Questioning the existence and role of ICE should not be a fringe position.
It is becoming quite common to hear people refer to #AbolishICE as an example of fringe, far-left, knee-jerk radicalism, or as evidence, according Jordan Peterson, that the left “has no limits.” Following this line of so-called centrist reasoning, the Abolish ICE campaign embodies a diametric counterpoint to say, the events in Charlottesville, and further indicates a society with diminishing common ground. There are many easy problems with this narrative, and in part it emerges from an increasingly muddled sense of what left and right are, historically, and what their aims are, particularly in US politics.
But there is nothing necessarily radical, or even inherently leftist, in working to abolish ICE. A number of obvious points can be made here: ICE was founded in 2003, it’s not an age-old traditional institution. ICE, like the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, is part of the political legacy of September 11 — a legacy of rash, panic-driven laws and political actions easily approved because no one wanted to appear weak or unAmerican at such a time, and these measures have redefined the landscape, and continue to exact a heavy price on US society and the world. Challenging ICE is challenging this reactive, fear-driven political logic.
Calling for the abolition of ICE does not necessarily imply the end to border protections or immigration laws, or homeland security. Those may be goals for some of the left, but they are not embedded in the call to abolish ICE. What is at stake is the unique legal role that ICE has acquired for itself, moving across and between jurisdictions, applying, within US soil, a kind of power of the outside — opening spaces where constitutional rights and legal protections do not apply. What “center” can one claim to be in, if this crossing of limits does not trouble one deeply? It is a known fact that hundreds of US citizens have been detained by ICE. That the agency moves on private property without warrants. That children are being separated from their parents and put in cages. In documented instances, the agency has operated on the principle that people are guilty until proven innocent. But there is more. The agency is easily instrumentalized and can be used, at the whim of the political helm, left or right, to deliver federal revenge upon local government. Or private citizens. Or anyone really: The lingering ghost of the undocumented outsider opens every space, transfers every body into the category of potential suspect — removed a few degrees perhaps, by one’s skin color or ability to speak English, but still, at some level, forced to live within a legal space altered by this new precedent.
A robust conservative case should be easy to make for the abolition of ICE. It is a unique bureaucratic agency with more power than the police and far less accountability. ICE actions impact the local economy, they affect school operations, and they affect churches.
If there is a foundational conservative mythos in US society, it is 17th century contractarianism, with the concept, articulated in different versions, of some kind of originary or natural state of rights, from which consent is given to a sovereign head. In theory it attempts to carve out a space the sovereign cannot touch, a limit to interference in economic and religious activity. This is the legacy of Runnymede; it is the Lockean doctrine transposed by Jefferson as justification for independence. However we may feel about the status of this bourgeois hypothesis in the contemporary world, or the historic hypocrisy of a claim to fundamental rights in a slave-owning society, we cannot deny that the U.S. Constitution is, amidst political documents, the most tangible embodiment of this idea. This predates the flag and the national anthem.
If to be a conservative still means anything other than jingoism and sheer hatred of the poor, it has to be an allegiance to this idea in some form. And nothing drives a steak through the heart of this mythos faster or harder than the power we have conceded to ICE.