Why “Abolish ICE” Doesn’t Go Far Enough for Migrant Families

“Abolish ICE” has become a rallying cry for people who have watched in horror as thousands of migrant families have been separated and detained at our southern border in recent weeks. It has been characterized as “bold” and “radical” by some, but I argue that it doesn’t go far enough.

Indeed, the US government’s recent actions — ripping babies from their parents’ arms and caging toddlers — mark a heartbreaking new low in a decades-long downward spiral of our immigration laws, and demand a swift and decisive response. Yet the call to dismantle ICE, established in the post-9/11 push for national security, represents only the most initial of steps in addressing the deep-seated racism, xenophobia and criminalization of immigrants that are baked right in to US immigration policy.

As an immigrant from El Salvador who has worked on the front lines of immigration policy and advocacy for more than 30 years, I have had a front-row seat in observing the repeated failures of US immigration policy, especially for the beleaguered people of Central America. I join my fellow concerned citizens in demanding a radical response to what is happening at the border, but I encourage them to adopt a deeper, more historical view of the issue: Calls to “Abolish ICE” do not go far enough. To begin to get to the root of the problem, we still need to “Fix ’96.”

Twenty-two years since its inception, 1996’s Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act (IIRIRA) stands as the most draconian change ever enacted to US immigration policy. IIRIRA embraced a restrictive, exclusionary and punitive policy approach without precedent in previous policy. In short, it laid the groundwork for the heartbreak on our border today.

The IIRIRA framework is what allows the government to turn its back on today’s Central American asylum seekers. Engineered in response to the growing numbers of immigrants entering the United States to escape civil unrest, violence, and poverty plaguing Latin American in the 1980s and 1990s, IIRIRA created a wide range of legal grounds to make people — including spouses of US citizens — inadmissible to the United States, even if an immigrant visa was available to them. Today, the US government continues to follow the IIRIRA playbook in narrowing asylum options for Central Americans fleeing gang violence.

IIRIRA set a legal precedent for the large-scale separation of migrant families. The policy re-classified many minor offenses to the law — such as non-violent drug offenses or tax evasion — into aggravated crimes punishable with deportation. Applied retroactively, the new law prompted the deportation of people who had already paid the consequences for these past misdemeanors. IIRIRA also introduced new punishment measures, known as 3- and 10-year bars, to keep deportees from returning to the United States. The law has splintered more than two million migrant families over the past two decades. At least 500,000 US-born children have a parent who has been detained or deported.

IIRIRA birthed ICE and the dysfunction in our immigration courts. The 1996 law laid the groundwork for the creation of the $7.6 billion agency today known as ICE, along with its sister agency, the $13.5 billion Customs and Border Protection (CBP), whose agents today carry out the dirty work at the border. IIRIRA gave immigration officers and immigration judges an unprecedented level of discretionary power to push people into deportation proceedings. Today this has devolved into clogged immigration courts and the routine denial of due process to immigrants, including the Central American families in the crosshairs of the current family separation policy.

IIRIRA was a complex piece of legislation, and most legislators who voted for it did so without reading its contents or understanding its profound and far-reaching implications. The bill cleared Congress with support from both parties and was signed into law by President Bill Clinton. That reality is uncomfortable for legislators who now wish to distance themselves from inhumane immigration policy, but illustrative of the fact that deeply flawed US immigration system has had bipartisan engineers.

Complicating matters further is the fact that many policymakers and even advocates have become resigned to IIRIRA as a not-so-new “normal.” Initial resistance to IIRIRA — manifested in the form of a national campaign called “Fix ‘96” — has since dissolved. Today’s legislators, even those sympathetic to the plight of migrants, cannot recall a time when the criminalization of immigrants was not the central tenet of immigration policy. Contemporary attempts at immigration reform reflect this reality.

Today, truly “radical” thinking on immigration law involves thinking outside of IIRIRA’S punitive framework: Those committed to bold solutions to families separated at the border must bolster calls to “Abolish ICE” with a real commitment to “Fix ’96.” Basic principles of humane immigration policy — a visa system that reflects our country’s humanitarian responsibilities, a true commitment to family unity, and a respect for due process and human rights — must replace IIRIRA’s draconian framework for future policy reforms.

Calls to “Abolish ICE” aren’t nearly as radical as the audacity to re-imagine an immigration system based on an unequivocal recognition of immigrants and refugees as a blessing for the nation, and that subsequently supports and protects migrants instead of criminalizing them.

Oscar Chacón is executive director of Alianza Americas, a transnational network of 50 immigrant-serving organizations.

This commentary was originally published on Medium.