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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 GillibrandOvernight Defense: Military sexual assault reform bill has votes to pass in Senate l First active duty service member arrested over Jan. 6 riot l Israeli troops attack Gaza Strip Military sexual assault reform bill has votes to pass in Senate Army secretary nominee concerned about 'unreasonable or unhelpful demands' on National Guard 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 WarrenWarren says Republican Party 'eating itself and it is discovering that the meal is poisonous' Briahna Joy Gray: Warren not endorsing Sanders in 2020 was 'really frustrating' McConnell hits Democratic critics of Israel 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 HarrisImmigration experts say GOP senators questioned DHS secretary with misleading chart Carper urges Biden to nominate ambassadors amid influx at border Priest who presided over Biden's inaugural mass resigns from university post after investigation 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 SandersBernie SandersStudy: Early unemployment cutoff would cost 16M people 0B Machine Gun Kelly reveals how Bernie Sanders aided him in his relationship with Megan Fox Overnight Health Care: CDC approves Pfizer vaccine for adolescents aged 12-15 | House moderates signal concerns with Pelosi drug pricing bill | Panel blasts COVID-19 response 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 TrumpProject Veritas surveilled government officials to expose anti-Trump sentiments: report Cheney: Fox News has 'a particular obligation' to refute election fraud claims The Memo: What now for anti-Trump Republicans? 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 SchumerChuck SchumerBiden 'encouraged' by meeting with congressional leaders on infrastructure Republicans welcome the chance to work with Democrats on a bipartisan infrastructure bill Cheney sideshow distracts from important battle over Democrats' partisan voting bill 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 ClintonHillary Clinton to speak at Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders summit More than half of eligible Latinos voted in 2020, setting record Fox News signs Trey Gowdy, Dan Bongino for new shows MORE by 36 points in North Dakota in 2016, and Sen. Heidi HeitkampMary (Heidi) Kathryn HeitkampEffective and profitable climate solutions are within the nation's farms and forests Bill Maher blasts removal of journalist at Teen Vogue Centrist Democrats pose major problem for progressives 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.