Calif. Dem Candidates Afraid to Embrace ‘Abolish ICE’ Movement

‘ICE is a scapegoat for what the president is doing from the very top of government…’

abolish ICE photo

Photo by IndivisibleSF (CC)

(Casey Tolan, The Mercury News) SAN JOSE, Calif. — California’s top Democratic hopefuls are backing away from the “Abolish ICE” rallying cry that has emerged as a mantra for progressive activists, signaling an uneasiness with the party’s bold left turn in one of the country’s most deeply blue states.

None of the Democrats running in the 10 most competitive House races in the Golden State support dissolving the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, according to a Bay Area News Group survey of the candidates over the last week.

That hasn’t stopped the Republicans from using the debate against them. GOP strategists have seized on the nascent movement as a wedge issue, hitting Democrats in California and around the country with ads about abolishing ICE in an attempt to paint them as extreme.

The debate has also revealed fault lines inside the Democratic Party between fired-up liberal activists and more cautious candidates running in districts that have elected Republicans for years.

“You don’t have an infection on your toe and cut off your entire foot,” said Katie Hill, a Democratic nonprofit executive running in a competitive district in the hills and desert towns of northern Los Angeles County. “It shows you the need for more sane politicians — politicians who are committed to fighting for what needs to happen, not just rabble-rousing their base.”

Some liberals have argued that U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement or ICE — which was formed in 2003 in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks — needs to be done away with to prevent abuses of undocumented immigrants. Attention on the idea grew over the last month amid a barrage of news stories about migrant children removed from their families.

Hill and the other Democrats running in closely-watched Republican-held districts up and down California denounced the Trump administration’s immigration crackdown, including the “zero-tolerance” policy that separated more than 2,300 children from their parents. Several called for reforms to how the agency enforces immigration rules.

But they contend that doing away with ICE wouldn’t stop the hard-line policies put in place by President Donald Trump.

“ICE is a scapegoat for what the president is doing from the very top of government,” said Ammar Campa-Najjar, a Democrat running against Rep. Duncan Hunter in a heavily Republican San Diego-area district. Even if ICE is abolished, he said, “Trump could come up with a different acronym for a different agency, and it would still have the same problems.”

Others criticized Trump while praising rank-and-file agents. Central Valley Democrat TJ Cox, who’s running against Rep. David Valadao, said that “the hardworking and honorable men and women that work for ICE are put in a very untenable position” because of the administration’s directives.

abolish ICE photo

Photo by IndivisibleSF (CC)

Several polls have found that most Americans oppose abolishing ICE. Hill, who is running against Rep. Steve Knight, said that a debate over the proposal “isn’t healthy” for the Democratic Party, and “gives ammo straight into the hands of Republicans.”

GOP operatives are ready to use that ammo. Last month, a SuperPAC backing congressional Republicans launched Facebook ads attacking Hill and Josh Harder, a Central Valley Democratic candidate, over the ICE issue. The ads, paid for by Defending Main Street PAC, declared that “liberal Democrats in Katie Hill’s party are trying to abolish ICE and weaken our border security.” (The PAC didn’t respond to a request for comment.)

The ads were small — costing only $100 each, according to federal campaign finance reports — but they could be a preview of more to come. Already, Republicans have hit the airwaves in several other key districts around the country with TV ads trying to tie Democrats to abolishing ICE.

Trump himself has predicted that the debate over the issue will carry his party to victory, saying in a Fox News interview last month that Democrats would “never win another election” if they come out against ICE.

Jack Pandol, a spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee, argued that the issue was fair game because the Democratic base supports scrapping the agency, despite the California candidates’ own positions. If the party retook the House in November, he suggested, they’d do away with ICE.

“A Republican Congress is all that’s standing in the way,” Pandol said.

So far, however, only about a dozen Democratic members of Congress have actually come out in favor of dissolving the agency. Even as potential presidential candidates, including Sens. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., and Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., have supported the idea, the vast majority of the party’s elected officials aren’t on board. Party leaders like House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., have kept their distance from the debate.

The California House races could make or break Democrats’ hopes of retaking the chamber. From a tactical standpoint, it would be more advantageous for the party to talk about changing ICE instead of abolishing it, suggested Jack Pitney, a political science professor at Claremont McKenna College.

“Obviously Trump and his supporters are going to be pressing this issue, but I think the smart Democrats are going to use language like ‘reform’ and ‘restructure’ rather than abolish,” he said.

Hill argued that liberal Democrats needed to tone down their rhetoric or risk losing more moderate and competitive seats like hers.

“The members of Congress who are supporting abolishing ICE are in these very progressive districts that would never ever vote for a Republican in a million years,” she said. “But that doesn’t do any good for those of us in districts across the country… where you can’t just go for the most progressive red meat.”

©2018 The Mercury News (San Jose, Calif.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.