In its less than 20 years of existence, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has amassed an extensive and shocking record of human rights violations. The current administration’s anti-immigrant sentiment has radicalized the agency, emboldening it to employ increased violence, excessive force, and blatantly illegal methods of arrest with impunity. While families continue to be separated at our border, inadequate government efforts to reunite families in the wake of “zero tolerance” policy means it could take years for authorities to even identify thousands of children taken from their parents, raising concerns they could remain separated indefinitely. Meanwhile, the network of ICE-managed private detention facilities is rapidly expanding. It is behind these prison walls that ICE agents have committed their most egregious and unregulated acts of violence, including fatal medical neglect, rape, and sexual abuse of minors.
In response to these abuses, activists have been calling for the agency’s abolition. The Abolish ICE movement is rapidly gaining traction, despite frequently facing derision in the mainstream press. Constant news headlines revealing ICE’s systematic violence make it increasingly difficult to claim such acts are isolated incidences within an otherwise functioning and necessary system. While few politicians deny that ICE's role and conduct in immigration enforcement must be subject to oversight, concrete plans of action seldom follow their calls for “comprehensive reforms.”
Affected communities know that incremental reforms would offer little relief in the face of the ubiquitous state-sanctioned violence they suffer at the hands of ICE. In contrast to mainstream reform proposals, the Abolish ICE movement understands and confronts the enforcement agency using a conceptual framework that analyzes the root causes of injustice in the immigration system. Drawing upon a long tradition of abolitionist thought and practice, Abolish ICE challenges the status quo by asking us to acknowledge patterns of violence, to consider the ways in which violence is sewn into ICE’s very foundation, and to radically reimagine an approach to migration that prioritizes humanity over profit and false pretenses of national security. Abolitionist thinkers have always proposed radical solutions to radical problems, and in doing so have paved the way for all the most revolutionary progress in our nation’s history. Because of this history, we must understand and frame the Abolish ICE movement within the larger ideological context of abolitionism, rather than as a fringe, single-issue movement.
The tenets of abolitionism have been discounted and misconstrued throughout American history. Time and again abolitionism has been discounted as a singular demand for a perceived “impossible” reality, instead of recognized for its complex and multidimensional framework in which community-based solutions, dynamic interdisciplinary critical thought, and the steadfast commitment to sustainable change are interwoven and practically applied. Abolitionism has been dismissed as naive ever since U.S. history’s most famous abolition movement—to abolish slavery. Despite the wealth of historical evidence proving abolitionist thought and action as the necessary driving forces behind the United States’ most integral rights-based revolutions, from the Civil Rights Movement to the advancement of Women’s Rights, many are quick to dismiss abolitionist activism, including Abolish ICE and contemporary prison abolitionist movements
Black women activists and thinkers, such as Ruth Wilson Gilmore, Angela Davis, and Audre Lorde have been stalwart leaders of prison abolition work and the development of a comprehensive abolitionist pedagogy that is central to the movement. The abolitionist principle of sustainability is demonstrated by the commitment to “non-reformist reforms,” which Dan Berger, Miriame Kaba, and David Stein define in their co-authored piece, “What Abolitionists Do,” as “measures that reduce the power of an oppressive system while illuminating the system’s inability to solve the crises it creates.” Prison abolitionist organizations such as Incite!, Survived and Punished, and Critical Resistance have spent decades fighting to secure sustainable changes in prison conditions, to halt new prison construction, to free individuals, and to end solitary confinement and cash bail. Movements have and continue to carry out such actions while investing in community-based solutions that address the cycles of poverty and structural violence that contribute to mass incarceration. Abolitionist organizations undertake these actions in mindful opposition to “reformist reforms,” which temporarily assuage public outcry, but ultimately reinforce preexisting dynamics of oppression that generate violence, fundamentally strengthening the normative acceptance of an inherently fascist structure.
