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Abolishing ICE Means Defunding it

Photo by Nathaniel St. Clair

Many progressive Democrats that won their midterm election bids, from Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in New York, to Minnesota’s Ilhan Omar, campaigned to change radically immigration policy. One of their slogans was to abolish the principal immigration law enforcement agency, ICE (Immigration Customs and Enforcement).  To turn that campaign slogan into reality means defunding ICE, which Democrats can do, if they chose, now that they have a majority in the House of Representatives.

ICE has long been criticized by immigration rights groups – even before Trump became President – for its use of private, for-profit detention centers, treatment of detainees, and overall lack of transparency and accountability. Despite these problems, the Trump administration has not only expressed support for the agency, but has sought to increase its budget.  In 2017, ICE was authorized to use $6.4 Billion, which increased to $7.6 Billion in 2018. Trump’s proposed 2019 budget for ICE, similarly, sees an increase of nearly $1 Billion dollars.

A variety of activities related to immigration fall within ICE’s purview.  Its 2018 budget divides these activities into five ‘missions,’specifically, (1) ‘preventing terrorism and enhancing security,’ (2) ‘securing and managing our borders,’ (3) ‘enforcing and administering our immigration laws,’ (4) ‘safeguarding and securing cyberspace,’ and (5) ‘strengthening national preparedness and resilience.’  Of these five, the third – ‘enforcing and administering our immigration laws’ – receives by far the lion’s share of ICE’s total budget.  In 2017, this amounted to nearly $4 Billion, with over $3 Billion dedicated to enforcement and removal.  Such operations, as explained in ICE’s budget statement, entail “identifying and apprehending removable aliens, detaining those individuals pending final determination of removability, and removing aliens from the United States by legal processes and procedures.” These practices, which are central to ICE’s mission, are also some of the institution’s most controversial and criticized.

Yet, to abolish ICE, especially in the current political climate, is next to impossible. The reason is that ICE is part of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), which was created during the Bush Administration in the aftermath of September 11thPublic Law 107-296 officially saw to the creation of DHS, and with it, ICE.  Thus, to abolish ICE would require legislation not only to pass the House of Representatives, but also the Republican-controlled Senate.  The chances of such a bill getting a vote in the Senate are next to none. The odds that President Trump would sign that legislation, also, are essentially zero.

Not all hope is lost for Democrats who seriously hope to reign in ICE. After gaining a majority of seats in the House of Representatives in the midterm elections, Democrats now control one chamber of Congress.  This means that they will have majorities on the committees that debate and craft legislation. Of all the committees in the House, Appropriations is perhaps the most powerful. The reason is that in this committee legislation dealing with the budgets for governmental activities is debated and negotiated.

Concerning immigration policy, Democrats have one option in the Appropriations Committee – pass appropriation bills that defund ICE’s mission to detain, arrest, and remove people.  Yes, the Republican-controlled Senate also has an Appropriations Committee. But now, Senate Republicans must seriously negotiate with the Democrats in the House for funding to move forward.

Progressive Democrats who want to seek real change in terms of immigration have a clear opportunity to turn a slogan into policy.  Democrats may make speeches on the House floor to denounce child separation or abuses in detention centers. Such posturing does nothing to limit ICE’s power.  In the Appropriations Committee, they now have an option to make true change.  The question is if this incoming class of Democrats will have the courage to make good on their campaign promises.

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Anthony Pahnke is a Professor of International Relations at San Francisco State University. His research covers development policy and social movements in Latin America. He can be contacted at anthonypahnke@sfsu.edu

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