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What Does It Mean to Abolish ICE?

Our demand is not a return to the so-called civility of the Obama years, but an unapologetic end to an apparatus that preemptively criminalizes migration, and enforces a hierarchy based on the accident of birth

Abolish ICE means many things. Above all, it is a proclamation that a better world is possible. (Photo: Scott Olson/Getty Images)

Abolish ICE means many things. Above all, it is a proclamation that a better world is possible. (Photo: Scott Olson/Getty Images)

On June 21, acting ICE director Mark Morgan confirmed plans to target migrant families in upcoming immigration raids.

"Do not come," Morgan signaled to those contemplating refuge in the United States, "Do not risk it."

Morgan's comments come as the Trump administration stokes widespread panic by threatening a dramatic deportation crackdown in the coming weeks. Meanwhile, a report from the agency's own inspector general finds "egregious violations" at ICE detention facilities ranging from moldy food to nooses in detainee cells.

It's not the first time immigrant families have found themselves in ICE's crosshairs. In 2016, the Obama administration carried out raids targeting immigrant families, claiming the round-ups would serve as a deterrent to others considering the journey. It was later determined that several of those flagged for deportation had credible threats to their life.

The Trump administration has elevated the worst impulses of our immigration system. But there is a danger in seeing Trump's cruelty as a wholly new phenomenon. It was President Clinton, after all, who signed a 1996 law that laid the groundwork for immigration enforcement as we know it—expanding the scope of those eligible for deportation and stripping judges of discretion in enforcing these removals. President Obama himself oversaw a massive expansion of Operation Streamline, which criminalized migrants en masse and granted many as little as twenty-five seconds in court. The administration pursued an aggressive deterrence policy centered around the wide-scale detention of families.

It is a condemnation of regressive laws that criminalize human movement while corporations operate freely across borders.

An agency that uses children as bargaining chips cannot be reformed. It must be abolished.

Abolish ICE is not a slogan. It is a demand. It is a recognition that an agency built out of a post-9/11 security frenzy irremediably reads immigrants as a national security threat. It is a condemnation of regressive laws that criminalize human movement while corporations operate freely across borders. It is engaging with difficult truths, like bipartisan complicity in enacting xenophobic laws. Our demand is not a return to the so-called civility of the Obama years, but an unapologetic end to an apparatus that preemptively criminalizes migration, and enforces a hierarchy based on the accident of birth.

Abolish ICE is a moral imperative. It is a call to end a system that targets children for enforcement, routinely employs excessive force, and sees sexual violence as a tool at its disposal. It requires denouncing not just the striking, visible cruelty of the Trump administration, but coming to terms with the inherent violence of borders. It means making amends for a US history of violence, from militarized aggression to policies of economic extraction that force families on the migrant trail each day.

Abolish ICE is an attainable goal. Activists have a vision for a world without the agency—and, crucially, they have had many successes off of which to build.

In June 2018, Google vowed not to extend its contract with the Department of Defense after a sustained pressure campaign from its employees. Building on this momentum, Microsoft workers circulated an open letter asking Microsoft to stop working with ICE.

"We believe that Microsoft must take an ethical stand, and put children and families above profits," said the letter, pointing to Microsoft's $19.4 million contract with the agency. Protests at Amazon offices have sprung up in Seattle and NYC, as employees call on Jeff Bezos to end his partnership with the agency.

ICE fundamentally depends on contractors to carry out its work. Movimiento Cosecha's No Business With ICE campaign forces major institutions to draw a line in the sand. It's not just tech companies that are implicated: a whole host of colleges and universities across the nation have contracts with ICE. Northeastern University drew broad criticism as news of its multimillion dollar contract came to light. Meanwhile, students and faculty at Johns Hopkins walked out in protest of the institution's ties to the agency, chanting: "Caging children is horrific. JHU is complicit." Students across the country must keep the pressure up. The termination of even smaller, more mundane contracts—like leases for campus parking spots—can prove significantly disruptive in great numbers.

ICE spends billions of taxpayer dollars each year to incarcerate desperate asylum seekers and terrorize our communities. Congress has the power to cut off ICE funding and reappropriate funds.

Defunding ICE is another key step towards abolition. ICE spends billions of taxpayer dollars each year to incarcerate desperate asylum seekers and terrorize our communities. Congress has the power to cut off ICE funding and reappropriate funds. In a joint statement this week, Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Ayanna Pressley, and Rashida Tlaib vowed not to give "one more dollar to support this President's deportation force that openly commits human rights abuses and refuses to be held accountable to the American people." With a majority in the House of Representatives, Democrats can take real action against ICE abuses by passing appropriations bills that constrain its funding.

Direct action, too, is essential to dismantle the agency. When the news of family separations broke, occupations of ICE facilities spread quickly across the country. Brave acts of civil disobedience have halted deportations in the past—those with the privilege of citizenship must come together to disrupt ICE actions on a greater scale. Actions can take many forms, from physically interrupting raids, to filming ICE, to creating physical sanctuary sites where immigrants can go in the event of a raid. 

Some will argue that abolition is unrealistic, and that we must instead push to reform the agency. But we must dare to dream bigger. Reform has meant concessions for the few at the expense of the many. It has won us children in cages and filthy detention centers. Abolish ICE means many things. Above all, it is a proclamation that a better world is possible.

Natascha Elena Uhlmann

Natascha Elena Uhlmann

Natascha Elena Uhlmann is a writer and activist from Sonora, Mexico. Her forthcoming book, Abolish ICE, will be out through OR books in July. 

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