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House Republicans are suddenly eager to vote on immigration — as long as it’s the “Abolish ICE” bill

It’s a big bet that Democrats don’t actually want to put their vote where their mouth is.

Protesters rally against family separation at a US federal court in Connecticut.
John Moore/Getty Images

“Abolish ICE” has become the latest rallying cry for Democrats, calling on the federal government to disband the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, which has purview over immigration law in the country’s interior.

Now, Republican leaders plan to make Democrats put their votes where their mouths are; Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy said he will bring up a vote on Democrats’ newly released “Abolish ICE” bill, the Hill’s Juliegrace Brufke first reported. The bill, proposed by three House progressives in light of the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” policy at the border, which separated more than 2,000 immigration children from their parents, would abolish ICE within a year.

House Republicans are playing pure politics; after all, only a few months ago Speaker Paul Ryan said the House would only vote on immigration bills that President Donald Trump would sign. Republicans are calculating that “Abolish ICE” is a losing message for Democrats in the 2018 midterms, especially as Democrats try to flip Republican-leaning districts across the country.

But Democrats are calling Republican leadership on their bluff: the three Democratic co-sponsors of the bill — Reps. Mark Pocan (D-WI), Pramila Jayapal (D-WA) and Adriano Espaillat — said they will vote no on the bill if Republicans bring it to the floor.

“We know Speaker Ryan is not serious about passing our ‘Establishing a Humane Immigration Enforcement System Act,’ so members of Congress, advocacy groups, and impacted communities will not engage in this political stunt,” the three said in a statement. “If Speaker Ryan puts our bill on the floor, we plan to vote no and will instead use the opportunity to force an urgently needed and long-overdue conversation on the House floor.”

According to a recent survey by Morning Consult/Politico, 54 percent of the Americans are against abolishing ICE. But voting against the proposal could make them vulnerable to more progressive primary challengers at home — this was, after all, one of the few substantive policy differences between Democratic socialist Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and New York Democrat Rep. Joe Crowley when he lost a House primary.

The Democratic Party has moved substantially to the left on immigration policy over the past few years, and “Abolish ICE” is a testament to that shift. Already, 2020 hopefuls like Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) have backed the idea.

This vote would undoubtedly put the party’s progressive rhetoric to the test.

Democrats’ bill would terminate ICE within a year, and look for alternatives

The Establishing a Humane Immigration Enforcement System Act was introduced by Pocan, Jayapal, and Espaillat, three progressive House members (Pocan is the chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus). Their bill would “terminate the agency within one year” of enacting the bill into law, and set up a commission of experts to look for an alternative to the current agency.

Democrats are calling for “a human immigration enforcement system,” and want the agency to separate its functions dealing with organized crime, drugs, and human trafficking to other established government agencies. This lines up with arguments made by some ICE agents, who recently authored a letter saying they want the agency’s functions investigating criminal activity to be separate from its immigration enforcement.

Democrats have been careful not to frame the #AbolishICE movement as a call to have open borders, saying instead that the agency needs a thorough restructuring, especially after Trump’s family separation policy and numerous ICE raids that have resulted in undocumented immigrants being deported.

While the movement is growing, there are still a large number of Democrats who have shied away from the slogan and its mission. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) has called for “an immediate and fundamental overhaul” of the agency, but stopped short of saying it should be terminated altogether.

Now, the three representatives are saying they’ll vote against their own bill — and will likely encourage others to do the same. Instead, they will try to use the opportunity to talk about family separation, the need to fix the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals Program, and their desire to end ICE.

“We look forward to the day that we have meaningful action on the issues covered by our bill,” the three said.

But other Democrats view the bill coming to the floor as an opportunity.

“If the Republicans call a vote, the Democrats can win this debate by putting forward a smart and nuanced policy framework,” Rep. Ro Khanna (D-CA) told Vox. “This bill reforms the abuses in our immigration system and will protect our borders. If we make it clear that we believe in enforcement and protecting our borders, but this bill is about following the recommendations of ICE agents, then it can be a win.”

Immigration isn’t a clear winner for either Democrats or Republicans

Immigration — President Donald Trump’s signature policy issue — is a wild card in the 2018 midterm elections.

Trump and conservative Republicans are running hard to the right on immigration, but warring polls show it’s not at all clear how voters really see Trump’s immigration crackdown, or whether it will help bring out Democrats to the polls in November.

In the last few weeks conflicting points have emerged in a number of polls:

  • A Pew Research Center report found Americans think Democrats would do a better job dealing with immigration than Republicans. Democrats have a 14-point advantage over Republicans on immigration policy.
  • More than half of Americans — 58 percent — disapprove of how Trump has handled immigration matters, according to an early July Quinnipiac poll. A Reuters poll, similarly found 52 percent of Americans disapproved of Trump’s immigration agenda.
  • Republican voters, however, overwhelmingly side with Trump’s views on immigration. A Quinnipiac poll found 55 percent supported family separations at the border. A Washington Post-Schar School survey found six in 10 Republicans supported the policy.
  • And Republicans are more driven to vote on immigration policy than Democrats, the Reuters poll found last week. Twenty-six percent of registered Republicans said immigration was the most important issue likely to determine their vote, whereas only 7 percent of Democrats said immigration policy was their No. 1 priority.

As Bloomberg’s Sahil Kapur has pointed out, it’s still not clear how sentiment on immigration, which has long been a white whale for lawmakers in Washington, will play out in November:

Long a divisive issue in the U.S., the roiling debate on immigration has vaulted it to the top of voters’ concerns before the November vote, and neither party appears to have a clear advantage.

“Abolish ICE,” once thought of as a far-left rallying cry, is certainly being embraced by Democratic stars. But with many Democrats hoping to win back red districts in 2018, many are uneasy about leaning into this issue so publicly before November.

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