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Abolishing ICE Doesn’t Go Far Enough

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tags: immigration, Trump, ICE, Immigration and Customs Enforcement



Elliott Young is a professor of History at Lewis & Clark College in Portland, OR, and author of Alien Nation: Chinese Migration in the Americas from the Coolie Era to WWII (UNC Press, 2014).

A protest against US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) in Philadelphia, June 2018. By Sarahmirk - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0


The calls to abolish Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) seem to be coming from everywhere, from activists on the street to a whole slew of elected Democrats, from New York’s congressional nominee Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to Oregon’s representative Earl Blumenauer. 

TheWhite House has painted a doomsday scenario where abolishing ICE would lead to “open borders” and “more crime, rugs and terrorism. Meanwhile, some Democrats have been more circumspect, with Senator Kamala Harris calling for a need to “critically reexamine ICE,” while House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi suggests a “fundamental overhaul.” New York gubernatorial candidate Cynthia Nixon may have gone the furthest, labeling ICE a “terrorist organization.”

The problem with this demand is not that it is too radical, but that it fails to recognize the history of immigration enforcement that began long before ICE was founded in 2003.

Abolishing ICE will not stop immigration enforcement. Ending the brutal policies we are witnessing today requires a much more profound rethinking of how we have managed and criminalized immigration for more than a century. Abolishing ICE is like a demand to abolish fugitive slave catching.  It’s a good move, but it’s not the same as abolishing slavery.

Moving immigration enforcement into a national security agency, the Department of Homeland Security, which is what happened when ICE was created, does send a signal that immigration should be seen as a threat. But, it’s just not true that immigrant and refugee detention, deportations or immigration enforcement began with ICE. 

When the Chinese Exclusion Act was passed in 1882 along with a general immigration law, there was no federal bureaucracy capable of enforcing the law. Enforcement fell to the Department of Treasury, with only five thousand dollars allocated to enforce the laws at official ports of entry and to hire Chinese inspectors to roam the borders and prevent illegal crossings.

In 1903, the enforcement of immigration was handed over to the Department of Commerce and Labor, and then to the Department of Labor in 1913. Funding increased exponentially in the 1920s as Congress passed the National Origins Quota Act. 

It was also in the mid 1920s that the Border Patrol was created and given broad police powers to enforce immigration laws. As historian Kelly Lytle Hernández shows in her book Migra!, even though this bureaucracy grew dramatically in the early twentieth century, by 1939, there were still fewer than 1,000 Border Patrol agents.

In spite of this relatively small bureaucratic footprint, the US “repatriated” over one million Mexicans in the 1930s, and forced the return of another million Mexicans in the early 1950s under what they termed “Operation Wetback.”

The Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) was established in 1933, and this agency oversaw the incarceration of over 31,000 “enemy aliens” and their families, including Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany, during the war. Almost none of them were actually “enemies” or national security threats. The INS also kidnapped 6,600 “enemy aliens” from Latin America, forcibly brought them into the US, and then arrested them for illegal entry.

In the 1980s, the INS locked-up 125,000 Cuban and 80,000 Haitian refugees in mass detention camps on military bases, some for many years. The immigration enforcement regime didn’t only target refugees. By the mid-1980s, long before ICE was created, immigration arrests reached almost three-and-a-half million a year.  And “voluntary” removals reached their peak under President Bill Clinton at over one-and-a-half million by the end of the 1990s.

The point is that the bureaucratic predecessors to ICE arrested millions of migrants, detained entire families, and yes, also separated children from their parents. Unless we understand that history, the calls to abolish ICE will result in a new agency name charged with enforcing much the same policies as before.

Real change will only come when we allow for more legal immigration and stop criminalizing those who come to this country seeking refuge from civil war, violence and poverty. “Abolish ICE” is a snappy slogan, but abolishing the criminalization of immigration is what we should be demanding. 


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