Abolishing ICE becomes Dem litmus test

Abolishing the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency is fast becoming a litmus test for Democrats after Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s shock victory in a Democratic primary.

Sen. Kirsten GillibrandKirsten Elizabeth Gillibrand2020 Dems slam Trump over Putin presser Midterms will show voters are tired of taking back seat to Wall Street McConnell: I won't be intimidated by protesters MORE (D-N.Y.) on Thursday became the first senator to call for the scrapping of ICE, arguing that it has become “a deportation force.”

New York Mayor Bill de Blasio (D) followed suit on Friday, saying, “We should abolish ICE.”

And on Saturday, Sen. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth Ann Warren2020 Dems slam Trump over Putin presser Senate Dems rip Trump after Putin news conference Sanders: Trump should confront Putin over Mueller probe indictments MORE (D-Mass.) called for "replacing ICE" while tearing into the administration's "ugly" immigration practices.

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"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," she said at a rally in Boston.

Their calls for action are likely to pressure other Democrats to take similarly strong stances, and could scramble the 2020 race for the Democratic presidential nomination. 

California Sen. Kamala HarrisKamala Devi Harris2020 Dems slam Trump over Putin presser McConnell: I won't be intimidated by protesters Booker seizes on Kavanaugh confirmation fight MORE (D), who like Gillibrand is seen as a potential 2020 candidate, earlier in the week called on her party to “critically re-examine ICE” and even to “think about starting from scratch.”

Sen. Bernie SandersBernard (Bernie) SandersShowtime says Sacha Baron Cohen did not dress as 'disabled veteran' 2020 Dems slam Trump over Putin presser Ocasio-Cortez floating progressive sub-caucus MORE (I-Vt.), another likely candidate, came under fire from liberal activists after refusing to go that far. He said lawmakers should sit down with President TrumpDonald John TrumpShocking summit with Putin caps off Trump’s turbulent Europe trip GOP lambasts Trump over performance in Helsinki Trump stuns the world at Putin summit MORE and “work on a national program which deals with this serious issue.”

The calls to abolish ICE among Democrats picked up after the 28-year-old Ocasio-Cortez defeated Rep. Joseph Crowley (N.Y.) in an upset few saw coming.

Ocasio-Cortez has called for abolishing ICE, and her victory over a member of House Democratic leadership reverberated throughout the party, highlighting the issue’s importance on the left. 

ICE has come under increased criticism amid headlines about children separated from their parents at the border, a policy of Trump’s that he moved to end last week. 

ICE also has been faulted for arresting immigrants in the country illegally at courthouses and conducting aggressive raids of businesses, such as 7-Eleven stores, meatpacking plants and landscaping companies.

But while calls to abolish ICE are popular with liberals, it could also be a risky move for  a party that needs to win suburban seats to take back the House majority, and Senate seats in states won by Trump to win the upper chamber.

Senate Democratic Leader Charles SchumerCharles (Chuck) Ellis SchumerThis week: GOP mulls vote on ‘abolish ICE’ legislation Red-state Dem tells Schumer to 'kiss my you know what' on Supreme Court vote Dem infighting erupts over Supreme Court pick MORE (N.Y.) sounded a note of caution, stopping well short of calling for ICE to be eliminated. 

“ICE does some functions that are very much needed. Reform ICE, yes. That's what I think we should do,” he said on Friday.

A former Senate Democratic leadership aide warned the calls from senators such as Gillibrand could pose dangers for some of her colleagues. 

“She’s running for president,” said the source, who requested anonymity to discuss Gillibrand’s motives. “It’s something that is tricky for red-state senators.”

Calling for ICE to be abolished definitely won’t play well everywhere, say Democrats.  

“It’s not something we’re really hearing in North Dakota, even from the furthest left flank,” one Democratic official said.

Trump defeated Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonShocking summit with Putin caps off Trump’s turbulent Europe trip GOP lambasts Trump over performance in Helsinki Trump stuns the world at Putin summit MORE by 36 points in North Dakota in 2016, and Sen. Heidi HeitkampMary (Heidi) Kathryn HeitkampDoug Jones walks tightrope on Supreme Court nominee Red-state Dem tells Schumer to 'kiss my you know what' on Supreme Court vote Dem infighting erupts over Supreme Court pick MORE (D) is facing a challenging reelection race. 

Steven S. Smith, a professor of political science at Washington University in St. Louis, said the harsh enforcement actions taken by ICE officials in recent months have inflamed public sentiment so much that there may be a political argument for replacing it completely.

“This is an issue that can be framed as a good government issue and the fact that it’s tied to the Trump administration where there’s this kind of meanness about immigration coming from the top makes this an issue that can resonate certainly with Democrats and probably a wider swath of Americans,” he said.

Democratic strategists say that while Trump’s border policies are controversial and even unpopular with many swing voters in red states, vulnerable Democrats have to be careful not to be portrayed as anti-law enforcement.

“Immigration is always a dicey issue politically. It’s bedeviled both parties,” said Jim Kessler, senior vice president for policy at Third Way, a centrist Democratic think tank. “There’s as much of a regional difference on this as there are ideological differences."

“It’s an issue that plays differently in different parts of the country,” he added.

Kessler says Democrats should rally behind the principles of the 2013 comprehensive immigration reform bill, which Schumer co-authored.

It created a pathway to citizenship for millions of immigrants, overhauled the nation’s legal immigration system and provided billions of dollars in new money for border enforcement. It passed the Senate with a large bipartisan vote but went nowhere in the GOP-controlled House.

Kessler, however, said he understands the frustration of many Democrats.

“When you’re taking children away from parents at the border, you’re going to get people to react in very strong ways and that includes people in the center,” he said. “We have a situation that we never thought we’d see in this country where we’re taking children and putting them in cages.”

At a time when the party’s base is boiling with anger over Trump’s immigration policies, abolishing ICE altogether, something that would have been a radical step only a few months ago, is now being seen as a measure of boldness that many liberals say is long overdue.  

Steve Jarding, a Democratic strategist and former adviser to several former senators from conservative-leaning states, thinks that embracing calls to abolish ICE is good politics for Democrats.

“If the abolition of ICE becomes a cornerstone to stand for something, I think it’s probably good for the party. ICE has become subverted,” Jarding said. 

He argued that Trump is using the agency as a tool to “radicalize his racist policies against anyone who doesn’t live in this country.”

“The party has to start standing for something,” he said.

He says ICE was never intended to become the kind of police force that it is today.

He said Crowley’s loss in New York’s Democratic Party helped give clarity to the issue. 

“The younger voters of America I don’t think believe the immigration policies that Trump is enacting are right,” he said. 

Jordain Carney contributed to this story.