Abolish ICE activists draw from these analyses and practices to focus their organizing on fighting for enduring solutions. ICE abolitionist organizations such as Otay Mesa Detention Resistance in San Diego, California actively work to support migrants before and after ICE detention. This means everything from reuniting families through coordinating transportation and housing to promoting community-based support and rights education in order to avoid future ICE exploitation and abuse. Jennicet Gutierrez, a community organizer with La Familia: Trans Queer Liberation Movement, has been a powerful voice in the Abolish ICE movement, calling attention to the severely heightened vulnerability and persecution trans asylum seekers face. She has responded to statements that reduce the movement to its hashtag by making it clear that “abolishing ICE is absolutely about shutting down detention centers, ending deportations, and defunding and dismantling the agency...we won’t stand by anymore while our people are put in cages and punished because of their gender identity or sexual orientation.”
ICE abolitionists call attention to how even seemingly small-scale tactics of oppression are inseparable from the more shocking violations dominating headlines. Whether it’s family separation or more everyday forms of oppression such as unreliable release practices, all are all rooted in ICE’s foundational disregard for the humanity of forced-migrants, and the immigrant detention system’s profit-driven structure. No agency that exists to criminalize migration can be made morally defensible by mere reform, Abolish ICE activists assert, and ICE’s track record of systematic violence underlines the need for more radical change.
Building the Immigration Industrial Complex
Prison abolition movements and the movement to Abolish ICE are intimately linked not only through activist ideology, but also through their communities’ shared history. Mass incarceration and the broken immigration system are both connected to U.S. policies of drug criminalization and border enforcement beginning with the War on Drugs in the 1980s and ramped up with the subsequent War on Terror. The term “immigration industrial complex,” which sociologist Tanya Golash-Boza coined in 2009, draws parallels between mass deportation and mass incarceration, specifically the confluence in both of private and powerful interests, fear mongering, and “other-ization” of targeted communities.
The leading corporations running the private immigrant detention system, CoreCivic and GEO group, are the same corporations that have profited for decades off the mass incarceration of Black and Brown communities. As these corporations rake in exorbitant profits from the detention of undocumented migrants with massive ICE contracts, detention itself serves as a central mechanism of the ICE’s state-sanctioned repression and abuse. In FY 2018, CoreCivic’s contracts alone amounted to $7.4 billion. This profit motive is a central component of activists’ calls for ICE’s abolition. Human rights groups repeatedly have exposed inhumane conditions in ICE detention, as well as brutal treatment, sexual abuse, and extreme medical neglect. Rates of miscarriage in ICE detention have doubled in recent years, and 164 migrants died in ICE custody between 2003 and 2017, according to ICE data. Leading causes of death in the report include asphyxia, heart failure, and suicide. Twenty-two migrants have died in ICE custody since the body published its report on detainee deaths in 2017.
Yet these horrific statistics alone cannot capture the true scope of violence in ICE detention, where intentionally secretive ICE operations compound the problems of weak regulation in the private prison system, as David Hernández writes in the most recent issue of the NACLA Report. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Office of Inspector General issued a report in 2019 condemning human rights abuses at the Adelanto migrant detention center in San Bernardino, California. The abuses reported on include "nooses in detainee cells, improper and overly restrictive segregation, [and] untimely and inadequate detainee medical care.” Despite these reports, relevant authorities do not question the privatization of the industry and the abuse it perpetuates. Moreover, the company CoreCivic hired to complete inspections, the Nakamoto Group, consistently fails to hold CoreCivic remotely accountable, Hernández notes. According to a note on the Inspector General’s report, Nakamoto’s “inspections were particularly problematic,” NBC reported, because “ICE employees and managers told the investigators that Nakamoto inspectors ‘breeze by the standards’ and do not ‘have enough time to see if the [facility] is actually implementing the policies.’”
ICE Abolition in Practice
A main stumbling block to winning mainstream support for abolitionism is the perceived infeasibility of the project. In the case of ICE, strategic framing of the agency as a well-established, longstanding, and therefore indispensable fixture of the government has perpetuated this perception that there is no alternative to ICE. However, ICE is, in fact, a relatively recent creation.
