There’s a current of opinion on the left of the Democratic Party that the party just needs to excite and turn out its progressive base and should forget about appealing to Republicans and independents. The demand to “abolish ICE” (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) reflects that premise and epitomizes what’s wrong with it.
The brutal inhumanity of Trump’s child-separation policies, turning away of refugees, and deportations of immigrants who have long been well-regarded members of their community should put Republicans this fall wholly on the defensive on immigration. Republican candidates ought to have a lot of awkward explaining to do, and Democrats ought to have opportunities to win back support. Not all conservatives and independents are hopelessly anti-immigrant; many Republicans have supported bipartisan immigration reform, and many pay heed to religious leaders who have strongly condemned the child separations and other inhumane measures Trump has adopted.
The “Abolish ICE” campaign has three distinct things wrong with it. First, it focuses attention on the bureaucracy carrying out current policies rather than the responsible political leaders and the policies themselves. It sounds a lot like right-wing campaigns to abolish the Department of Education or Department of Energy.
Second, abolishing ICE raises the question of what would replace the agency, and the fact is those demanding its abolition have no clear idea. “Abolish ICE” legislation introduced by Representative Mark Pocan, Democrat of Wisconsin, calls for a commission to study the issue for a year. That’s not much of a response to skeptical voters. Calling for a study commission is a classic political move to avoid answering tough questions.
Third, Trump and other Republicans have seized on “Abolish ICE” for obvious reasons: The slogan seems to confirm Trump’s accusations that Democrats favor “open borders” and are “weak” on border security. As a result, instead of Republicans having a lot of awkward explaining to do, Democratic candidates all over the country are now being forced to explain where they stand on ICE—always a slippery matter—and nearly all candidates in competitive races are skating away from the idea of abolishing the agency.
Of the 67 candidates listed by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s “Red to Blue” list, only one—Randy Bryce in Wisconsin—has been a vocal supporter of abolishing ICE. Many see the issue as a needlessly confrontational framing of a position many Democrats share: reforming, but not eliminating, the agency, and overhauling the way it has operated both under Mr. Trump and former President Obama.
Sean McElwee, who created the #abolishICE hashtag, is a political strategist and public opinion analyst who has rightly emphasized that many progressive causes have wider public support than is usually acknowledged. Drawing on a recent poll his group Data for Progress conducted, he points, for example, to the idea of a “public option” for internet access, which had net 39 percent support (56 percent in favor, 16 percent against), with a lot of that support coming from rural areas. That’s an idea that could help Democrats expand their base.
But, despite being the initiator of “Abolish ICE,” McElwee doesn’t mention it among the progressive issues with net support, and for good reason. A Politico/Morning Consult poll in July found only 25 percent of voters agreeing that ICE should be abolished, with 54 percent in favor of keeping it. A HuffPost/YouGov poll also found a 2-to-1 margin against abolishing ICE.
In an op-ed in the Times called “The Power of ‘Abolish Ice,’” McElwee doesn’t demonstrate that the slogan actually has any power in winning elections. He says his group commissioned a YouGov Blue poll that asked, “Would you support or oppose defunding Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and enforcing immigration violations like other civil infractions?” That formulation got support for defunding ICE up to 32 percent with 38 percent opposed (and almost as many saying they didn’t know). But the net opposition to his cause doesn’t faze him.
“Debates and dialogue,” McElwee writes, “hardly ever occur across the aisle, but activists in each party form a collective vision, often when they are out of power, and implement it when they gain power.” So the hell with reaching out to anyone on the other side. And too bad for immigrants who are in immediate danger from Trump’s policies: They will just have to wait for Democrats to be back in full control of both the presidency and Congress.
In another piece also called “The Power of ‘Abolish ICE,'” Jamelle Bouie of Slate makes the same kind of argument as McElwee does. Democrats who fear alienating moderate and independent voters, Bouie writes, are “misreading” the electorate: “Critics of ‘Abolish ICE’ are right that it will alienate moderate and independent voters,” he says, but there just aren’t many of them anyway in our polarized society. “And fear that it will help Trump mobilize his voters is unwarranted.”
Whether “Abolish ICE” will help mobilize Republicans this fall remains to be seen. But the actions of candidates running this fall are telling. Republicans are the ones spending money on advertisements about Democrats wanting to “Abolish ICE,” while most Democrats would prefer to avoid the subject. What “Abolish ICE” has done is give a weapon to Republicans and driven a wedge between Democrats. I wouldn’t be surprised if by Election Day, a majority of congressional Democrats are on record as opposing the abolition of ICE. The movement may well succeed in achieving the opposite of the result it intended.
The “Abolish ICE” campaign has focused attention on the agency’s genuinely reprehensible actions. But if Democrats had the power to abolish ICE, they would also have the power to change immigration policies, which would be far more important. To convince Americans that they are worthy of holding that power and leading the way to reform, Democrats need to strike the right balance between protecting immigrants and ensuring border security. The “Abolish ICE” campaign fails that test, and Democrats who aspire to national leadership ought to be clear that they intend to pass it.
This is the second installment in a new weekly column. The first appears here.