Here’s what’s wrong with the ‘Abolish ICE’ movement

The Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency is fast becoming a scapegoat for all things wrong with immigration in our country.

Since the current administration’s harmful “zero tolerance” policy created a human rights tragedy in our country — separating thousands of children and babies from their parents in May and June — there has been a reverberating demand for the dissolution of ICE.

This need to scapegoat is deeply entrenched in human history. Philosophical anthropologist René Girard, who taught at Stanford, wrote about the “scapegoat mechanism” as an age-old religious ritual to reconcile a community’s problems by projecting it on to a single specified enemy.

Girard alluded to the Bible’s reference of a he-goat upon which all the communal sins were heaped, to become a metaphorical enemy of the people. The goat — scapegoat — was then exiled or sacrificed to the Gods. This scapegoating came to symbolize the restoration of communal peace and harmony at a time when violence was rife.

Girard assigned the scapegoat mechanism a primal role in the civilization of man. He believed that our Paleolithic ancestors and even hominids developed and advanced culturally by practicing, repeating and perfecting the process of scapegoating.

While acknowledging that scapegoating is never “entirely efficient,” Girard claimed that human communities nevertheless need to scapegoat periodically in order to achieve social and communal stability.

Whether you buy Girard’s theories or not, this rush to make ICE the repository of evil makes me wonder if we are in the midst of exactly what Girard predicts as a correctional device.

In an opinion article in the New York Times, Sean Mcelwee, founder of Data for Progress, who tracked the level of engagement with “Abolish ICE” on Twitter this year, noted that there was a five-fold increase in Abolish ICE tweets in June and July compared to earlier in the year.

Mcelwee ascribes Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s stunning victory against Democratic incumbent Joe Crowley to her repeated campaign trail criticism of Crowley’s role in voting to establish ICE in 2002.

Powerful Democrats are lending muscle to the Abolish ICE movement. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) strongly backed the removal of ICE, calling it a “deportation force.” Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) pushed for rebuilding our immigration system, “starting by replacing ICE with something that reflects our morality and that works.” Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) positioned herself for the future, by offering up a need to “critically re-examine ICE.”

In The City, hundreds of people have converged on the ICE office building on Sansome Street protesting the agency’s activities and existence. Thirty-nine “Occupy ICE San Francisco” activists were arrested during a protest last month and former San Francisco supervisor John Avalos criticized the S.F. Board of Supervisors for not taking an official stance on the arrests.

ICE has been villainized for the sins of the government — for detaining, deporting, separating hard-scrabble families, and wrecking communities.

I have trouble with the naïve optimism that is behind the Abolish ICE movement. Do Abolish ICE activists really believe that immigration policies will change if ICE is abolished? Will the number of deportations decline? Stop altogether? Will the targeting of some communities cease? What will enforcement look like without ICE?

ICE has been operating for 15 years under four presidencies as the agency to enforce immigration law within the United States. In 2013, under Obama’s watch, a record 435,000 people were deported to their home countries. And, while in the first year of the Trump presidency — 2017 — ICE enforcement climbed to a three-year high of 143,000 arrests, it must be said that back in 2009, when Obama came to office, the number of arrests was double that at 297,000.

As a matter of policy, Obama put a priority on deporting felons rather than families. And even as we acknowledge the lack of integrity with that policy’s implementation, it is during Trump’s presidency that all semblance of compassionate consideration for those who have built lives here for decades has disappeared.

Under the Trump administration, a climate of fear has been carefully cultivated through ICE’s enforcement activities. Attorney General Jeff Sessions, White House policy advisor Stephen Miller and President Trump have together created hideous narratives of exploitation that are vitalized by their anti-immigration stances. It’s a black or white perspective with no shades of brown.

In 2002, when it began operating, the ICE enforcement budget was $6.2 million but by 2006 it had quickly doubled. Ominously, President Trump has requested $8.82 billion for ICE in 2019.

For certain, ICE has serious and deeply troubling issues, too many to enumerate. However, our immigration courts provide the brakes to keep ICE in check. The courts are so backlogged that the Atlantic reports that “ICE’s capacity to detain immigrants long ago outstripped the capacity of courts to process them,” and quotes a former acting director of ICE as saying that about 50 percent of the people arrested will still be in the country a year later.

Removing ICE is a myopic strategy and will serve no real purpose. ICE, as an organization, is under the jurisdiction of the Department of Homeland Security and hence gets its orders from the DHS Secretary, Kirstjen Nielsen, who is a Trump loyalist.

The perfidies of ICE are the perfidies of the government. ICE is merely a tool in the hands of the ruthless. Let’s go to the polls and vote the ruthless out of office instead of fixating on an agency that does what it’s told to do.

Jaya Padmanabhan can be reached at jaya.padmanabhan@gmail.com. Twitter: @jayapadmanabhan. In Brown Type covers immigrant issues in San Francisco.

Jaya Padmanabhan
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Jaya Padmanabhan

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