A Quaker argument for abolishing ICE

“I have no idea of submitting tamely to injustice inflicted either on me or on the [enslaved]. I will oppose it with all the moral powers with which I am endowed. I am no advocate of passivity.” – Lucretia Mott, Quaker abolitionist

In 2012 I accompanied a young immigrant woman to a deportation hearing in Denver. The woman I accompanied was the mother of a sixteen-month-old citizen child. All that she had done was come to the United States without papers.

We met with her immigration attorney, who seemed exasperated by the system himself. He told her she had exhausted her legal options and advised her to accept voluntary departure, leaving the country on her own. She would need to check in with the U.S. Embassy in Mexico City within four months to prove she had left the country or she would face detention and forced deportation.

Her partner was from Ecuador and she seemed faced with untenable options – to leave her partner and child in the United States, to take her child, but leave her partner, or to stay and go into hiding, wondering at every moment when ICE would show up to detain and deport her.

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The author and co-workers at a protest in Philadelphia focused on family separation

Standing with this young woman seemed deeply important, but also vastly insufficient. What she was experiencing, and what so many immigrants faced then and face now, was just blatantly cruel. Because of an accident of birth and because she didn’t have legal papers, she was being forced into the horrifying choices of leaving her child and/or partner or going into hiding. As a Quaker who recognizes the inherent dignity and humanity of each person, it struck me that the whole system needed to be upended, disrupted, abolished. Courageous immigrants and their allies have been working for this for years.

Now, over 2,000 children have been kidnapped by ICE and separated from their families, asylum seekers at the border, just trying to seek safety. These children have been deeply traumatized, and even if they are returned to their families, the scars of such separations will be felt for a long time. Building on the ICE infrastructure constructed by the Obama administration (he deported 2.6 million people), the Trump administration has escalated its targeting and abuse of immigrants, and created horrifying concentration camp tent facilities to house immigrant children.

The current crisis is, unfortunately, nothing new. People in positions of power in this country have been enacting the violence of colonialism and white supremacy since its founding. Children of enslaved Africans were routinely separated from their parents when their parents were “sold” or they were. Native American children were stolen from their families and sent to Indian boarding schools to “kill the Indian and save the man,” as Richard Henry Pratt, founder of Carlisle Indian boarding school said. Japanese families with their children were interned during World War II. The current targeting, policing and incarceration of Black and Brown people – including children – is a continuation of the tools of colonialism, which maintains a police abuse system to uphold the occupation of stolen land. 

Protest of family separation in Philadelphia

The system isn’t broken, it is doing what it was built to do. ICE is doing what it was built to do: criminalize immigrants, separate families, and terrify undocumented folks, all to deflect blame of what is going wrong in this country onto people who are deeply harmed by the policies of this country, people who are often here fleeing untenable situations in their countries of origin. The administration inflames blame and outrage at immigrants to distract from the harm they are inflicting on everyone. It’s not an accident that the GOP introduced legislation that would cut into Medicaid and Medicare and Social Security this same week. 

ICE is an agency of white nationalism, promoting and acting out xenophobia and racism as a core policy of this administration. ICE tears apart families and communities. The agency’s purpose is removal.

In 2017 alone, ICE deported approximately 226,000 people. ICE is deliberately separating children from their families and has proposed a policy to check the immigration status of sponsors and all adult members of a sponsor’s household of unaccompanied children. This will funnel unaccompanied minors into the foster care system or shelters instead of reuniting them with their family members.

ICE is racist. The agency’s practices are based on racial profiling. ICE sees any undocumented person as a threat and has been charged repeatedly for racial profiling and its racially biased enforcement practices. ICE is expensive. The tents erected for children separated from their families on the border cost $775/night per child. ICE is stealing the futures of these children by deeply traumatizing them, but also the futures of other American children because we are diverting resources away from education and community care and into the militarized targeting of communities. 

ICE targets activists who speak up against their unjust practices. More than 20 immigration activists have been arrested by ICE since Trump took office. This is a clear infringement of first amendment rights. 

ICE violates human rights. Between 2010 and 2017 alone, 1,224 complaints were filed by those in immigrant detention for sexual and physical abuse. ICE is unaccountable to the courts. ICE agents and police officers colluding with ICE engage in warrantless searches, detain people without probable cause, and fabricate evidence. ICE is a rogue agency working outside of structures of accountability causing harm to immigrant communities and all communities that include immigrants.

As a Quaker a core tenet of my faith is that every person is born with inherent dignity, the right to respect and to live without fear of being separated from their community. Freedom of movement and finding a safe home are human rights.

Painting of Lucretia Mott by Joseph Kyle

Quaker abolitionists like Benjamin Lay, John Woolman, and Lucretia Mott didn’t call for the reform of slavery, they were clear the institution had to end. Lucretia Mott said, "The labors of the devoted [Quaker abolitionists of the time] prepared the way for a convention in Philadelphia, in 1833, to take the ground of immediate, not gradual, emancipation, and to impress the duty of unconditional liberty, without expatriation." ICE tears apart families, destabilizes community and makes us all less safe. ICE can’t be reformed. I believe now is the time to defund and abolish the agency.

I think of the young woman I accompanied to her deportation hearing often these days. I’m not sure if she left the country or is here still in hiding. I think of her sixteen-month-old son, who would be six and half now. I wonder if they are safe, I wonder if they are together. If they are still here, I imagine their fear has only increased over the years.

As a Quaker who believes none of us is free until we all are, and that I have a moral prerogative to stand against agencies that cage and abuse fellow humans, my heart breaks at what she and so many immigrants face today. It’s time to do more than stand with her as a witness to her suffering. It’s time to end the nightmare for her, all immigrant families, and for all of us. Abolishing ICE is a first step on that path.

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