Editor’s Note: Julian Zelizer is a history and public affairs professor at Princeton University, editor of “The Presidency of Barack Obama: A First Historical Assessment” and co-host of the “Politics & Polls” podcast. Follow him on Twitter: @julianzelizer. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own.
Democrats are making a massive political mistake by calling for the end of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).
On a Saturday when Americans across the country took to the streets to protest President Donald Trump’s hardline shift on immigration policy, more and more prominent Democrats – from Sen. Elizabeth Warren to Sen. Kristin Gillibrand – used their voices to advocate for ending ICE as we know it.
The surprise victory of Democratic congressional nominee Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who highlighted attacks on ICE during her campaign against incumbent New York Democrat Joe Crowley, has given further momentum to this position.
ICE was created as part of the reorganization of homeland security after 9/11. Before the horrendous attack on our soil, the Immigration and Naturalization Service, established in 1933, oversaw immigration on the border and within the country. Under the Department of Homeland Security, which was created by President George W. Bush, the immigration bureaucracy was divided up into three parts. The US Citizenship and Immigration Services handled the naturalization and immigration process, Customs and Border Protection was responsible for monitoring the border, while ICE was given authority to deal with enforcing the laws inside the country.
Some Democrats may be hoping that turning ICE into the focus of the immigration debate will serve the same kind of purpose that attacking the Internal Revenue Service or the Department of Education once offered Republicans – a symbol of what has gone wrong in American politics and a way to capture, in a short phrase, what the opposition hopes to do.
While focusing on ICE is an extremely important debate, and dismantling the agency might the be the best policy decision, it carries enormous short-term political risks for the Democrats going into the midterm elections.
The main problem with the abolish ICE stance is that the strategy shifts attention away from Trump and his hardline policies and toward the issue of government reorganization. In 2018, Democrats who are angry about the ongoing attacks on undocumented immigrants, as well as legal immigration, don’t really need anything more to rally around. They already have Trump and his blistering rhetoric, and they have the extraordinarily harsh policy of separating children from their families – which, though the President has ended, still remains an issue since more than 2,000 immigrant kids remain in limbo.
According to a Pew Research Center poll, Democrats enjoyed a 14-point advantage in handling immigration before the family separations started. And according to a CNN poll, two-thirds of Americans oppose the President’s decision to take children from their parents.
Moving the public discussion toward an abstract bureaucratic body and the need for government reorganization could easily dampen the fervor that was evident on the streets of America Saturday. It can also divert attention from the President himself.
And, frankly, ICE is not a government body that most Americans know about. Without a doubt, many people who are reading or hearing about this story will need to do some quick Google searching to figure out what exactly this agency – at the heart of so much controversy – does on a day-to-day basis. This is very different than going after an agency like the IRS, which has been collecting our taxes since 1862 and which almost every American deals with every year.
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With Democrats attacking ICE, the administration has been given an opening to paint its opponents as extreme, radical and a threat to national security. Even though we are long overdue for a rigorous debate over our immigration system, a call to abolish anything makes it sound as if the proponents want the entire system to go away.
Though Democrats are on the airwaves explaining they want something else that is better, Trump is already using this as a rallying cry to tell Republicans who strongly support his policies that the opposition is made up of extremists who don’t want any kind of border security at all. “The Liberal Left, also known as the Democrats, want to get rid of ICE, who do a fantastic job, and want Open Borders. Crime would be rampant and uncontrollable!” he tweeted on Sunday morning.
As Trump starts to gain some political momentum, Democrats can’t afford to make mistakes going into the midterms. They risk undercutting their political position on some of the most important issues of the day, where the President has made it clear exactly what kinds of policies he intends to put into place.
By focusing on the abolition of ICE rather than the end of Trump’s policy of breaking up families, the Democrats might be doing exactly what the President needs to continue moving his agenda forward.