Donald Trump rode to office promising a deportation force that would arrest and expel undocumented immigrants across the country. He has done what he promised. Shortly after assuming the presidency, Trump reversed the Obama administration’s policy of deprioritizing the deportation of noncriminal immigrants. He also encouraged Immigrations and Customs Enforcement agents to step up their raids and collaborate with local police. The result has been an unprecedented crackdown on immigrant communities. ICE has arrested parents dropping off their kids at school and assault victims obtaining protective orders. It has seized disabled children, raided hospitals, and refused to release pregnant detainees. Its agents have been accused of falsifying evidence and subjecting immigrants to sexual abuse and physical assault. They’ve deported individuals who helped the U.S. government combat terrorism and gang violence back to their home countries, where they face certain persecution and possible death. Currently, ICE is attempting to deport an honorably discharged veteran who may have been the victim of entrapment.
In light of these brutal tactics, a growing number of progressives have questioned whether ICE is past the point of reform. Sean McElwee, a policy analyst who helped start the movement to abolish ICE, has been pressing congressional candidates on their positions toward the agency, which was created just 15 years ago. Thus far, 14 Democrats have announced their support for defunding or abolishing ICE. This week, Randy Bryce, a candidate in Wisconsin who is vying for the seat that now belongs to Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, became perhaps the most high-profile Democrat to declare that he wants to abolish the agency. A December poll commissioned by Democrats found a tight race, with Ryan holding a 6-point lead.
On Wednesday, I spoke with Bryce over email about his criticism of ICE and hopes for reforming immigration enforcement in the U.S. Our conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Mark Joseph Stern: Why did you decide to call for the abolition of ICE?
Randy Bryce: I’ve met a lot of good people who live in terror on a daily basis. They didn’t want to uproot from their native country, but they felt they had no choice, no other way to provide a better future for their kids. I can understand that. I would do anything for my son. And I certainly wouldn’t stay somewhere if I felt he couldn’t thrive there, or I couldn’t provide a safe home for him.
These immigrant families I’ve met and worked alongside—they work incredibly hard, they give back to their community, they create jobs and run small businesses. They embody the American dream. If our country provided them with any sort of real pathway to legal residency, I know they would jump through any number of hoops to do so. But we don’t—Paul Ryan and the president have failed to do that. Instead, they have given more and more funding and power to an agency that has abused it—deporting an increasing number of women, children, and asylum seekers with no criminal record back to countries where their lives are at risk, tearing apart their families.
When agencies abuse their power that way, when they stray so far from their mission, and act in such contradiction with our shared American values, it’s fair to question whether that agency should exist at all. I am confident that other parts of the federal government could effectively carry out the functions of immigration and customs enforcement that are necessary, as they did 15 years ago before ICE was created.
Do you support sanctuary laws like California’s, which limit local cooperation with federal immigration authorities?
I don’t believe local law enforcement should be asked to do ICE’s job. My father is a retired cop. I know from his experiences how important police-community trust is, and Attorney General Jeff Sessions is threatening that by imposing new burdens on local law enforcement regarding their cooperation with ICE. Many police chiefs are reluctant to take on these additional responsibilities because it will hurt police-community trust and, consequently, weaken public safety.
If victims and witnesses are unwilling to report crimes for fear of deportation, then dangerous criminals don’t get put behind bars. Studies suggest that localities where ICE and local law enforcement keep their responsibilities separate are actually safer, and, as a result, the Major Cities Chiefs Association has condemned the attorney general’s actions. Despite this opposition from law enforcement, the Trump administration has threatened to remove critical, unrelated federal funding from local communities if their local law enforcement agency does not comply with ICE’s mandates. As a congressman, I would oppose any efforts to defund so-called sanctuary jurisdictions.
Do you have any concerns about Customs and Border Protection, another DHS agency? Since Trump took office, CBP has broken the law in its overzealous enforcement of Trump’s travel ban, destroyed humanitarian supplies left for migrants, and stretched its powers to search and seize individuals far from the border in states like New Hampshire.
I oppose the travel ban. I see it as Islamophobic and I think it actually weakens our national security rather than enhancing it. But even those on the right who disagree with me on those points agree that the way the travel ban was implemented was incredibly poorly done. It stranded people midflight, caused massive confusion and civil unrest, and it violated basic rights. I do think that degree of dysfunction merits a formal congressional hearing into the DHS’s role in the implementation of that ban. I also think there should be a strict ban on the destruction of humanitarian aid provided by charitable groups. And the incident in New Hampshire does raise valid questions about whether we need to authorize CBP to act within 100 miles of the closest border. I’d like to learn more about how that radius was chosen and see if a more narrow restriction would be appropriate.
What about the DHS itself? Some progressives have called for the whole department—which was formed just 15 years ago—to be dismantled. Would you support dismantling the DHS and devolving its agencies back to where they came from?
I’m most familiar with ICE’s role because of the impact they’ve had on the First District. But I think with anything so newly created, we have to do a formal assessment of whether it’s working. I think Congress could orchestrate that assessment, and I would like to be a part of that if I’m elected.
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