In the nuclear fall-out from the Trump administration’s zero-tolerance immigration policy, which separated more than 2,000 children from their parents at the southern border, calls to abolish Immigration and Customs Enforcement have grown louder and more pervasive. Most vocally, up-and-comer Alexandria Ocasio Cortez, running for New York’s 14th Congressional seat, has called for ICE’s end. But the call is coming from establishment politicians as well, with Senators Kirsten Gillibrand and Congressman Mike Pocan joining the movement, among others.

And it’s catching on among voters.

According to Business insider, “between January and May, there were an average of 3,600 tweets mentioning the hashtag or phrase “Abolish ICE.” In the month of June, there were 77,000 such tweets.”

So let’s do it!  Let’s abolish ICE. And then what?  What should we do next?

I don’t say this to criticize the movement or the idea. I ask this question, because this is the critical question every single piece of public policy should have to answer, especially two and three-word policies that start sweeping the nation and popping up all over social media. I wish more people had asked this question about “Build the Wall!” before the 2016 election.

While there hasn’t been polling on this, it seems the majority of Americans who use these phrases have no idea what our country should do AFTER we act on them. All many of them know is that it fits nicely on a piece of poster board and has somehow become a crucial part of their political identity.

I’m not alone in pointing this out. Democrat Beto O’Rourke, who is challenging Texas Sen. Ted Cruz for his seat, recently brought his opinion to light: “Abolishing ICE does nothing…It is the practices, it is the way in which we are treating our fellow human beings that needs to be changed, and that won’t come with a slogan or a bumper sticker or the abolition of one department.”

Civic-minded Americans of all political stripes need to be aware that the simplistic slogans we promote, also often promote the creation of bad public policy built upon poorly constructed rhetorical foundations.


The “Abolish ICE” movement took off in the midst of the Trump Administration’s inhuman child separation policy. Nearly every American with a television can tell you what happened — as undocumented immigrants approached, tried to cross, or asked for asylum at our southern border, thousands of parents and children were separated and taken to various facilities across the nation, with little to no plan for how they would be reunited. An entirely man-made humanitarian crisis. And from this, “Abolish ICE” spread.

What most Americans wouldn’t be able to tell you, is that ICE had little to do with those family separations.

It is US Customs and Border Protection that was responsible for separating families at the border, not ICE. Furthermore, it is the Department of Health and Human Services and the Office of Refugee Resettlement that was tasked with the responsibility of reuniting families, and has been doing so at a criminally slow pace. On July 26, the date of the court-ordered deadline to reunite all separated families, one in three children were still without their parents, with no clear indication when or if they would be reunited.

Tell me, how would abolishing ICE help these children?

Similarly, let’s talk about building that big, beautiful wall.

Most “Build the Wall” proponents would argue that the “scourge” of illegal immigration wouldn’t even be an issue if we put up a 20-30 foot wall to secure against Mexicans crossing the border.

Yet most wouldn’t be able to tell you the actual facts of undocumented immigration.

According to a report by the Center for Migration Studies, in each year from 2007 to 2014, a majority of undocumented immigrants joined the US population by remaining in the county after their visas expired. Which means most of these immigrants got to the US by plane, and not by walking across the US-Mexico border. In fact, in 2015 and 2016, more than half of undocumented entries in the US did not even originate from Mexico.

Additionally, the US Census Bureau, the Department of Homeland Security, and the Pew Research Center all show that illegal entries had decreased in the past 10 years prior to this new administration, and that 75% of undocumented immigrants have been here for more than a decade, with only 5% entering since 2013.

So tell me, how will a $20 billion dollar wall end America’s illegal immigration concerns?


Some will say, these battle cries are just rhetoric — shorthand for a more complicated agenda understood by all. But are they?

Then-candidate Donald Trump’s repeated chant to build the wall has now nearly halted any serious movement on the immigration debate since his inauguration, because a significant portion of his base insist upon that wall before anything else. Even President Trump’s attempt to clarify that his “wall” would not in actuality be continuous, or an actual wall, or even tangible in some cases, were met with hostility from supporters who voted for him because of a promise of an impenetrable barricade across the entire southern border.

Most recently, this has led the President to threaten yet another government shutdown if the wall isn’t funded.

And what of abolishing ICE?  What if we actually did it, and US Customs and Border Patrol were instructed to resume their child separation procedures?  What if asylum seekers were still being turned away, arrested, or abused when seeking refuge in the United States?  How would people react when reality didn’t meet the rhetoric?

Earlier this month, three Congress members introduced an actual bill to officially abolish ICE in one year’s time. The bill calls for a commission to be formed AFTER the legislation is passed which would formulate how ICE’s constitutional responsibilities would be executed by existing or new departments. What happens if/when those who want to end ICE find that many of the division’s responsibilities are just being adopted by other parts of our government?

Sean McElwee, Data for Progress co-founder who popularized the idea of abolishing ICE, states that he considers the bill a “good first start,” but also acknowledges that, “at this point, there isn’t alignment within the immigrant-rights community and the groups that have been pushing to abolish ICE as to what a concrete next step would be.”

Whether you’re building a wall or dismantling a government agency, can’t we all agree that next steps are pretty darn important?


Since abolishing ICE would in fact do nothing to prevent the US from separating immigrant children from their parents at the border any time in the future, it is again important for us to ask, what follows its abolition?  And to answer this question, advocates of all stripes need to ask themselves what they really want?

Here are a couple suggestions that unfortunately never got a catchy slogan:

Perhaps Americans want to ban the separation of children from their parents at the border in all cases short of sincere suspicions of abuse or trafficking?

Perhaps we’d like ICE to stop targeting immigrants who come to law enforcement to report a crime, who arrive at courthouses to participate in necessary legal proceedings, or who arrive at hospitals seeking medical aid?

Perhaps some would demand that ICE not charge parents and children who were separated at the border exorbitant fees such as $0.20-$3.00 a minute to speak to each other on the phone. Some might suggest these calls should even be free.

And finally, like then-Candidate Trump suggested during his campaign, maybe some Americans would want ICE to focus on the apprehension and deportation of undocumented immigrants who have committed violent crimes, instead of targeting people with no criminal history.

How do these sound to you, Abolish ICEers?  If any of these sound good, I should point out that none of these are guaranteed, or even likely, if the unlikely happened and the US government dismantles ICE.

However, some of these changes very much could happen if the American people focused on advocating for the outcome they truly want, instead of the slogan that makes them feel good. Unfortunately, the policy ideas above are more complicated, more nuanced, and less viscerally satisfying than the call to terminate an entire agency. Just like the calls to streamline the naturalization process and have more strategic immigration policies are much less satisfying than a call to build a symbolic and globally insulting wall.

But these are complicated times, and we are dealing with complicated issues with extremely high stakes. Maybe we need to accept that in today’s politics, it’s time we embrace more words, not less.