Posted on July 13, 2020

How “Abolish ICE” Helped Bring Abolitionist Ideas into the Mainstream

Nicole Narea, Vox, July 9, 2020

Before thousands of people took to the streets demanding the abolition of police, “abolish ICE” was the rallying cry of activists protesting the Trump administration’s immigration policies.

Democrats on the debate stage were asked about the movement to abolish the agency, also known as US Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Two candidates made dismantling the agency part of their platform, and those who did not still embraced calls for more aggressive reform. The movement pushed ideas about abolition further into the mainstream, changing the conversation around criminal justice reform.

Activists for police abolition see the two movements as intertwined, and say it isn’t a coincidence that both have risen to prominence in recent years.

“The activist communities that are involved in engaging people with the idea that we should defund the police or abolish the police or abolish ICE have a lot of cross-fertilization,” said César Cuauhtémoc García Hernández, a law professor at the University of Denver. “These are activists who often are people of color in communities where law enforcement agents of various types have a deleterious effect on them and the people around them. For lots of people who have been doing this work for many years, they view the police and ICE as working hand in hand.”

Movements to abolish ICE and the police have amassed significant support. By August 2018, about a quarter of Democrats supported calls to dismantle the agency, and more than half had come to view the agency negatively. Similarly, polls conducted in the wake of recent protests have shown an almost 15 percent increase in support for cuts to law enforcement funding.

It would be wrong to say that the movements’ messaging has had no impact, García Hernández said. “The notion of abolishing ICE has become one worthy of consideration by a much broader segment of society,” he said. “There has been an enormous shift.”


Many of the organizations and movements calling for the abolition of ICE are the same ones that have been working to abolish the police; they see both moves as part of their objective to dismantle repressive law enforcement.


Police have long worked in cooperation with ICE to arrest immigrants, leading to their detention and possible deportation. {snip}

ICE can send a written request to a local jail or other law enforcement entity asking officers to continue to detain immigrants for an additional 48 hours beyond when they would otherwise be released so that the agency can take them into custody and begin deportation proceedings. {snip}

ICE has access to a number of federal databases that help it identify immigrants to deport, including those of the Department of Motor Vehicles and the National Crime Information Center. But police can also informally share information with ICE to notify them of someone in their custody whom they suspect may have committed an immigration violation.

For many unauthorized immigrants, coming into contact with police for an offense as minor as a traffic violation could result in their deportation. Advocates have therefore understood the importance of police reform at the local level.

This cooperation between the two agencies is why some states and cities have adopted “sanctuary” policies barring local law enforcement from complying with detention requests or sharing information. The Supreme Court recently left in place a California law that prevented most state and local law enforcement officials from providing detainees’ release dates or home addresses to ICE unless it’s already public information. That law also barred immigrants who have not been convicted of a crime from being transferred to immigration custody absent a court order, with some exceptions.


The movements to abolish the police and to abolish ICE often work in tandem. Some activists work on both causes, and others see their work as ideologically sympathetic.

ICE and the police are “built on the same foundation of racism and white supremacy,” said Silky Shah, executive director of Detention Watch Network, one of the first organizations to call for abolishing immigration detention.


Immigrant advocates have opposed ICE since its inception, arguing that it has criminalized and unjustly targeted communities of color. But the agency didn’t attract widespread scrutiny until Donald Trump came into office {snip}

“The view of the agency as something that was purely malignant really happened after Trump was elected and ramped up interior enforcement in a way that was tied pretty explicitly to the creation of a white ethnostate,” said Sean McElwee, the co-founder of nonprofit think tank Data for Progress who is credited with coining the #AbolishICE hashtag.

The abolish ICE movement drew from that of abolishing prisons in developing strategies to “defund, shame, and create popular dissent around deportation,” Mohapatra said. Leading progressives, most notably Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, popularized the idea of abolishing the agency, bucking the prevailing view of mainstream Democrats at the time who called for keeping the agency intact while reforming it.

Over half of voters in 2018 said they didn’t support dismantling ICE, and center-left commentators warned that endorsing the movement would cost Democrats congressional seats in the midterms. But that never came to pass. Instead, the idea became a rallying cry for protesters and eventually worked its way into presidential candidates’ platforms. Sen. Bernie Sanders and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio proposed breaking up ICE and redistributing its functions to other agencies.


Advocates of abolition say their goal isn’t just to shift the Overton window, the range of ideas that the public is willing to consider. They urge people to take them at their word when they say they want to dismantle the police and ICE.