The movement to abolish the federal agency tasked with enforcing immigration laws in the interior of the United States has gained momentum in recent weeks, and lawmakers on Thursday for the first time detailed in legislation exactly how they envisioned this would play out.
The Establishing a Humane Immigration Enforcement System Act would do away with Immigration and Customs Enforcement, an agency within the Homeland Security Department that employs about 20,000 workers. ICE, argued bill authors Reps. Mark Pocan, D-Wis., Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., and Adriano Espaillat, D-N.Y., has strayed too far from its initial core functions of investigating terrorism, drug smuggling and trade fraud. They cited inspector general and other reports in accusing the agency of human rights abuses, violations of federal and international laws, and a lack of transparency.
The bill would within one year of its passage terminate ICE. In the meantime it would create a commission that would, within six months, recommend to Congress how to move ICE’s “legitimate duties” to other agencies. The DHS inspector general would be tasked with reporting on any ICE human rights violations and recommend ways to prevent them from reoccurring.
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While ICE employees would have to find new jobs, the bill does not seek to cut the federal workforce overall. The commission would have to ensure total federal employment is not reduced by prioritizing new hiring to “address legal, health and social-service needs of those within the federal immigration enforcement system.”
Both parties in Congress would get to nominate four commission members, while nine would come from immigrant rights organizations. Congress would have to consider the group’s recommendations before ICE is abolished.
The “Abolish ICE” movement has gained traction since President Trump’s “zero tolerance” border policy went into effect, leading to ICE separating parents illegally entering the country from their children. Several prominent Democrats, such as Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand, N.Y., and Elizabeth Warren, Mass., have said ICE is not functioning effectively and needs to be rebuilt. Others have called for significant reforms at the agency.
Pocan said ICE has used its power to “terrorize our communities” with raids and has become nothing more than a “mass-deportation force.”
“Sadly, President Trump has so misused ICE that the agency can no longer accomplish its goals effectively,” Pocan said. “As a result, the best path forward is this legislation, which would end ICE and transfer its critical functions to other executive agencies.”
ICE was created with DHS in 2003. Previously, its responsibilities were housed primarily in the Justice Department by Immigration and Naturalization Services.
“There was enforcement of our immigration laws before ICE was created and there will be after ICE, as an agency, is gone,” Jayapal said. “As it stands, ICE is out of control.”
Reshaping ICE, the lawmakers said, would help shrink its functions. They noted that 60 percent of its budget currently goes toward detention and removal programs. On top of that, they said, ICE routinely seeks to reprogram funding from its Homeland Security Investigations component to its Enforcement and Removal Operations.
“We are pushing to bring an end to ICE as the agency has strayed too far from its original mission, intent and purpose,” Espaillat said.
House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., quickly cast the proposal as outside of mainstream thinking.
“They have really jumped the sharks on the left,” Ryan said. “They want to get rid of the agency? It’s the craziest position I’ve ever seen.”
Last week, Vice President Mike Pence addressed ICE employees at the agency’s headquarters. He criticized those calling for ICE’s abolishment, saying it would never happen under Trump’s watch.
“The truth is,” Pence said, “calls to abolish ICE are not just outrageous, they’re irresponsible.” He suggested without the agency, the country would face more violent crime, gang activity, drugs in schools and illegal immigrants.
The vice president said there is no place in the political debate for that proposal.
“American people have a right to their opinions,” Pence said, “but these spurious attacks on ICE by our political leaders must stop.”