A Winning Message for Democrats on Immigration

The president’s pretense of caring most about public safety leaves an opening for Democrats who are adept enough to exploit it.

Mike Blake / Reuters

Immigration policy will loom large in the 2018 elections. Democrats hope Americans will punish Republicans for the Trump administration’s decision to snatch little boys and girls away from their parents—to separate families in the hope that the primal pain of the ordeal discourages future migrants from crossing the border with children.

Meanwhile, some on the Democratic Party’s left flank are demanding candidates and elected officials who want to abolish Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, the federal agency that identifies, imprisons, immiserates, and deports unlawful immigrants (though not the agency that stands guard over the border).

Dara Lind has the definitive write-up of that movement.

Abolishing ICE, a radical departure from the Obama administration’s approach to immigration politics and policy, still lacks support among most Democratic politicians, but President Trump is opportunistically portraying it as the new Democratic position. His rhetoric suggests that he hopes to win the midterms by stoking fears of immigrant gang members perpetrating violent crimes while portraying his opponents as weak, anti-law-enforcement extremists. He is going so far as to cast members of one Salvadoran gang as subhuman.

“When we have an ‘infestation’ of MS-13 GANGS in certain parts of our country, who do we send to get them out? ICE!” he recently tweeted. “They are tougher and smarter than these rough criminal elements that bad immigration laws allow into our country. Dems do not appreciate the great job they do!”

Although undocumented immigrants are statistically less likely to commit crimes than native-born citizens, and although crime is lower than it was in bygone decades when there were significantly fewer undocumented immigrants in the United States, the president has returned to that theme repeatedly rather than occupying his time with the country’s most pressing challenges.

Other examples from this month alone:

  • “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!”
  • “Many Democrats are deeply concerned about the fact that their ‘leadership’ wants to denounce and abandon the great men and women of ICE, thereby declaring war on Law & Order. These people will be voting for Republicans in November and, in many cases, joining the Republican Party!”
  • “How can the Democrats, who are weak on the Border and weak on Crime, do well in November. The people of our Country want and demand Safety and Security, while the Democrats are more interested in ripping apart and demeaning (and not properly funding) our great Law Enforcement!”

As ever, Trump has good instincts for how to stoke ethnic tensions and trigger the authoritarian impulses of voters who are most easily influenced by fearmongering. There is no greater master of identity politics in America today. And the divisions that he deliberately sows among citizens may well bear fruit for him, even as they weaken America as a whole by corroding its bonds of affection.

At the same time, Trump’s stances are rife with substantive flaws, as one might expect of an inauthentic demagogue who cares little about the truth or rigor of his words and presumes that his base will not bother to test them factually or logically. The very lack of shame and integrity he exploits to lie in ways even other liars avoid creates weakness commensurate with his departures from reality. On immigration, he leaves his opponents a substantively correct, rhetorically powerful opening if they are smart enough to exploit it. At its core is this insight: There is a tradeoff between deporting as many undocumented immigrants as possible and protecting Americans from as many criminals as possible.

That tradeoff manifests in several guises:

  1. Like all federal agencies, ICE has limited resources. It could focus all of those resources on apprehending, detaining, and deporting people who’ve perpetrated violent or serious crimes. Instead, it now spends a lot of time and resources deporting people who have never committed and will never commit any serious crime. You’ve seen the stories of young mothers and elderly grandparents hauled off to deportation hearings. If you were trying to minimize violent crime, how many federal agents would you devote to dealing with them?
  2. While ICE has surely deported some MS-13 members, it is neither the primary nor the most effective government agency that is working to fight violent gangs. Resources meant to minimize MS-13’s power are best allocated elsewhere.
  3. Aggressive internal enforcement of immigration laws against otherwise law-abiding people understandably reduces the willingness of many individuals in immigrant enclaves to cooperate with local law enforcement. Everything from spousal abuse to murders may increase as a result.

The opposition to Trump should not stop talking about the needless cruelties that his approach to immigration inflicts on undocumented immigrants. Yet additional, equally powerful lines of attack are made available by Trump’s false pretense of doing what is best to maximize the American public’s safety, even as he pursues a policy approach that trades away several degrees of public safety to increase deportations of undocumented immigrants who pose no danger.

White supremacists ought to like his approach as surely as they did his rise. Those genuinely concerned about public safety should not.

Calls to “abolish ICE” will resonate on the left flank of the Democratic Party, and they will also resonate with libertarian-inclined people like me, for reasons articulated well in Reason magazine by Shikha Dalmia:

Whereas ICE used to limit enforcement actions to those falling within the "criminal alien" category, now anyone without proper documents or with a minor infraction on his record is fair game for deportation—even otherwise model residents who have lived in America for years and developed deep roots. A green card–holding Polish doctor and father of two who has been here for four decades is fighting deportation for a misdemeanor conviction he received in high school.

