Despite President Donald Trump’s repeated claims, Democrats are not advocating open borders, not even the ones who are calling to abolish Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
The small minority of Democrats in Congress calling for the end of ICE have all said they would like to have many of ICE’s functions redistributed to other, existing government agencies. None has called for abandoning border enforcement.
Trump has for years wrongly accused Democrats of wanting open borders, but he has stepped up the frequency of that attack line as Democrats in recent weeks criticized his “no tolerance” policy that resulted in family separations at the border, and as some Democrats began calling for the abolishment of ICE.
Here’s what Trump said during a July 1 interview on Fox Business with Maria Bartiromo:
Trump, July 1: The Democrats want to have no borders. They want to get rid of ICE. … Between Maxine Waters and Nancy Pelosi, and getting rid of ICE, and having open borders — and the biggest thing, you have open borders. All it’s going to do is lead to massive, massive crime. That’s going to be their platform, open borders, which equals crime. I think they’ll never win another election, so I’m actually quite happy about it.
During the 2016 presidential campaign, Trump frequently, and inaccurately, accused Hillary Clinton of supporting open borders. As we wrote then, Clinton supported the 2013 Senate immigration bill, the so-called Gang of Eight bill, which in addition to providing a path to earned citizenship for those then in the country illegally, would have included significant investments in border security. The bill would have doubled the number of border patrol agents along the Mexican border, added 350 miles of new fencing, and added a host of security and technologies to prevent illegal immigration.
In fact, every Democrat in the Senate voted for the bill. Sen. Chuck Schumer, the Democratic leader in the Senate, cited that bill in a tweet responding to Trump’s repeated claims about Democratic support for open borders.
Democrats have opposed Trump’s plan for about 350 additional miles of border wall along the Southern border, saying it would be an ineffective waste of money, and they have opposed some of the president’s efforts to restrict legal immigration. But they have not called for abandoning border enforcement. In fact, the Democratic National Committee’s stated goal is legislation that includes a provision that “improves border security, prioritizes enforcement so we are targeting criminals.”
Responding to the president’s claims about Democrats supporting open borders, House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi said, “No, we do care about the border. We care about protecting our country, but we don’t think we need to protect the border by putting children in cages. We want to be smart and strong not reckless, rash and ruthless in this case.”
Democrats threw their support behind a bill that would have provided a path to citizenship for so-called Dreamers, but that also sought to “deploy the most practical and effective technology available in order to achieve situational awareness and operational control along the U.S. border” as well as to provide $110 million in grants annually for various border security activities. The bill failed in the Senate.
Democrats did oppose a proposal from Sen. Chuck Grassley that would have provided $25 billion for border security and Trump’s proposed border wall, provided a path to citizenship for 1.8 million Dreamers and strictly limited family-based migration, a point Democrats opposed. The bill failed to advance in the Senate.
Trump has stepped up his claims about Democrats supporting open borders as several prominent Democrats have announced support for abolishing ICE.
One of the most prominent opponents of ICE is Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a House candidate from New York who upset Rep. Joe Crowley in last week’s Democratic primary. As the issue of family separations became a hot topic, Ocasio-Cortez’s calls to abolish ICE became a key part of her message.
Ocasio-Cortez campaign website: The Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency was created in 2003, in the same suite of post-9/11 legislation as the Patriot Act and the Iraq War. Its founding was part of an unchecked expansion of executive powers that led to the widespread erosion of Americans’ civil rights. Unlike prior immigration enforcement under the INS, ICE operates outside the scope of the Department of Justice and is unaccountable to our nation’s standards of due process. …
As overseen by the Trump administration, ICE operates with virtually no accountability, ripping apart families and holding our friends and neighbors indefinitely in inhumane detention centers scattered across the United States. Alex believes that if we are to uphold civic justice, we must abolish ICE and see to it that our undocumented neighbors are treated with the dignity and respect owed to all people, regardless of citizenship status.
Several other prominent Democrats have joined that call, including Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Kirsten Gillibrand.
“The president’s deeply immoral actions have made it obvious we need to rebuild our immigration system from top to bottom starting by replacing ICE with something that reflects our morality and that works,” Warren said during a rally in Boston on June 30.
In an interview on CNN, Gillibrand said it is time to “reimagine” the agency.
Gillibrand, June 28: I believe that it has become a deportation force. And I think you should separate out the criminal justice from the immigration issues. I think you should reimagine ICE under a new agency, with a very different mission, and take those two missions out. And so we believe that we should protect families that need our help, and that is not what ICE is doing today. And that’s why I believe you should get rid of it, start over, reimagine it and build something that actually works.
A spokesperson for Gillibrand noted that ICE doesn’t handle border security; Customs and Border Protection does. Gillibrand does not believe in open borders or eliminating enforcement, the spokesperson added.
Rep. Mark Pocan, who co-chairs the House Progressive Caucus, announced last week that he planned to introduce legislation that would abolish ICE. But it would not abandon border enforcement, which is largely carried out by Customs and Border Patrol.
According to Pocan’s press release, his legislation “would dismantle ICE and create a commission to provide recommendations to Congress on how the U.S. government can implement a humane immigration enforcement system that upholds the dignity of all individuals, while transferring necessary functions to other agencies.”
In an interview with NBC News, Pocan said the commission would “lay out the duties that need to continue that ICE does that are appropriate and proper and then take away the ones that the president has maybe abused that maybe no longer need to exist. Prior to its creation, about 20 different departments did these functions. It’s not like ICE is the only entity that goes after human trafficking or gangs or drugs. You have the Department of Justice, the FBI, the Department of Labor. There are certainly ways to put those duties back to the other agencies.”
The Democrats calling for abolishing ICE haven’t said that they want to abandon border enforcement.
“We absolutely do need to make sure that our borders are secure,” Ocasio-Cortez said in an interview with CNN, “to make sure people are safe in passage. But what we need to realize and remember is that ICE was established in 2003, right at the same time as the Patriot Act, the AUMF, the Iraq War, and we look back at a lot of that time and legislation as a mistake now. And I think that ICE is right there as a part of it. It has an extra-judicial nature, it’s baked in to the structure of the agency and that is why they are able to get away with black sites at our border with the separation of children. We are committing human rights abuses on this border and separating children from their families. And that is part of the structure of the agency. We can replace it. And we can replace it with a humane agency that is directed toward safe passage instead of the direction of criminalization.”
Trump signed an executive order on June 20 calling for families to be kept in custody together while their cases move through criminal or immigration proceedings.
Despite Trump’s claim that Democratic “‘leadership’ wants to denounce and abandon the great men and women of ICE” — as he put it in a July 2 tweet — the number of Democrats in Congress calling for the abolishment of ICE is relatively small. Only one member of the Senate or House Democratic leadership — Warren — is among them.
Schumer, for example, says he does not agree with the calls to abolish ICE.
“ICE does some functions that are very much needed,” Schumer said. “Reform ICE — yes. That’s what I think we should do.”
Sean McElwee, a political data expert whom the San Francisco Chronicle credits with creating the #AbolishICE hashtag in February 2017, provided us with his running list of government officials who support abolishing ICE. Although growing, the list includes five incumbent members of the House: Pramila Jayapal, Jim McGovern, Earl Blumenauer, Nydia Velazquez and Pocan. And from the Senate, just Warren and Gillibrand. According to the Hill, Sen. Bernie Sanders has called for ICE to be examined, but not fully abolished.