vision 2020

Democratic Candidates Will Need a Definitive Stance on ICE, and Soon

Senator Kamala Harris attends a news conference on immigration in D.C. on May 23, 2018. Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images

In Texas, Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents are force-feeding detainees, many of whom are asylum seekers, the New York Times reported on Thursday. A federal judge authorized the agency to begin force-feeding detainees two weeks after they launched a hunger strike to protest poor living conditions and abusive treatment. An attorney for the detainees told the Times that her clients have experienced nose bleeds and pain as a result of the practice, which has been condemned by some medical associations:

Force-feeding people is an “uncomfortable practice” in which “you put in a tube through the nose, and then you pour a nutritional formula through the tube,” said Dr. Arthur Caplan, a professor of bioethics at New York University’s School of Medicine.

“Putting the tube through the nose is often painful, particularly if the person is resisting,” Dr. Caplan said.

People who are fed involuntarily can lose muscle mass, Dr. Caplan added, and in the Texas case, prisoners could become infection-prone.

News of ICE’s other abuses continues to proliferate. In Michigan, the agency set up a fake university to catch students in the act of visa fraud; according to the Detroit News, dozens are now facing deportation. And earlier this week, the Immigration Defense Project reported that ICE arrests at New York courthouses have increased by 1,700 percent since Donald Trump took office. Survivors of domestic violence were caught up in the stings, the IDP said; there are reports of agents surveilling attorneys and resorting to physical violence during arrests.

ICE’s tactics aren’t new. The fake university scheme actually started in 2015, when Donald Trump was still just a candidate for office. On the subject of immigration, President Obama was no progressive; his administration defended the use of privately run family-detention centers and a “bed quota” created an incentive for ICE to arrest immigrants without criminal histories. Aspiring Democratic presidents will have to chart a path on immigration that not only rejects Trump’s nationalism but avoids the Obama administration’s missteps too. They’re essentially facing an existential question: Can America realize its democratic potential as long as ICE exists in its current form? It’s increasingly difficult to argue the affirmative. ICE is a relatively recent creation — it’s only been around for 16 years — and its short lifespan has been marked by abuse and repression.

A few likely candidates have already come out in favor of abolishing the agency. Elizabeth Warren and Kirsten Gillibrand have both called for an end to ICE. Gillibrand’s reversal is particularly noteworthy; the New York senator had once called for more deportations, a stance she says she now regrets. “I did not think about suffering in other people’s lives,” she told CNN in January. “I realized that things I had said were wrong. I was not caring about others.” If Senator Bernie Sanders announces a run, he’d be the third candidate in the primary to say they support abolishing ICE.

Kamala Harris, meanwhile, has stopped short of saying that she’d get rid of the agency if she becomes president. A spokesperson for the California senator told BuzzFeed News last July that Harris instead supports “a complete overhaul of the agency, mission, culture, operations.” And Cory Booker, who just announced his candidacy on Friday, has professed a similarly vague position. “What most people don’t understand is the agency is not that old. I’m one of those people that calls for us taking a serious look. I think we should be having hearings and really dive into this agency. It costs Americans billions of dollars. It’s not necessarily, in my opinion, achieving its high-minded purpose that might be achieved better in other ways,” the New Jersey senator told the HuffPost in 2018.

Democrats who want to abolish ICE have some work to do when it comes to persuading the party’s base of the morality of their cause. A Politico/Morning Consult poll released on Wednesday found that most Democratic voters said they’d either be less likely or indifferent to a candidate who would get rid of the agency (only 25 percent said they’d be more likely to support a candidate who wants to abolish ICE). But voters appear more enthusiastic about other left-wing positions, like Medicare for All, and it’s conceivable that a candidate who embraces those positions on the campaign trail could also support abolishing ICE without losing much, if any, support.

Regardless of where voters stand, the basic moral dilemma isn’t going to disappear. Hostility to immigrants remains a centerpiece of the Trump presidency, and ICE isn’t likely to change its tactics. Democrats competing to be the party’s nominee in 2020 should expect these practices to stir even more controversy when they arise in the middle of a campaign cycle, and they must have a clear answer on how they would address them.

2020 Candidates Will Need a Clear Stance on ICE, and Soon