ICE was established in 2003 as part of the post-9/11 government overhaul that reallocated immigration-related responsibilities previously held by the Immigration and Naturalization Services, (INS), which fell under the Department of Justice, to three of the newly-constructed Department of Homeland Security (DHS) sub-agencies: US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), ICE, and Customs and Border Patrol (CBP). This reconstruction did not simply distribute established INS responsibilities to the new agencies, but also marked a critical shift that took the act of unauthorized immigration from being considered a civil offense to that of criminal status. This critical shift reflected the pervasive culture of fear and nationalism that followed the 9/11 attacks, and ultimately paved the way for the normative acceptance of criminalized migration, and thus, the Immigration Industrial Complex as it exists today. Though the abolition of ICE seems radical to many, the agency itself was created in the wake of extraordinary circumstances. The creation of DHS was an unprecedented government reconstruction, one that masked the overhaul of established human rights norms regarding the civil treatment of migration under a veil of collective panic.
Four main operational directorates make up ICE: Homeland Security Investigations (HSI), Enforcement and Removal Operations (ERO), the Office of the Principal Legal Advisor (OPLA), and Management and Administration (MA). OPLA constitutes the Department of Homeland Security’s legal representation, and MA is largely administrative. OPLA and MA represent a small portion of the agency, existing in large part to support enforcement, including detention, and deportation. ERO is the largest and most heavily funded sub-agency of ICE, representing $4.8 billion dollars in FY 2018. HSI is the second largest sub-agency, though it receives less than half of what ERO received in FY2018. Opponents to ICE abolition often point to the importance of HSI, which handles high-profile transnational crime, citing it as the agency’s most necessary arm and thus primary justification for ICE’s existence in its entirety. However, 19 HSI investigators themselves have requested for their directorate to be removed from ICE entirely, because of what they claim to be a lack of “a singular synergistic mission,” as they stated in a letter sent to former Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen in June 2018. In the letter, the participating investigators share their concerns about the ways in which “each agency [is] lacking the ability to find a direction and seemingly competing for budget, resources, and an identity.”
They cite an inability to effectively investigate transnational crime because of the frequent redistribution of budget between the administrative and investigatory arms of ICE, most notably $35 million in FY2016. The investigators claim that the sub-agencies’ disparate functions “cause confusion among the public, the press, other law enforcement agencies,” that “HSI’s investigative independence is unnecessarily impacted by the political nature of ERO’s civil immigration enforcement.” Furthermore, “Many jurisdictions continue to refuse to work with HSI because of a perceived linkage to the politics of civil immigration.”
Clearly, there is an urgent internal disagreement about the confluence of enforcement and investigations under the singular umbrella of ICE. But it is important to underscore that Abolish ICE activists are not proposing a shuffling of responsibilities from ICE to other DHS agencies. ERO is the primary object of abolitionist demands, and the abolition of ICE necessarily means an end to immigrant detention, and an end mass deportation. Though HSI would likely become an independent agency under DHS, its functions and mission are separate in nature from ERO, which undeniably has become the central mission under ICE today.
The trauma asylum-seekers endure today in the United States continues long after release from detention where family separation, sexual abuse, and medical neglect are rampant. Because of the vulnerability associated with undocumented status, individuals who speak out against the state-sanctioned abuse they have been subject to are not only re-traumatized, but could also face retribution through rejected asylum petitions and deportation. Yet headlines portraying the brutality of ICE continue to emerge from the scarce information made publicly available. But the principles of abolitionism could pave a new pathway towards collective understanding, and one day, collective healing. In daring to comprehend an oppressive structure both contextually and holistically, opportunities to build commensurable solutions to the immensity of the problem then too arise.
Oppression must be eradicated from the root if there is any hope to garner permanent change. As we move forward as a society that endeavors to prioritize human life over corporate profit, we must tend the abolitionist principles of community solidarity and sustainability of change. The abolition of ICE will not solve all the problems of the broken immigration system, but it is the first step of a completely possible, meaningful, and non-reformist reform.
Jennie Rose Nelson is an immigration activist from San Diego, California, where she is affiliated with the migrant rights organizations Otay Mesa Detention Resistance and Border Angels. She is currently a student with Columbia University’s Institute for the Study of Human Rights.