On July 4, when Therese Patricia Okoumou scaled the pooled drapes of the Statue of Liberty, fellow protesters below her held up cards that spelled out, “Abolish ICE.”
Four days earlier, at the more than 700 rallies against the separation and detention of families at the US border, those same words were echoed again and again on homemade signs, in chants, and on T-shirts. Encouraged by a groundswell of anger, even national-level politicians are endorsing the elimination of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, a shadowy law-enforcement arm of the Department of Homeland Security.
Some of the political will has to do with Bronx-born Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s shocking upset in a primary challenge against Representative Joe Crowley in New York’s 14th Congressional District. Prior to Ocasio-Cortez’s win, other Democrats—including Representatives Mark Pocan of Wisconsin, Pramila Jayapal of Washington, and Jim McGovern of Massachusetts—had come out in support of such a move. But Ocasio-Cortez put calls to abolish ICE at the center of her platform. In the days after her win, other prominent New York Democrats—Senator Kirsten Gillibrand and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio—started to do the same, and Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) offered her support that weekend as well.
People’s outrage at ICE and politicians’ public statements are now feeding off each other, accelerating the movement to overhaul immigration enforcement. Trump’s practice of tearing children from their parents has woken up the country like little else in the president’s extreme anti-immigration agenda or in Barack Obama’s record-setting deportation spree before that.
But what does “Abolish ICE” actually mean? Is the slogan just a hashtag-friendly social-media phenomena? Can this rallying cry make the jump to a successful policy agenda?
As in any movement, there are ideological differences. But the political setting is in so much flux and Trump’s viciousness has ratcheted up the debate so quickly that many on the left are still finding their bearings. Several immigrant-rights organizations declined to speak for this article. They were, they said, unprepared to comment. The movement and the rhetoric has moved faster than the actual policy proposals.
Activists and advocates who were willing to comment made clear that, while “Abolish ICE” has moved into the mainstream, people mean very different things when they wield those two powerful words.
“We really need to think about what we are trying to reimagine here about an immigration-enforcement agency,” said Silky Shah, executive director of Detention Watch Network, an organization that seeks to end immigrant detention. “As an advocate who’s been working on this for a long time, it’s great that everyone suddenly cares about the issues, but not everyone actually knows enough about it to know what to ask for.”