What the Movement to Abolish ICE Looks Like on the Ground


As longstanding calls from activists to abolish Immigration and Customs Enforcement have gained steam in the wake of the family separation crisis, and as more politicians and candidates for office take up the rallying cry, there has been a spate of articles and op-eds all asking the same questions: What does abolish ICE mean? Do we really want to abolish ICE? Can it even be done? And if that’s the goal, is it a winning strategy for Democrats or will it only boost the chances of Republicans maintaining control of the House, Senate, and a majority of state legislatures?

Judging by the coverage, it looks as though the idea to abolish ICE sprang out of the head of some aide to Kirsten Gillibrand, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, or Cynthia Nixon, all of whom have spoken out about the need to dismantle the agency.

Curiously, less attention has been paid to the immigrant rights activists who fought the creation of ICE when it was proposed in 2002 and have challenged the agency, calling for it—and its founding mission—to be defunded. These are the same people doing the work today, and yet their voices are absent from much of what has been published in the past few weeks. (One excellent exception is this piece from The Nation, which features thoughtful commentary by organizers from groups like Detention Watch Network, Project South, and Mijente.)

This narrow sightedness is encapsulated in stories like this from The Atlantic, which has a subhead that proclaims the “movement’s goals are still murky.” The article leads with: “While it began as little more than a hashtag on the fringe left, ‘Abolish ICE’ has unfurled, almost overnight, into a small movement.” The only “activists” of this “small movement” interviewed for the piece are an adviser to the campaign of Ocasio-Cortez and Sean McElwee, the creator of the website AbolishICE.org and co-founder of Data for Progress. (A similar myopia characterizes a more recent piece from BuzzFeed.) Or this article from the New York Times, which starts by maintaining that the idea to abolish ICE had “largely been passed around on social media” and that it “has gained momentum in the midterm campaigns.” It then proclaims, untroubled by the history behind this movement, that the “call to abolish ICE remains a largely rhetorical, activist position with questionable feasibility.”

The current media narrative is of a movement that is oddly devoid of the people who make up the movement

The current media narrative is of a movement that is oddly devoid of the people who make up the movement—immigrants themselves who for years have been the ones to, often quite literally, put their bodies on the line to end the deportation and criminalization of undocumented Americans.

Yet there is nothing abstract about the call to abolish ICE for organizers like Erika Almiron, the executive director of Juntos, a Philadelphia-based Latinx immigrant rights group. She is clear-eyed about what needs to happen. “When we say abolish ICE, it also means decriminalizing migration and the ways that migrants are treated as criminals,” Almiron said.

This was the case for many of the immigrant rights activists and organizers I spoke with in recent weeks. For them, the call to abolish ICE is not only a call to dismantle an agency that has, in its short history, been the engine of a staggering number of deportations. It is a demand to end the raids, at courthouses and workplaces and hospitals, that terrorize communities. It is resistance in the face of a system that conflates immigration with a national security threat, and that treats immigrants like criminals.

Julieta Garibay, the co-founder of United We Dream, an undocumented youth organization, echoed Almiron: “For us, it’s how do you ensure that people of color and immigrants are no longer criminalized?” She shared an example of a young undocumented woman from Texas who was recently deported after she was stopped by local law enforcement while driving to the beach. “They have normalized that this is what enforcement looks like.”

This normalization is what groups like the New Sanctuary Coalition in New York City have been calling attention to for years. Reverend Juan Carlos Ruiz, one of the founding members of the coalition, describes the demand to abolish ICE as a moral imperative. “It didn’t happen yesterday or because of Trump,” said Ruiz. “I think people are waking up to the reality of what’s been happening.”

There is no movement to abolish ICE without the transformative, disruptive activism that took place under previous administrations. And yet, the current media narrative around the movement to abolish ICE erases people like Jennicet Gutiérrez, the undocumented trans woman and immigrant rights activist who interrupted President Obama at a White House Pride event in 2015. “Release all LGBTQ immigrants from detention and stop all deportations,” she called out, an act for which she was criticized and mocked by many, including Obama himself, who responded to her protest with the admonition: “You’re in my house.” She had disrupted what was supposed to be a sanitized and tidy event in celebration of Pride month, under a liberal president—she had broken the rules of decorum. Others at the event shouted “Shame on you!” and “This is not for you! This is for all of us!” as she was forcibly removed from the room.

Similarly erased is #Not1More, started in 2013 by the National Day Laborers Organizing Network (NDLON), that then expanded to include dozens of immigrant rights groups around the country, a campaign whose central demand was an end to all deportations.

It is resistance in the face of a system that conflates immigration with a national security threat

This is the legacy of activism that connects to the present day, and in Philadelphia, a new coalition of leftists groups like the Democratic Socialists of America has teamed up with immigrant rights organizations like Juntos to decouple immigration enforcement from the criminal justice system and work to end the detention and deportation of undocumented immigrants. Far from a “murky” goal or rhetorical position, what they’re accomplishing offers a model of how the energy to abolish ICE can lead to local victories.

