people?
If Ocasio-Cortez had kept the Abolish ICE movement active and live in 2022, we would have a very interesting conversation about Biden’s immigration policies. Surely it is good, for instance, that the Biden Justice Department issued a memorandum terminating a Trump administration “zero-tolerance” approach that had forced brutal family separations. But consider this example: After vowing to end Title 42, a Trump-era emergency policy that allowed the immediate expulsion of migrants on health grounds during the pandemic, Biden retained the policy and reportedly used it to expel more than 90,000 migrants in July 2021 alone. Biden also hoped to use the policy to remove asylum-seeking people who come from the troubled countries of Venezuela, Cuba and Nicaragua and have them relocated to Mexico; in October, the administration said it would in fact do so with migrants from Venezuela.
However, a federal court has now struck down, effective on Dec. 21, the administration’s use of Title 42 altogether. This only increases the pressure on the Biden administration to determine how to handle the huge influx of asylum-seekers at the border.
Another instructive example is the proposed American Dream and Promise Act, which, if passed by the U.S. Congress, would allow hundreds of thousands of people whose parents brought them to the U.S. illegally as children to gain a pathway to becoming legal residents and living here unmolested by enforcement authorities. The Biden administration and congressional Democrats have not been aggressive enough in promoting even this most modest of reforms. As a result, people who have lived most of their lives in the United States and otherwise complied with American law remain in legal limbo.
At the same time, much of the basic infrastructure of U.S. immigration policy remains firmly in place. It is still incredibly difficult to move here legally. Under American policy, many people can only emigrate to the U.S. if the permanent-residency visa quota the U.S. allots to their country of origin hasn’t been filled that year. Often, a nation’s quota is small compared to the number of the nation’s people who want to immigrate here. If someone lives in a country like Mexico or China, where many people wish to immigrate to the United States, they might have to wait years, even decades, for their turn. And even if foreign nationals could qualify to work in the United States under specialty-occupation visas or temporary nonagricultural-worker visas (as opposed to permanent-residency visas), they would have to hope that the federal government’s annual worldwide cap for these special visas hadn’t already been met.
Immigration Restriction Isn’t the Solution; It’s the Problem
It’s no surprise, then, that people will resort to dangerous border crossings and live outside the law to build a better life for their family in the United States. We need only look at the border to appreciate the problem. Earlier this year, nine Mexican immigrants died trying to cross the Rio Grande River into Texas; yet days later, migrants were still crossing the dangerously high river at the same place, with one woman requiring rescue. The reason people assume this risk is obvious: Their poverty is crushing.
These deaths are not isolated. When people need to travel “underground” to seek jobs and personal safety, they open themselves up to smugglers willing to put them at great risk. In June 2022, 51 immigrants died in a closed trailer when their driver abandoned them.
This simply wouldn’t happen if moving to America were as easy as, say, obtaining a driver’s license, as opposed to the massive ordeal it is today. Under a simplified, more straightforward immigration regime, the vast majority of would-be immigrants, desperate for a chance to work or to escape to a safer country, would actually be able to comply with the law, and America wouldn’t need a massive and intrusive agency like ICE to enforce it. After all, American police officers enforce driver’s license laws as just one of their many duties, and a similar approach could handle the far, far smaller number of immigrants who might still evade immigration laws or commit other crimes. In the meantime, American citizens and law-abiding immigrants—in other words, most immigrants—would be free to benefit from mutual exchange and employment in a more truly American spirit of freedom.
Political celebrities may have lost interest in abolishing ICE, so the movement may have passed out of the public eye for the moment. But the message remains loud and clear. We don’t need a world where people cross raging rivers in order to escape poverty, and we don’t need a world where state bureaucrats use arcane rules to decide whether peaceful people can stay in America to provide services to our citizens and a better life for themselves and their families. We certainly don’t need draconian and scandal-plagued law enforcement agencies like ICE to enforce those rules.
What we need instead is to acknowledge that immigration is a fundamentally natural and beneficial human activity, one that can be recognized and facilitated through simple government procedures. What we need, in other words, is more freedom—for everyone.
Note: The UnPopulist has now posted a transcript of its podcast episode discussing the results of the recent 2022 midterm elections and the future of liberalism. You can read that transcript here.