U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) isn't going to be abolished under President Joe Biden, but Democratic lawmakers and activists think serious changes need to be made to increase oversight, accountability and transparency within the agency, up to and including firings and replacement of leadership.
"Abolish ICE" briefly became a buzzy phrase among activists and as a hashtag on Twitter during the 2020 campaign but never picked up steam because lawmakers pretty uniformly rejected the idea, including Biden who would go on to win the presidency. But with the new administration and executive orders meant to curb Trump policies, the agency is once again in the crosshairs from Democrats and advocates who say it must be reformed in big and small ways, after reports that ICE was ignoring new Biden directives.
"We need to restore dignity and humanity to our immigration system across the board, and that includes reforming and rebuilding ICE," said Senator Alex Padilla, who on Sunday became the first Latino to chair the immigration subcommittee, promptly renaming it the Subcommittee on Immigration, Citizenship and Border Safety, with an eye towards the humanizing goal. "Our priority will be strengthening congressional oversight of the agency, and undoing the agency's cruel and misguided focus of the prior administration."
Arizona Representative Raul Grijalva, the chairman emeritus of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, told Newsweek there is a feeling within ICE that they can ignore Biden, new enforcement priorities on family separations, citizen complaints, and requests for disclosure, under the guise of national security.
"You can call it rogue, but they're unaccountable and need to be constrained," he said, noting that lack of transparency and oversight are a part of the problem.
Asked if reforming the agency included a change in leadership and firings, Grijalva said "absolutely."
"They became part of the political arm on immigration," he added. "They became a political arm of Trump and Stephen Miller. That role has to be stripped and accountability has to be brought in."
Representative Ritchie Torres, a member of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus and Congressional Black Caucus, echoed Grijalva's call for firings.
"Personnel is policy, so we need to make sure that personnel follows the expressed policies of the president," he said. "He needs to see to it that the federal government, including ICE, is scrubbed clean of Trump loyalists."
ICE, along with Customs and Border Protection, and the Department of Homeland Security are post-9/11 institutions, created over a four-month period from late-2002 to 2003. And when then-Senator Joe Biden voted in favor of creating DHS, he left open the possibility that the agencies would need to be reformed, and the Biden campaign at the time was quick to remind reporters of this weighty historical tidbit before he won the Democratic nomination.
Before the 2002 floor vote, Biden gave a speech saying he feared "because of the speed with which we considered this proposal, the rapid, sweeping reorganization it immediately envisions and the prospect for abuse in several of its provisions, I fear this bill will need to be revisited several times and its implementation will need to be closely monitored by Congress if we hope to get it right."
The campaign's immigration plan similarly said ICE and CBP personnel are expected to abide by professional standards, will be held accountable for inhumane treatment, and Biden would increase resources for training and demand transparency in and independent oversight over ICE and CBP's activities.
White House spokesman Vedant Patel told Newsweek that Biden knows each aspect of the "broken immigration system" needs reforming, which is why he sent an immigration bill to Congress that addresses those needs, before turning to ICE.
"The President supports restoring sensible immigration enforcement priorities and his bill includes an increase in resources for training agents while also demanding transparency and independent oversight," he said.
Not all Democrats want to see ICE overhauled, however. Arizona Senator Mark Kelly, for example, has called for an immigration system that respects immigrants and asylum seekers and sets up Arizona for economic success, while rejecting calls to abolish or reform ICE in major ways.
"We have spent $260 billion on immigration enforcement since the mid-1980s and what have we gotten for it? It hasn't been working," he told Arizona radio station KTAR News, adding that better border security is needed and more immigration judges to process asylum seekers.
But immigration activists are forging ahead, calling for Biden to lead the way on reforms by taking further executive actions that weaken ICE and get rid of programs like Secure Communities, which codifies ICE partnerships with local law enforcement and controversial enforcement practices like workplace raids.
Jacinta Gonzalez, a senior organizer for Mijente who leads work around immigration policy, said she personally felt the "rogue" elements of ICE extend to her, when she says ICE tried to use an immigration detainer to deport her despite the fact that she's a U.S. citizen. But in a departure from Grijalva's call for new leadership, Gonzalez said people are needed at the field office level to hold agents in line and ensure they follow administration directives.
"Of course, there has to be accountability at the leadership level, but who actually deports the person talking about detention conditions or the activist who speaks out at a press conference?" she asked.
Jessica Morales Rocketto, executive director of Care in Action, which leads electoral campaigns for 2.5 million domestic workers, including a campaign in Georgia to elect Senators Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff, said she does not believe there is any way to reform these agencies "at a deep, deep level." She said what is lesser understood is that each field agent has their own prosecutorial discretion for individual case-level decisions.
"I even have some sympathy that we have a system that puts people that work in that system around it in difficult situations as individuals," she told Newsweek. "But to a person, their answer has always been the least humane, least welcoming, and most punitive response."
ICE, many Democrats and advocates say, was founded in the shroud of punishment and distrust of immigrants as a concept, with Americans needing to protect themselves from them, which newly confirmed DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas will have to confront head on.
"It's part and parcel of enforcement-only and trying to keep alive Trump's anti-immigrant agenda," Grijalva said. "That's going to be Mayorkas biggest challenge."