South Florida Democrats lurch left with call to abolish ICE

A barricade crosses railroad track at a protest camp on property outside the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement office in Portland, Ore., Monday, June 25, 2018.
A barricade crosses railroad track at a protest camp on property outside the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement office in Portland, Ore., Monday, June 25, 2018. AP Photo

Abolishing U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement by starving it of cash is now in vogue among Democrats running for Congress in Miami.

Three of the five Democrats in a contested primary to replace retiring Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen are in favor of abolishing the nation's immigration enforcement agency, a rallying cry of the far left that has gained rapid mainstream attention in recent weeks because of the Trump administration's policy of separating children from their parents when they cross the border illegally.

Former Knight Foundation director Matt Haggman, former state Rep. David Richardson and former University of Miami academic advisor Michael Hepburn are all in favor of abolishing ICE by defunding the federal agency in Congress.

"The brutality of taking people out of their homes for 20 years has now sort of been fully seen," said Sean McElwee, an anti-deportation advocate who leads an ongoing abolish ICE effort on social media. "For a while, the only people I could get to agree with me were third-tier candidates, who I love and agree with but who don't have much of a chance...but now this has legs."

Over the weekend, four Democrats in Congress became the first elected officials in Washington to call for abolishing ICE. Wisconsin Rep. Mark Pocan said Monday he plans to introduce legislation that would defund the agency, which has powers to conduct immigration checks within 100 miles of the border or coastline, a zone that includes the entire state of Florida.

Most Democrats don't want to abolish ICE, instead arguing that the agency's leadership and direction under the Trump administration is the problem, not the existence of the organization itself. McElwee estimates that about two dozen Democrats running for federal office out of around 1,000 declared candidates nationally have publicly endorsed abolishing ICE.

The two Miami-Dade Democrats running against Republican Reps. Carlos Curbelo and Mario Diaz-Balart, who aren't facing competitive primaries, aren't on board. Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson said he "hasn't considered" defunding ICE.

"ICE should be targeting and arresting people that pose an imminent threat to others, not just rounding up innocent-even if undocumented-people," said Mary Barzee Flores, a Democrat running against Diaz-Balart. "It is neither reasonable nor practical to simply say 'let's abolish ICE,' but its enforcement priorities should be significantly adjusted."

"Abolishing ICE is not the answer," said Democrat Debbie Mucarsel-Powell, who is running against Curbelo. "I believe the agency must correct its abuses and should dedicate its staff to protecting the country from actual threats, like child exploitation, human trafficking and drug-related crimes, instead of attempting to induce fear in immigrant communities."

But for Haggman and Richardson, two well-funded candidates seeking to beat former University of Miami President Donna Shalala in the Democratic primary for Ros-Lehtinen's seat, talk about abolishing ICE provides a way to differentiate themselves from an opponent with better name recognition and a way to sway far left-leaning voters in the primary.

Haggman announced his abolish ICE platform four weeks ago, before the family separation issue became national news, and is running television ads on it, including a spot featuring his Spanish-speaking wife with English subtitles.

"This is something I’ve been thinking about for several months. ICE has a long track record of cruelty – the recent family separations are just one example," Haggman said. "ICE has been conducting raids, stopping people on buses, and threatening communities across the U.S. for years. That’s what compelled me to make a stand."

Haggman also sparred with conservative Fox News host Tucker Carlson over the issue last week.

"Any other law enforcement agencies we should get rid of? How about the Coast Guard?" Carlson asked.

Haggman responded that ICE has existed since 2003, and that U.S. Customs and Border Protection is capable of protecting the border on its own.

Richardson's campaign hasn't run ads on the issue, and McElwee acknowledged that most Democrats around the country won't make abolishing ICE a central part of their messaging to voters. He hopes the 2018 cycle is the beginning of a long-term conversation within the party about how to deal with ICE, with an aim of forcing the issue into the 2020 Democratic presidential primary race.

Shalala and Miami Beach Commissioner Kristen Rosen Gonzalez aren't in favor of axing ICE by cutting off its funding if elected to Congress.

"Rather than abolish ICE, we should abolish Trump’s evil policies," Shalala said in an email. "That means voting for Democrats to recapture Congress as a check on Trump’s power and electing a Democratic president in 2020. The immoral policies of the Trump administration and his political appointees who head ICE are the main problem, not the agency or its thousands of employees."

Though there's a disagreement among Miami-Dade Democrats on whether or not to defund ICE, none of the Miami-Dade Democrats running for Congress went as far to declare ICE a "terrorist organization" like New York gubernatorial candidate and actress Cynthia Nixon.

"I might not like Trump's tax policies but I don't want to get rid of the IRS," Rosen Gonzalez said.

Alex Daugherty, 202-383-6049, @alextdaugherty