How Twitter vaulted 'Abolish ICE' into the mainstream

How Twitter vaulted 'Abolish ICE' into the mainstream
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Calls to "Abolish ICE" began as an obscure Twitter hashtag created by liberal activists. It's now a movement supported by prominent progressive leaders and candidates in races across the country and the center of a heated debate in Democratic circles.

The viral campaign pushing for the elimination of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency is the latest example of how Twitter has become a tool for groups outside the mainstream to get their ideas in front of power brokers.


Writer and activist Sean McElwee, who is credited with creating the #AbolishICE hashtag, told The Hill that Twitter's platform and its reach created a unique opportunity to spread the idea.

“It is generally true that having a strong presence on Twitter will give it legs in the real world because people who influence real-world stuff are on Twitter,” he said.

McElwee first tweeted it in February 2017 and keep advocating ending the agency to his over 70,000 followers.

The hashtag eventually caught on in far-left Twitter circles in memes, with Twitter users incorporating "Abolish ICE" into their display names and in other ways.

Social media watchers say the first breakthrough was when a prominent Democratic candidate, Randy Bryce, who is running for the seat held by outgoing Speaker Paul RyanPaul Davis RyanZaid Jilani: Paul Ryan worried about culture war distracting from issues 'that really concern him' The Memo: Marjorie Taylor Greene exposes GOP establishment's lack of power The Hill's 12:30 Report - Senators back in session after late-night hold-up MORE (R-Wis.), offered his support for abolishing ICE in April of 2018.

Ana Maria Archilla the co-executive director of Center for Popular Democracy, said that at first progressives "were worried about the political implications."

But "when Randy could say it in rural Wisconsin, in Paul Ryan, territory,” she continued, activists felt they had made a breakthrough.

Bryce said the position always made sense to him after seeing what rural migrant workers in his state dealt with from the agency.

“Even before I started running for office it was something that I had noticed in the immigrant community — that people had this really negative image of ICE,” he told The Hill.

The biggest moment for the Abolish ICE movement though came after Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a self-described democratic socialist, upset Rep. Joe CrowleyJoseph (Joe) CrowleyIt's time to respect artists Longtime Illinois Rep. Danny K. Davis gets Justice Democrats-backed primary challenger Joe Crowley to register as lobbyist for recording artists MORE (D-N.Y.), in a primary. As she leapt into the spotlight, she brought the calls to abolish ICE, into the national debate.

Within days of her victory, abolishing ICE had become a litmus test for Democrats running in the midterms and for those seen as potential 2020 presidential contenders.

For all the success #AbolishICE enjoyed on social media, McElwee said that equally crucial were organizing efforts by activists.

“If you came up with a new phrase like "Let dolphins vote' and a million people supported it, there wouldn’t be an intellectual case for it and an organizing apparatus behind it,” he explained.

“The reason people could say ‘Abolish ICE’ and it the hit the ground running is because it was already resting on a ton of intellectual work and organizing and movement building that had already been going on,” McElwee said.

"The demand is as old as ICE,” Archilla told The Hill.

She said immigration groups had long been frustrated with ICE. But in the Obama years, mainstream immigration groups shied away from calls to abolish any agencies, instead believing that they would be able to push immigration reform through Congress.

“We thought legalization was in our reach. We thought we could win it under Bush, then under Obama, then we realized we couldn’t because of the realities of Congress,” Archilla said. “Then we came to see that we should go after the rules around migration and enforcement.”

Archila said that groups assumed it would take a long time before their position became politically acceptable.

But then surprisingly the #AbolishICE hashtag went viral on Twitter boosted in part by the Trump administration's controversial zero-tolerance policy that led to migrant children being separated from parents caught crossing the southern border.

That policy sparked a firestorm with the administration receiving criticism from lawmakers in both parties. Democratic lawmakers also began rallying behind the idea of abolishing ICE.

Sen. Kirsten GillibrandKirsten GillibrandCosmetic chemicals need a makeover Overnight Defense: Austin and Milley talk budget, Afghanistan, sexual assault and more at wide-ranging Senate hearing Top general: Military justice overhaul proposed by Gillibrand 'requires some detailed study' MORE (D-N.Y.), a potential 2020 contender, became the first senator to call for scrapping the agency. Rep. Mark PocanMark William PocanThe Memo: The pre-Trump 'normal' is gone for good Overnight Defense: Pentagon pitches 5B budget | Kamala Harris addresses US Naval Academy graduates Pentagon pitches 5B budget with cuts to older weapons MORE (D-Wis.) even introduced legislation in Congress to eliminate the agency.

The hashtag also gave the public a way to easily weigh in on the issue.

“It was in the context of Trump and the escalation of attacks on immigrants ... he lifted the veil,” Archila said. “When people saw that and were confronted with the reality of immigrants — people see that and said ‘that can’t possibly be who we are.’ It was in that context that [demands to] Abolish ICE ... became the most succinct way of saying, ‘we do not want our country to be that.’”

Garrett Broad, a professor at Fordham University who has researched social media and activist movements, said that Abolish ICE’s efforts come from a tried and true activist playbook.

“This is a strategy in social movements where you play the flank,” Broad said.

“If you look at the history there is always the side that is pushing for more extreme and radical policies."

Activists, though, can now speed up that process, thanks to social media, in particular Twitter.

McElwee appears to be well aware of this — his previous Twitter display name was “Overton Window mover,” a term that describes how to change the boundaries of what is considered acceptable mainstream political discourse.

Broad said that unlike prior fringe ideas, Twitter supercharged the pace at which a trendy leftist hashtag could drive the national political discussion.

But Democratic leaders were always wary of the idea, especially in a midterm year. And many prominent Dems worried that the calls to abolish ICE diverted attention from what they saw as the real issue: Changing the country's immigration laws.

Republicans also saw political advantage in the debate over ICE. Trump slammed Democrats for calls to abolish ICE earlier this month, saying they were "demeaning" the agency's workers and citing the threat from gangs such as MS-13.

House GOP leaders also pushed ahead with a vote on a measure offering support for ICE in hopes of publicly stoking Dem divisions. That measure passed the House earlier this month in a 244-35. Eighteen Democrats voted to back ICE and 34 opposed the resolution, which for procedural reasons needed two-thirds to pass.

Some advocates say that the effort to abolish ICE has lost some momentum. They say there are limits to how quickly they can change the national discourse even with a social media wave.

“In some ways what the phrase ‘abolish ICE’ fails to do is to make that bigger connection,” said Silky Shah, executive director of the Detention Watch network, a pro-immigrant rights group, which backs scraping the agency.

Shah likened "Abolish ICE" to another hashtag turned rallying cry, "Black Lives Matter."

“Black Lives Matter is saying, ‘it’s important we as a movement are fighting for black lives.’ I could see connections but in ways, the phrase ‘abolish ICE’ alone isn’t enough,” she said.

McElwee, though, said there had been important gains in the fight against ICE and its policies. He likened what the left had done to ICE with how Republicans were able to direct conservative ire at the Internal Revenue Service (IRS).

“That was a very concrete win for the Republican party. By making Republicans hate the IRS, it makes it very hard for it to do its job,” he said.

He noted that approval of ICE had dropped in the polls in just "a couple short months."

"Every agency has political capital and the fact that ICE has lost a lot of its, has been a huge win.”