"You should look over your shoulder and you need to be worried," Acting Director Thomas Homan declared during congressional testimony last June.

True to its word, the agency is sparing no one. Undocumented parents with American kids are not off limits. In spite of a directive from Defense Secretary James Mattis to leave veterans alone, the agency is seeking removal proceedings against a Chinese immigrant who was honorably discharged from the U.S. Army. Agents are even going after victims of domestic violence who try to file police reports.

...and there's every reason to believe the problem will continue to get worse. But there is no need for a dedicated entity that only goes after immigrants in the first place. The 1980 Libertarian Party platform demanded the abolition of several of ICE's less draconian predecessor agencies. It's time to renew that call. Regular law enforcement can handle the truly bad hombres. Congress should dismantle ICE and thoughtfully reassign its legitimate functions.

Except for capital punishment, a government has no more awesome a power than to pluck people from their homes, tear them away from their loved ones, and send them into exile. President Trump identified 22 agencies for elimination in his budget. Most of them represent the soft tyranny of the administrative state. ICE embodies the hard tyranny of the police state. It deserves to go.

On the other hand, neither conservatives nor libertarians ever seem to succeed at eliminating federal agencies. And “Abolish ICE” sounds to uninformed ears like a call for open borders, even if the reality would be less radical, and even though most proponents of what they call “abolishment” actually favor reassigning core features of the perhaps irredeemably corrupted agency.

Would abolishing ICE and dispersing its responsibilities elsewhere in the Homeland Security bureaucracy serve the vulnerable any better than reforming ICE? The answer is perhaps unknowable. But there’s an approach to reforming it that strikes me as substantively sound, as likely to help people, and more politically realistic in 2018, when most, including many of those crying for ICE to be abolished or opposing that step, won’t yet grasp what “Abolish ICE” means.

Imagine a candidate telling voters:

Trump postures as if his immigration policy is focused on stopping dangerous criminals like MS-13 members, but the truth is that under his watch ICE spends much of its scarce time and resources going after people who pose no danger. You’ve probably seen photos of elderly people, women, and young children being hauled away. Couldn’t you find better uses for the time of those ICE agents?

Trump himself avows that MS-13 is menacing American communities, and yet he persists in sending ICE after farm hands, restaurant workers, and stay-at-home moms. Does that sound like a man who is strong or whose priorities are in order?

Trump’s poseur, reality-TV approach squanders limited, expensive federal resources. Let’s reform ICE so that it better protects ordered liberty. That’s the right priority—not “looking tough” like Trump or making America white again like Stephen Miller, both of whom could be keeping American families safer but for their decision to chase those other goals. They’re spending a good bit of your tax dollars in order to chase them.

Couldn’t you think of 50 better ways to spend that money?

ICE is not presently responsible for protecting the border against criminals, terrorists, or nukes. Some of its resources might be better assigned to the people who are.

ICE or something like it should be funded enough to find and deport undocumented immigrants with outstanding arrest warrants. And it should look among prison inmates for folks who ought to be deported rather than released, work that avoids the problem of making whole enclaves of people less likely to cooperate with local police. But it is ill-suited to stopping MS-13 and gangs like it.

Thus I’d redirect perhaps a third of ICE funding to entities like the FBI’s task force on reducing the threat from transnational gangs, which should be a much bigger federal priority than stoking fear in otherwise law-abiding people, including veterans.

Yes, ICE has even gone after men who volunteered to fight wars for America.

Internal immigration enforcement is a fraught thing in a free country that values small government and hedges against tyranny. It makes the U.S. more like a police state, with armed federal agents traveling the countryside and busting into private businesses and homes. Sometimes citizens are met with demands to show their papers, a spectacle more befitting East Germany than a free people. Reducing the size of ICE and more fully circumscribing its activities would reduce those violent, statist intrusions into daily life.

And internal immigration raids and sweeps are more likely to snag the undocumented immigrants who’ve resided in the United States the longest—that is to say, the people most likely to have American-citizen family members, friends, neighbors, teachers, employers or employees, and romantic partners. In other words, the deportation of these particular undocumented immigrants imposes significant costs on American citizens beyond their personal cost. Many Americans are personally devastated by unnecessary deportations. But Trump has never shown any indication that he is even aware of those citizens.

Indeed, Trump is broadly blind to the downsides of his performatively punitive approach to immigration, as one might expect from an out-of-touch billionaire who has spent much of his life holed up in TV studios and a Manhattan tower. It isn’t just that the people’s safety can be maintained without the needless cruelties he has imposed and the huge costs borne by Americans. Rather, the worst features of Trump’s immigration policy can be undone in a way that makes the public safer than it is today while bearing fewer costs.

Let’s stop allowing America’s immigration policy to be dictated by a weak old man’s need to trick his base into thinking that he’s tough by inflicting cruelties on others. Instead, let’s get smarter about targeting criminals and be kinder to innocents. Our safety and our wallets will benefit.