For years, Juntos has been working with other advocates to both close down the notorious Berks County Detention Center, the only publicly run family detention center in the country, as well as end the city’s longstanding agreement with ICE to share its database of arrest records, the Preliminary Arraignment Reporting System, known as PARS.

Despite Philadelphia’s status as a so-called “sanctuary city,” the reality is that it is far from a haven for undocumented immigrants. According to an investigation by ProPublica and the Philadelphia Inquirer, the city’s local ICE office, which covers a three-state area, is the most aggressive in the nation, arresting more immigrants without criminal convictions—64 percent, compared with 38 percent nationally—than any other regional office.

When I spoke with Juntos on the phone, activists from the local chapter of the Democratic Socialist of America and other groups were in the midst of an ongoing protest reminiscent of Occupy Wall Street, camping out first in front of a local ICE office and then in front of City Hall. Juntos has been working closely with the occupiers, who had reached out to the organization to ensure that the demands it put out were closely aligned with those of local immigrant rights groups.

“There’s this nice place right now where I think the Occupy folks see themselves as an instrument to this larger movement against the criminalization of black and brown folks,” Almiron said.

This level of collaboration and coordination does not exist everywhere, which has led to some tensions between long-standing immigrant rights groups and newer activists. In New York City earlier in June, during an #OccupyICENYC protest in which people blocked the entrance to an ICE processing facility in downtown Manhattan, groups like the New Sanctuary Coalition and Make the Road New York were dismayed after ICE retaliated by no longer allowing detained immigrants to appear directly before a judge, instead teleconferencing people in for their court hearings. “It was well-intentioned, but if you block that, you are doing away with a tiny slice of due process that they still have,” said New Sanctuary’s Ruiz. The encampment, in consultation with local activist groups, soon moved.

But in Philadelphia, local socialist groups haven been working with immigrant rights activists this past month to rally under the banner of abolish ICE. At the beginning of July, Occupy ICE protesters first marched to the ICE office in Philadelphia’s Chinatown neighborhood and then kicked off their encampment, at times blocking the entrances and gates to the building. They then shifted to City Hall once the Philadelphia police department moved to break up the initial camp, throwing away their supplies and arresting almost 30 protesters. Occupy ICE activists vowed to stay until Mayor Jim Kenney ended the PARS agreement.

A week later, Kenney met with Juntos and local Occupy ICE protesters to discuss the city’s data sharing agreement. And on July 27, Kenney announced the city would no longer share its database of arrest records with ICE once its current contract runs out in August.

After years of organizing led by immigrant women from groups like Juntos, and less than a month after Occupy ICE activists had set up their tents—they had won this particular battle. “We now serve as a real beacon of light to other cities across the country who may be asking themselves, ‘What more can I do to protect families who are being torn apart?’” Almiron said in a statement.

“When I say abolish ICE, what I’m really getting to is abolishing all of these quote unquote law enforcement groups—police that have been separating families for as long as we’ve had police,” said Dolores Garcia, a 25-year-old organizer of the Philadelphia Occupy ICE protest and a member of Philly Socialists. “It’s also about abolishing stop and frisk. It’s about holding our politicians accountable for the things they ran on and got elected off of. It’s not just about this one department.”

Given the impossibility of abolishing the agency through legislation in the near-term, this is a version of what abolish ICE can look like in practice. The collaboration that occurs between the agency and city and state governments can be made harder to carry out, and the operations it aims to conduct in secret can be made public. If ICE can’t be dismantled in the immediate future, the machinery of deportation can be slowed by people working collaboratively to jam up its gears.

And the work extends beyond the agency itself. According to Ruiz of the New Sanctuary Coalition, there is a need to dismantle and defund the agency, but more critically in the short-term, he believes that local elected officials need to examine practices like “broken windows” policing that often put undocumented immigrants on ICE’s radar. “We need to be pushing local efforts,” he said. “There is a rhetoric of New York being friendly to immigrants, but you scratch the surface of that rhetoric and it bleeds. It bleeds with the names of people that have disappeared from our communities.”

In Philadelphia, the end of the city’s PARS agreement with ICE is one step towards abolishing the infrastructure that enables the agency to operate with impunity, even as increased police presence and efforts to shut them down leaves the future of the encampment unclear. “I am excited by the moment, even though things are very hard in the community,” Almiron said. “It doesn’t feel as isolating anymore, [because now] people see what we see. I’m glad that abolish ICE has gained so much traction. I hope it keeps growing. And I think we should be having local conversations about what it means for our local policies.”

She added: “Those are the wins we need in this moment.”

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