One of political life’s basic rules is that when your opponent is shooting himself in the foot, don’t interrupt him. In disregard of that rule, the campaign by liberal Democrats to abolish the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency gave President TrumpDonald TrumpJulian Castro knocks Biden administration over refugee policy Overnight Energy & Environment — League of Conservation Voters — Climate summit chief says US needs to 'show progress' on environment Five takeaways from Arizona's audit results MORE a much needed distraction from the controversy over his inhumane family separation policy. In fact, “Abolish ICE” backfired so badly that it put Democrats on the defensive on immigration policy, which could hurt their prospects in the midterm elections.
The sheer cruelty of Trump’s family separation policy united Democrats, many Republicans, prominent religious figures, anyone with a beating human heart, really, in opposition to taking immigrant children away from their parents. The country had reached the limits of moral tolerance, even if its president had no moral bottom. The Spinner-in-Chief could not spin this one and Trump was forced to order an end to family separations, but the government struggled to reunite the parents and children.
Then along came the stunning Moneyball primary victory of 28-year-old Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez over a powerful Bronx-Queen’s Democratic incumbent congressman. The Cinderella story line — attractive, articulate, working-class background, waited tables to support her family after her father’s death — captured people’s imagination. Ocasio-Cortez is a millennial, a woman of color, a Bernie SandersBernie SandersDon't let partisan politics impede Texas' economic recovery The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Alibaba - Democrats argue price before policy amid scramble Overnight Energy & Environment — Presented by the League of Conservation Voters — EPA finalizing rule cutting HFCs MORE progressive, and she had great designer posters and buttons. Her victory was heralded as a resurgence of the party’s progressive wing.
A cornerstone of Ocasio-Cortez’ campaign was the abolition of ICE. Her triumph inspired what had until then been a small protest and minor hashtag movement. “Abolish ICE” became the new liberal rallying cry, bordering on a litmus test for Democrats with presidential ambitions. Sens. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth WarrenTreasury says more rental aid is reaching tenants, preventing evictions 11 senators urge House to pass .5T package before infrastructure bill Senate Democrats seeking information from SPACs, questioning 'misaligned incentives' MORE (D-Mass.) and Kirsten GillibrandKirsten Gillibrand11 senators urge House to pass .5T package before infrastructure bill Hochul tells Facebook to 'clean up the act' on abortion misinformation after Texas law Democratic senators request probe into Amazon's treatment of pregnant employees MORE (D-N.Y.) took up the cry of “Abolish ICE” to demonstrate their progressive bona fides and several left-leaning Democratic congressmen introduced a bill to abolish the agency, evidently misunderstanding the role of the agency they wanted to abolish.
ICE is a law enforcement agency that among other important responsibilities, conducts transnational investigations of terrorism and international drug trafficking. ICE is not even the agency that separated the immigrant families. The U.S. Border Patrol does the separating, the Health and Human Services Department has custody of the children while their parents are detained, the Department of Justice brings the prosecutions for unauthorized entry, and ICE detains the adults and then deports them when a court orders an individual deported.
ICE is not an inherently evil agency and deportations of undocumented aliens are a legitimate law enforcement function. Under President Obama, it’s worth recalling, ICE deported so many undocumented aliens with criminal records that immigration advocates nicknamed Obama the “Deporter in Chief.”
As “Abolish ICE” gained traction, Trump told a rally in Great Falls, Montana that a vote for Democrats is a “vote to let MS-13 run wild in our community” and “we will not stand for these vile Democrat smears against our law enforcement.” Democrats defensively claimed that, if one examined the fine print of “Abolish ICE,” they simply wanted to reform or re-organize the agency, not eliminate its functions. Good luck with fine print in the age of Trump.
The coup de grâce to “Abolish ICE” came late last week when House Republicans sought to bring the Democrats’ bill to abolish ICE to a vote. Evidently realizing how much traction they had given Trump on immigration at the Democrats’ expense, the bill’s sponsors announced they would vote against their own bill.
Firing on your own position doesn’t win battles or elections. The Democrats need an immigration policy that is humane and true to our history as a nation of immigrants, but one that will also reassure swing voters that Democrats can control the nation’s borders. Otherwise, in the run up to the mid-term elections, Trump will bash the Democrats on immigration like a piñata. The “Abolish ICE” disaster should be a wake-up call for Democrats to get their immigration act together.
Gregory J. Wallance was a federal prosecutor during the Carter and Reagan administrations. He is the author most recently of “The Woman Who Fought An Empire: Sarah Aaronsohn and Her Nili Spy Ring.” Follow him on Twitter at @gregorywallance.