American voters have long evinced a tacit belief that deporting law-abiding, longtime U.S. residents is a cruel and needless enterprise. For years, polls have shown strong majorities of the American public favoring a pathway to citizenship for non-criminal, gainfully employed undocumented immigrants. Just last week, a Washington Post–Schar School poll found 81 percent of Americans — including a majority of Republicans — saying that all undocumented immigrants who pass a criminal background check should be given legal status.
And yet, a majority of American voters have also (at least tacitly) evinced support for the idea that — until 60 senators come around to their position on mass amnesty — it is well and good for Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents to arrest and deport any random undocumented immigrants they happen to come across.
This position never made much sense, particularly for liberal voters. And once Donald Trump won the presidency — and stamped his garish brand on deportation — a call for the abolition of internal immigration enforcement began steadily building within the Democratic grassroots.
In recent weeks, the call grew loud enough to resound on Capitol Hill. As the Trump administration began separating thousands of migrant children for their parents — and reports of ICE personnel treating such families with sadistic cruelty began to surface — some House Democrats came out in favor of abolishing ICE. After pro-abolition candidate Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez unseated high-ranking House Democrat Joe Crowley in a primary, Senators Kirsten Gillibrand and Elizabeth Warren, among other progressive darlings, announced their support for terminating the agency.
Many Democratic strategists recoiled at their party’s embrace of a proposal so radical in its branding, and ill-defined in its details. Many predicted that by associating itself with the “Abolish ICE” movement, Democrats had done the GOP a massive favor.
Recent trends in the 2018 generic ballot contradict that premise. FiveThirtyEight’s poll of polls shows the electorate favoring a Democratic Congress over a Republican one by more than eight percentage points, the Democrats’ largest advantage since the middle of March.
That said, a Politico/Morning Consult poll released Wednesday suggests that moderate Democrats’ skepticism about the political viability of “abolish ICE” was far from baseless. In that survey, just 25 percent of voters endorse eliminating the agency, while 54 percent oppose abolition. The movement has nonetheless succeeded in making “abolish ICE” a mainstream position within the Democratic electorate; 43 percent of Democratic voters say ICE should be melted, while 34 percent want to keep it around.
This suggests that, outside of blue districts, it probably isn’t in Democratic candidates’ short-term political interest to campaign on the abolition of ICE – especially since the party enjoys an enormous polling advantage on health-care, an issue which happens to be highly salient among midterm voters.
And yet, it remains far from clear that the decision of progressive Democrats to adopt the cause of abolishing ICE has hurt the national party in any significant way. Midterms are determined in large part by base mobilization, and Republicans have won plenty of elections while campaigning on positions that excite their base, while alienating most everyone else.
Lost in the debate over whether abolishing ICE is a radical, fringe position is the reality that most the elected government’s current immigration policies poll just as — if not more — poorly. In February, a CNN poll found that only 12 percent of American voters believe that Barack Obama’s Deferred Action For Early Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program — which provides temporary legal status and work permits to Dreamers — should be ended (the Trump administration has officially ended the program, but court rulings have kept it alive in zombie form). The White House believes otherwise. And Trump’s crusade to slash legal immigration in half is only marginally more popular than abolishing ICE, according to a recent Gallup poll, which put support for reducing legal immigration at just 29 percent. Support for Trump’s border wall, meanwhile, consistently lies below 40 percent. Given all this, it’s not too surprising that a plurality of voters — both overall, and in battleground House districts — said that they trusted Democrats more than Republicans to properly handle the issue of immigration in the Washington Post–Schar School poll released last week.
It is also worth noting that many of the Republican Party’s consensus positions — on the legislative issues that it has prioritized — are more unpopular than abolishing ICE. Multiple polls have found majorities of Republican voters opposing tax cuts for the wealthy and corporations, while a recent Kaiser Family Foundation poll put overall support for Medicaid cuts at just 12 percent. And yet, the GOP’s first legislative priority after taking power was a health-care bill that would have slashed Medicaid funding by nearly $1 trillion; and its second, a tax cut package that delivered the bulk of its benefits to the wealthy and corporations.
If there is a tight correlation between the popularity of each party’s policies, and its success at the ballot box this November, Democrats will be in excellent shape — ostensibly, even the radical policies adopted by the Democrats’ far-left fringe are more palatable to the general public than the GOP’s marquee positions.
In reality, though, no such correlation exists. Voter behavior is identity-driven and haphazard, and the voters who show up on Election Day are rarely representative of the public as a whole. For these reasons, endorsing heinously unpopular positions can sometimes be electorally pragmatic; although a large majority of the American public does not want Roe v. Wade overturned, the GOP has benefited immensely from championing that position, and thereby, collecting a landslide share of the white Evangelical vote.
At present, there’s little evidence that Democrats will enjoy a similar base mobilization benefit from taking an anti-majoritarian position on immigration enforcement. And it is plausible that there is some non-negligible number of culturally conservative, economically liberal voters (in contested districts) who would be less likely to support a Democratic candidate who favored abolishing ICE.
But there’s also, at present, little sign that the national Democratic Party is suffering from its association with the proposal. And it is hard to read through the sworn declarations of asylum seekers who were separated from their children while under ICE’s care and not feel some sympathy for the idea that American immigration enforcement should not exist in anything resembling its current form. Rolling Stone’s Tim Dickinson highlighted some of that testimony on Twitter Tuesday:
Congressional Republicans refuse to take the politically pragmatic position on Medicaid because they believe that their moral duty to take health care away from poor people overrides myopic electoral concerns. It is understandable that many progressive Democrats feel the same way about dissolving an agency that has (allegedly) made psychologically torturing refugees a pillar of its mission.