Abolish ICE? Reform it? Or what?

One of the country’s largest immigrant detention centers blends into a bland industrial landscape on the tide flats of the Port of Tacoma. The warehouses and storage hangars of metal, plastics, and recycling companies surround the facility’s long, low buildings, where on any given day the United States federal government houses almost 1,600 men and women.

Only the presence of a protest camp outside the Northwest Detention Center disrupts the gray tableau, exposing an enterprise distinct in its function and political dimensions. Activists first showed up in June in response to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) separating more than 2,500 children from their parents at the US-Mexico border under President Trump’s “zero-tolerance” policy on illegal crossings.

An “Occupy ICE” camp with tents and canopies soon sprouted on a block-long strip of matted yellow grass near the center’s front gate. Protesters hung handmade signs on a chain-link fence – “No Human Is Illegal,” “Abolish ICE,” “Make America Care Again” – and began staging nightly “noise rallies,” banging on pots, pans, and drums as a signal of solidarity with the immigrants inside the facility.

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On a recent afternoon, as employees trickled into the center and families arrived to visit detainees, a handful of young men and women chatted beneath a canopy in the camp as one played a guitar. Chico Martinez, a tech worker who lives in Tacoma, described the protest as an attempt to pressure city officials to cut ties with the facility’s owner, Geo Group, Inc., the largest operator of private for-profit prisons in the country.

“A step toward abolishing ICE is driving private prisons out of business,” he says. “The city should stop taking the blood money.”

An activist proposing any measure other than the federal agency’s outright dissolution might surprise those who, based on the “Abolish ICE” slogan alone, assume the crusade has a defined purpose.

In reality, as similar protests percolate across the country, the movement and its intentions remain ambiguous. Even as many involved in the effort favor dismantling ICE, supporters recognize that, as a more practical matter, the motto serves as a strategic gambit and a rallying cry to motivate voters. In that broader view, the campaign can provoke change irrespective of the agency’s survival or demise, explains Hemanth Gundavaram, co-director of the Immigrant Justice Clinic at Northeastern University in Boston.

“A political debate is a negotiation, and in any negotiation, you start from your strongest position,” he says. “So abolishing ICE has to be on the table in order to come to a middle ground where reforms can happen.”


The federal government created ICE two years after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, to carry out immigration enforcement and assist with national security. Critics assert the agency has conflated that dual mission and, under President Trump, intensified its targeting of immigrants who lack legal status to advance his political agenda.

Rep. Pramila Jayapal, (D) of Washington, has accused the president of turning ICE into a “mass-deportation force.” A progressive in her first term whose district includes most of Seattle, she has co-sponsored a bill that would eliminate ICE within a year of Congress creating a new immigration enforcement system.

The push to jettison the agency has divided prominent Democrats. Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts back the idea, along with Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a progressive who upset incumbent Rep. Joe Crowley in New York’s Democratic primary in June. Those advocating less drastic action include House minority leader Nancy Pelosi and Rep. Maxine Waters, both of California, who support overhauling the agency.

The caution of some party leaders aligns with a national poll that found a majority of Americans oppose scrapping ICE. As Republicans portray “Abolish ICE” as a radical scheme to end immigration enforcement and open the country’s borders, Democrats intend to emphasize a broad definition of the slogan, seeking to harness the movement’s energy while building consensus for reform. Their strategy appears informed by the “repeal Obamacare” pratfall of Republicans, who benefited at the polls for years by vowing to kill the Affordable Care Act, then failed to deliver in 2017 even with control of the House, Senate, and White House.

“This debate is about more than this singular piece of legislation or just the notion of abolishing ICE,” says Vedant Patel, a spokesman for Representative Jayapal. “It’s about reforming and changing an agency that has not been doing its job. It’s about changing our immigration enforcement to something more humane and fair.”

Immigration advocates believe “Abolish ICE” – despite its uncertain direction – stands a better chance of influencing national politics and policy than the recent “Occupy Wall Street” protests that railed against income inequality.

Their optimism derives, in part, from the campaign targeting a clearly defined antagonist in Trump rather than faceless financial institutions. Tim Warden-Hertz, a directing attorney with the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project, a nonprofit legal services group with offices throughout Washington, casts the nationwide protests as proof of a growing aversion to Trump’s zero-tolerance approach.

“What ‘Abolish ICE’ has done is helped make it clear that elections matter and voting matters,” he says. “There may not be agreement right now on how to change the system, but the organizing and activism that’s happening across the country is encouraging.”

The sight of protesters outside the Northwest Detention Center heartened Maria Alvarado and Salvador Meza. The married couple had gathered up their five young children and driven a battered white minivan some 230 miles from Pasco, Wash., to visit Mr. Meza’s father. ICE detained the unauthorized field worker in November, two decades after he arrived in the US from Mexico.

“We wish we didn’t have to be here,” Mrs. Alvarado says. “But protests like this give us a little hope. It tells us that people like my father-in-law haven’t been forgotten.”


A primary distinction between “Abolish ICE” and the original “Occupy” campaign is the new crusade’s connection to a parallel cause, one with a less combative message than eliminating a public institution.

The outcry over Mr. Trump’s policy that separated parents from children inspired “Keep Families Together” marches and Senate legislation by the same name. The bill authored by Sen. Dianne Feinstein, (D) of California, has received unanimous support from her Democratic colleagues.

The administration, after rescinding its policy, appeared to fall short of complying with a court-ordered deadline to reunite families by last Thursday, with federal officials ruling more than 700 children ineligible to return to parental custody. Hiroshi Motomura, a law professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, suggests that the strong opposition to ICE taking children from parents presents an opportunity for Democrats in November.

He contends that, on its own, “Abolish ICE” leaves Democrats vulnerable to inflated charges of promoting open borders and gutting immigration policy. But linking the slogan to the demand that children remain with their parents could unify Democrats while luring independent voters and moderate Republicans.

“The center of gravity of the ‘Abolish ICE’ movement is ‘keep families together,’ ” says Mr. Motomura, the author of several books on immigration. “That’s a deeply resonant message, and I think there’s tremendous potential to get voters who call themselves centrists and even conservatives to say the administration has gone too far.”

Trump’s hard line on immigration has elicited criticism from disparate interest groups, including the US Chamber of Commerce, the American Medical Association, Silicon Valley, and higher education leaders. In light of that wide-ranging disapproval, Mr. Gundavaram, who teaches immigration law at Northeastern, predicts the president himself will sustain the anti-ICE campaign more than any other factor.

“Advocates know they can count on the administration to do more harm to more people because its policies are so incendiary,” he says. “So I think the momentum for change will continue to increase.”

Protesters who set up the camp by the Northwest Detention Center drew inspiration from activists in Portland, Ore., who forced the brief closure of the ICE office there in late June. Police cleared out that city’s remaining demonstrators last week, yet, within 24 hours, some of them had relocated to the Tacoma camp, and a new protest took root outside the ICE office in Sacramento, Calif.

A handmade sign on the chain-link fence bordering the detention center reads, “Families Belong Together Not In Cages.” The sentiment cuts to the heart for Alvarado and Meza, who estimate they have spent $10,000 in legal fees trying to free Meza’s father. Before visiting him at the facility, they had last seen him on his birthday in October.

“The president’s new policies are just so cruel,” Alvarado says. “What I want to know is, who is helped by hurting families?”

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