When writer and activist Sean McElwee first tweeted #AbolishICE in February 2017 as a protest of Immigration and Customs Enforcement human rights violations, there was no way to predict that he would jumpstart a political movement. As newspaper articles detailed accounts of ICE detaining and separating young children, thousands of Twitter users began to display #AbolishICE in their profiles. The hashtag rose in popularity, becoming a progressive rallying cry against President Donald Trump’s immigration regime. 

There is no shortage of information about the rampant abuse ICE agents inflict upon immigrants. Agents often wait outside courthouses, anticipating the verdicts to be given against immigrants who have applied for asylum or a family-based visa. In 2017, agents forcibly moved a critically-ill Salvadoran woman awaiting brain surgery from the hospital where she was receiving care to a detention center against medical professionals’ advice. Immigration judges, attorneys and doctors alike have said these indiscriminate arrests and widely-reported unconstitutional searches deter immigrants from seeking justice in courtrooms or medical care at hospitals out of fear. As COVID-19 grips the United States, ICE continues to imprison tens of thousands of people in cramped jails prone to viral spread and contamination. As activist Gaby Zavla said, immigrants “are not just being detained; they’re being broken down as individuals. They’re being treated like animals, as subhuman.” 

ICE is a broken agency in desperate need of change, but the road to recovery isn’t as simple as McElwee’s hashtag suggests. The #AbolishICE movement is right about the brutality of ICE’s ruthless approach to detention and deportation, but wrong in how it aims to address those problems. Such problems doom it to fail at motivating meaningful change to the United States’ inhumane enforcement practices. 

First, abolishing ICE would throw the baby out with the bathwater. ICE has a few major offices that carry out the agency’s key priorities. The office to blame for ICE’s poor reputation is the Enforcement and Removal Operations office, or ERO, which carries out deportations and removals. 

The other major office within ICE is Homeland Security Investigations, or HSI. Despite its location within ICE’s agency structure, the HSI office does not expressly concern itself with immigration enforcement or deportations. Instead, HSI investigates nearly every other form of cross-border criminal activity, such as fraud, cybercrimes and money laundering. Just a few months ago, an HSI team partnered with several Arizona police departments to arrest several suspected child traffickers. 

It is wholly unclear whether #AbolishICE would seek to dismantle all of ICE or simply ERO. In a blockbuster essay for The Nation defending #AbolishICE, Sean McElwee does not at any point even acknowledge the existence of HSI. This is a shame, considering that many HSI employees have spoken out about the corruptness and viciousness of ERO. It’s difficult to tell whether McElwee considers HSI to be a legitimately good agency or simply part of the “unbridled white-supremacist surveillance state” that he deems ERO’s current operations to be.

McElwee’s hashtag conflates apples with oranges: the call to #AbolishICE (as opposed to perhaps #AbolishERO or #StopFamilySeparation) ignores the crucial distinction between wildly different law enforcement agencies. Even worse — the hashtag has made it easier for President Trump to publicly critique anything attached to #AbolishICE as a nonsensical, dangerous policy by weaponizing the perils of human trafficking as proof that ICE’s agencies are necessary.

Second, #AbolishICE is not really organized. Beyond #AbolishICE’s clear opposition to ICE’s immigration enforcement, many people who use the hashtag disagree about its meaning. Some Twitter users have used other words instead of “abolish” — #DefundICE, #ReformICE, etc. — all of which McElwee has interpreted as well-meaning attempts but not quite as radical as he intended. The root cause of this widespread fragmentation within #AbolishICE’s members might lie within the movement’s lack of formal structure. Unlike #BlackLivesMatter, #AbolishICE still has no staff or official website after years of momentum. There are no meetings for its members — well, technically. 

Sean McElwee hosts a weekly happy hour for progressives in New York City, where attendees network while discussing contemporary leftist political priorities. The guests at McElwee’s meetings are always a mix; grassroots activists and journalists are the gatherings’ main intended participants, such as Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y. Most event invitations are sent via Twitter direct message. McElwee has repeatedly claimed the sufficiency of social media slogans as political tools, going so far as to quip, “It is generally true that having a strong presence on Twitter will give it legs in the real world because people who influence real-world stuff are on Twitter.” 

In a sense, McElwee is correct. Decentralized movements born out of social media campaigns can be powerful. Without a rigid leadership structure, #BlackLivesMatter has grown, over years of planning and strategizing, into a socio-political network spanning different communities and ages, as well as specific demands for economic reform such as restoring Glass-Steagall (a piece of anti-monopoly legislation from 1933 that separated commercial and investment banking). The movement for carceral justice and prison abolition has similarly adopted reformist strategies through web-based advocacy, advancing the long-term goal of abolitionism. In Chicago, grassroots organizers led viral campaigns to oust the incumbent district attorney for hiding dashcam footage of police brutality. People who enact real-world change are on Twitter, but they are also making concrete, carefully-formulated demands against the state and mobilizing voters. It is hard to look at McElwee’s weekly bar crawls with its “Who’s Who” guest list and see #AbolishICE as a genuine investment in the leftist fight for progress.  

Lastly, the sad truth about ICE is that despite the well-publicized abuse at immigrant detention centers, the agency still has some powerful fans who would fight tooth and nail against abolition. Soon after #AbolishICE had become popular across social media, Republican members in the House of Representatives introduced a bill to offer ICE further support. The bill passed with a count of 244-to-35 as 133 Democrats chose to vote “present,” indicating the controversial and complicated nature of ICE, even for left-leaning members of the House. It seems safe to say a vote on abolishing ICE will not be happening anytime soon; no moderate politician could ever support this movement’s messaging and still feel confident in their re-election capabilities. In fact, the only bill that’s associated with #AbolishICE’s goals does not specify any way that ICE would be changed but only includes the creation of a “Commission to Study and Establish a Fair and Humane System of Immigration and Customs Enforcement” which would be tasked with deciding what — if anything — to do to change ICE. The bill has since been relegated to the legislative “Bad Place” — committee.

None of this is to diminish the impact that #AbolishICE has had on Twitter and in real life. Sean McElwee’s hashtag helped spark a political conversation about human rights violations occurring on the United States’ own soil. #AbolishICE has inspired a bill, brought attention to the controversy of detention and deportation and motivated the young left to become more informed about domestic politics. Without a doubt, the #AbolishICE movement has markedly changed the political conversation about immigration. 

But the truth is that all these years after McElwee’s first #AbolishICE tweet, ICE seems stronger than before. Despite the hashtag’s flourishing across social media around the world, something hasn’t worked: even in a global pandemic, ICE is continuing business as usual. Maybe it’s the movement’s unclear messaging, its politically poisonous connotations or its out-of-touch meetings that only preach to the choir. Perhaps the most serious of the movement’s problems is #AbolishICE’s niche within the confines of Twitter activism that cannot replace real, materially-relevant activism. Defunding or even tinkering with a law enforcement agency that receives billions of dollars in funding is not — and will never be — as easy clicking the “like” button on a friend’s post. To fundamentally revamp ERO, the U.S. needs on-the-ground organizing. It needs people who are willing to take the time to canvass and call their legislators and vote. It needs careful, detail-oriented lawyering. It needs an understanding of the very real barriers that block meaningful change. The fact remains that a trendy leftist hashtag does not, by itself, constitute a political revolution and it remains unclear to what extent #AbolishICE can motivate change towards their ultimate goal — whatever that may be.

Allison Pujol can be reached at ampmich@umich.edu.

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