Growing calls from left to abolish ICE, Trump counters the country will not be safe

- For days now, progressive activists and Democrats have been growing more vocal to get rid of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, arguing that the federal unit has simply become an unwanted Gestapo-like deportation force.

"ICE is a fascist organization that has been committing unjustifiable violence on brown families," Sam Hausman said Tuesday morning after he slept in a tent in front of the ICE building there. "And it can't be allowed to continue." 

At the same time, President Trump and his supporters say bring it on because getting rid of ICE will doom the Democrats. On Fox News' Sunday Morning Futures, Trump predicted: “They’re going to get beaten so badly. I think they’ll never win another election. So I’m actually quite happy about it.”

Plus, ICE keeps this country safe, the president argued. “You get rid of ICE, you’re going to have a country that you’re going to be afraid to walk out of your house,” he told Fox News.

Trump also tweeted that ICE is "one of the smartest, toughest and most spirited law enforcement groups of men and women that I have ever seen." He noted the agency's work to counter MS-13 gang members.

Trump urged ICE agents to "not worry or lose your spirit," adding: "The radical left Dems want you out. Next it will be all police. Zero chance, It will never happen!"

But that's now how the liberals see it. And the Bay Area has been one of the many Ground Zeros for the anti-ICE movement, with many similar movements in New York, Philadelphia, Cleveland and Florida.

For the second day in a row, members of ResistanceSF on Tuesday protested outside the ICE building on Sansome Street in San Francisco bearing signs that read "Crush ICE" and "No One is Illegal." Over the weekend, massive crowds showed up outside the West County Detention Center in Richmond, where ICE contracts with the Contra Costa County Sheriff's Office to detain up to 200 undocumented immigrants at a time. A rally was also held Saturday in Oakland at Lake Merritt.

Around the country, this sentiment is being echoed by several prominent Democrats seeking to bolster their progressive credentials. Sen. Kamala Harris of California sent a statement to KTVU on Tuesday that read: “I think we have to reexamine ICE, and we need to probably think about starting from scratch because there's a lot that is wrong with the way that it's conducting itself and we need to deal with that.” 

Housed within the Department of Homeland Security, ICE is in charge of executing hundreds of federal immigration statutes. The debate over the agency's future follows the widespread outcry in recent weeks after the Trump administration separated more than 2,000 migrant children from their parents, a decision that which he has since reversed.

In a statement to KTVU, ICE responded by saying that the agency "fully respects the rights of all people to voice their opinion without interference.  ICE, in conjunction with our other federal counterparts, is continuing to monitor the situation and will make necessary modifications to ensure operations resume appropriately. The safety and security of all is of utmost importance to ICE.  Assertions of ICE canceling court appointments in retaliation to the presence of demonstrators are false." 

The Democratic calls to scrap the agency underscore the balancing act the party is facing on immigration issues. Such rhetoric could prove unhelpful to the 10 Democratic senators seeking re-election this fall in states Trump carried in 2016, where conservative views on immigration prevail. But calling for an end to ICE could be a winner for Democrats seeking to rally the party's base in the 2020 presidential primaries.

Many anti-Trump activists, such as Nelini Stamp, the national organizing director for the Working Families Party, called the #AbolishICE movement a "critical moment" in the early maneuverings for 2020.

"Any Democrats who want to be the nominee need to stand on the right side of this," Stamp said. "Even if they don't say 'abolish ICE,' they can't not address it."

Still, not every immigrant advocacy group takes the same view.

Cristobal Alex, president of the Latino Victory Project, a political action group that backs pro-immigration candidates, rejected ICE as a "litmus test." But he said it's "heartening" that immigration policy in general "is at the forefront of the conversation ahead of 2020."

Indeed, the would-be presidential candidates haven't yet detailed what they propose in ICE's place. And that's a problem, many say. Conservative host Dana Loesch told Fox News that abolishing ICE without replacing it is "irresponsible" and  "reckless governance from a party who should know better." 

Before the border separation crisis, Harris had introduced legislation that would curb the expansion of immigration detention centers. She and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York and others have at least hinted that they would want the Justice Department's prosecutorial power less involved in border security.

The activists pushing for ICE abolition, meanwhile, said they aren't worried about potential blowback or any difficulties for Democrats facing more conservative voters, including those potentially swayed by Trump's repeated charges that Democrats favor "open borders."

At the Working Families Party, Stamp said she sees the activists taking a position that "offers space" to other Democrats activists know won't agree with them. "We give them room to talk about better immigration policy," she said, comparing the circumstances to the civil rights movement, when Martin Luther King Jr., was viewed more favorably by white power brokers than more strident leaders like Malcolm X.

"Martin Luther King never said, 'Black power,'" Stamp said. "But having the left flank that did made the right folks willing to at least talk to King."

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Bill Barrow from the Associated Press contributed to this report.

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