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Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) last week expressed a once-fringe, but now mainstream position in the Democratic Party: The Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency should be knee-capped.
The freshman congresswoman called it one of “the most urgent moral issues and crises that we have in America right now” during a rally outside the Capitol Building.
Ocasio-Cortez claimed it was not a political issue and complained about the “zero-tolerance” policy that last year resulted in the separation of 2,600 children from their illegal immigrant parents at the border.
“I will not give one dollar to a secretary who does not care about [the life of a child who died in custody] and does not care to investigate a child’s death,” she said to applause. “I will not give one dollar to black-box detention facilities that think that some people in this country are deserving of constitutional protections and others are not.”
Ocasio-Cortez is on the far-left flank of the Democratic Party, but the rest of her party is moving closer to her position on illegal immigration. Democratic congressional negotiators, while not pushing for elimination or defunding of ICE, are advocating a reduction in the agency’s detention capacity.
As political theater, calling for the defunding of ICE is a crowd-pleaser on the left. As rational policy, it’s a bit bizarre.
For starters, ICE isn’t even responsible for the (now-ended) family-separation policy that triggered the calls to eliminate the agency. That would be the U.S. Border Patrol, which apprehends illegal border crossers – including, increasingly, children.
Under the policy that was in place for several months last year, the Border Patrol would refer adult border crossers for criminal prosecution. The U.S. Marshals Service would take custody of them, as they do every other accused criminal in the federal system. Border Patrol then would transfer children traveling with the illegal immigrants to ICE, because children and parents cannot be jailed together.
ICE then would refer those children to the Department of Health and Human Services' Office of Refugee Relocation, which tries to find relatives or other sponsors to assume temporary custody.
So, if progressives are looking for a target for their anger, U.S. Border Patrol agents are the ones who separated parents from children. But even that would be misplaced since is was the Department of Justice that ordered the zero-tolerance policy. Once prosecutors decide to charge an illegal immigrant with a criminal offense, immigration authorities have no choice but to separate the parents and children.
If lawmakers do not like the result and don’t trust President Donald Trump’s administration not to resume the policy, they have plenty of options short of putting ICE out of business. They could pass a law prohibiting prosecutors from filing criminal charges against illegal immigrants who are traveling with children. Or, they could repeal the statute that makes first-time border crossing a misdemeanor crime.
And that brings us to the second point: Taken literally, eliminating ICE would stop deportations – all of them. Under current law, ICE is the only agency empowered to send illegal immigrants back to their home countries. It is hard to see what the point of the Border Patrol or immigration courts would be if the United States had no legal means to deport people.
In fiscal year 2018, ICE deported 256,085 illegal immigrants. Some 57 percent of them were convicted criminals, and another 5,914 were known or suspected gang members.
Even “sanctuary” jurisdictions that prohibit cooperation with ICE generally have exceptions for certain kinds of offenses. For instance, 2,028 of the illegal immigrants arrested during the fiscal year by ICE had been charged with or convicted of homicide. Another 2,085 had been charged with or convicted of kidnapping. There were another 5,562 convicted or accused robbers and 5,350 charged or convicted sex offenders.
Without ICE, or a new agency with similar authority, the country could not deport even these serious criminals.
Many progressives have come to the position that most illegal immigrants should not be deported if all they are doing is working illegally, or even if they have committed nonviolent crimes. But even liberals mostly believe violent criminals should be kicked out.
Congress, if it chose, could narrow the criteria for what constitutes a deportable alien. That would be a much more surgical way to rebalance immigration policy than effectively ending all deportations.