When a white man shot up an El Paso Walmart in 2019, a woman named Rosa was inside. She survived the massacre, then worked with prosecutors on their criminal case against the shooter. Within days of President Joe Biden’s taking office, a busted taillight upended Rosa’s life again. Rosa lived in El Paso, but she didn’t have the government’s permission to be there. During the traffic stop, local police arrested her, then handed her over to the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency. Soon she was in Mexico.
No matter who occupies the White House, ICE has a singular focus—deportation. It’s time to abolish ICE.
In the name of upholding the law, ICE rounds up migrants, traumatizing children and emptying schools. In the name of public safety, it shoots bystanders and lets people in its prisons writhe in pain until their last breath. During the pandemic, ICE has resisted demands to release immigration prisoners. “We’re not going to do a jail break,” Acting Secretary of Homeland Security Chad Wolf said in July. On its website, ICE lists the number of people that courts have forced it to release. Many of these people, it claims, “pose a potential public safety threat.” On the ground, one federal judge concluded, “ICE cannot currently be trusted.”
Launched in 2003, ICE is a relatively young agency. But its core activity, searching for potentially deportable migrants, and its disturbing tactics go back much further. In the late 19th century, federal officials had the cover of newly enacted laws to target Chinese migrants with imprisonment and expulsion. After the Border Patrol was created in 1924, the targets changed, but racist violence continued. Jefferson Davis Milton, its first officer, was named after his father’s friend, the president of the Confederacy. One of Milton’s colleagues, Charles Askins, claimed to have killed 27 people, “not counting [Blacks] and Mexicans.” Both men are still celebrated on the Border Patrol’s website.
Like today, most of the immigration law enforcement attention in those days was on the border. But the nation’s interior was never a safe haven. In the 1930s, the Immigration and Naturalization Service, disbanded when ICE was created, partnered with local officials to raid La Placita, the iconic center of Mexican Los Angeles, arresting and deporting hundreds. In the 1940s, the Border Patrol sent “Special Mexican Deportation Parties” to cities throughout the United States. In the 1950s, the agency launched Operation Wetback, a notoriously racist deportation initiative. The list goes on.
The concern of our immigration police has never been a straightforward question of legal status. In 2008, ICE agents flew US citizen Mark Lyttle to the Texas border and deported him. “Lyttle did not speak Spanish, was unfamiliar with Mexico, and had only three dollars,” a court later wrote, describing how he went from a North Carolina prison to ICE detention to “sleeping in the streets, staying in shelters, and being imprisoned and abused in Mexico, Honduras, and Nicaragua” for 125 days.
“We don’t arrest many German people,” an ICE official says on Immigration Nation, a Netflix documentary released last year. That’s true, but they could. From 2017 to 2019, ICE deported 224 Germans. In those three years, almost 26,000 Germans failed to leave the United States when their permission to be here ended, the DHS’s own records show.
President Biden’s promise to humanize immigration policy is commendable, but misses the point: ICE’s biggest problem isn’t a lack of humanity. On Biden’s first day in office, ICE announced that it would prioritize national security and public safety threats, along with recent border crossers. To deport Rosa, ICE agents appear to have ignored Biden’s priorities. They acted on an old deportation order, her immigration lawyer said. Despite her having proven so helpful to the Walmart shooting investigation that the prosecutor certified her assistance, a key step toward receiving a special visa for crime victims, Rosa now spends her days in Ciudad Juárez, one of Mexico’s most dangerous cities, hoping to testify against the shooter. “I want to tell what happened,” she said.
For some migrants, it would be easier to comply with the law if ICE did nothing. If the agency didn’t detain people, they could more easily hire a lawyer to navigate the immigration court process. If the agency didn’t arrest people at courthouses, they could comply with judicial processes. If the agency didn’t take parents from kids, imprison entire families, and sometimes let people die on their watch, we might all be safer.
During his confirmation hearings in January, Biden’s secretary of homeland security, Alejandro Mayorkas, opposed defunding ICE, but said he needed to study whether the agency uses its resources “efficiently and effectively.” In trying to tame ICE, Mayorkas is tying himself to an agency that enjoys little public support. One survey, released in 2019, reported that 54 percent of adults have an unfavorable view of ICE, making it the least liked of 16 major federal agencies. An earlier survey found that one-third of adults support defunding ICE—and another third aren’t sure, suggesting they might be open to the idea. Soon ICE’s faults won’t fall on Trump but on Mayorkas and Biden.
Coming off four years of Trump’s anti-immigrant policies, there has never been a better time to move past enforcement-focused immigration strategies. Right now, there are fewer people locked in ICE’s prisons than at any previous point in this century. Harnessing this moment and the $9 billion freed by abolishing ICE, the Biden administration could use the executive powers granted to the president to develop an immigration law system that functions without ICE’s heavy-handed practices.
The administration could start by expanding the number of people eligible for a green card. Three federal courts have concluded that immigration law allows people with temporary protected status, a temporary designation given to refugees fleeing war or natural disaster that lets people live and work in the United States, to apply for a green card. The administration’s lawyers could stop challenging those decisions—and the Departments of Justice and Homeland Security could make this official government policy, immediately creating a pathway to citizenship for many TPS holders. Officials could add that DACA recipients can leave the United States and return through “parole,” which would allow these 640,000 people to also apply for a green card.
The administration can also make it easier to follow the law. Instead of locking up migrants when the law doesn’t require it, the Justice Department could pair them with lawyers, social workers, and case managers to help identify legal options. Under Obama, one small-scale initiative helped families find lawyers, medical care, and school. Every one of its 781 participants showed up for their court hearings as required. Trump still ended the program, but the Biden administration can bring back and expand this support.
Lastly, the administration could make it easier to stay on course. Instead of charging migrants $495 to request permission to work—and barring many people outright—the DHS could automatically issue a work permit to everyone going through the immigration process. Rather than charging $725 to apply for citizenship, the department could eliminate the fee entirely.
To help ICE’s employees, its staff and contractors could be shuffled. A prison guard can be retrained to review work permit requests and a lawyer currently paid to deport people can retool to help people become citizens. In a world without ICE, all this and more would be possible.