A world existed before this criminal justice system was ever conceived of; a world without it is equally conceivable.


By Benji Hart

In the last month, following the emergence of horrific images of migrant children being separated from their families and held in cages by border agents, the call to #AbolishICE has gone mainstream. Most notably, Congolese immigrant activist Therese Okoumou climbed the Statue of Liberty’s base on July 4th following an “Abolish ICE” banner drop, and refused to come down until “all the children [separated from their families and detained at the border] are released.”

The thrusting of this message into popular discourse has resulted in widespread discussion of what the dismantling of an entire branch of law enforcement might look like—a truly radical development. Yet, it has also promoted a lack of clarity around how abolition as a political commitment appears in practice, and from whence the call to abolish ICE originates.

Incumbent and established Democrats, from Cynthia Nixon to Mark Pocan, have incorporated the abolition of ICE into their platforms, citing the agency’s lack of oversight and short lifespan (Immigration and Customs Enforcement was created in 2003, feeding off anti-Arab and anti-Muslim sentiments in the wake of 9/11). Yet, the primary call of both current and aspiring lawmakers is to redistribute the responsibilities of ICE to other existing departments—treating border-crossers as lower-level criminals rather than threats to national security.

Similarly, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the Bronx-born democratic socialist who recently toppled New York congressman Joe Crowley in the Democratic primary for the seat he held, tweeted her support for the abolition of ICE, but with calls for a replacement:

Sentiments like these fail to acknowledge that every facet of U.S. immigration policy is rooted in racial exclusion—dating back to the Page Act of 1875—and that the larger court system shares the same legacy of racist violence. They ignore that any charge of authoritarianism leveled at ICE can be applied to any other branch of law enforcement—connections that immigrant activists who heralded the call to #AbolishICE have fought hard to establish.


It was young, queer, undocumented organizers who first created the slogan #Not1More—insisting that no one deserves to be deported and breaking from the moderate messaging of the larger immigrant justice movement. Working in unison with Black Lives Matter, these organizers named total abolition as the only solution to stop the deportation machine.

They acknowledged there was no substantive difference between police and ICE. Agents from both organizations communicate and coordinate with one another, taking advantage of the lack of clarity around their respective jurisdictions to target immigrant communities more widely.

In the wake of Trump’s election, organizations like Mijente and Black Youth Project 100 came together under the #ExpandSanctuary campaign, challenging the anti-Black notion that the standard police and prison systems are somehow more humane than ICE. They demanded that Democrats like Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel, hiding behind the progressive rhetoric of “sanctuary cities,” take concrete steps towards meaningfully protecting Black and Brown communities. The steps suggested included decriminalizing immigrants and people of color, defunding ICE, prisons, and police, and supporting public education, affordable housing, and other social programs.

Any argument for the abolition of ICE can—and must—be extended to police, prisons, and the larger criminal justice system. All were founded for the purpose of protecting the wealth and economic interests of the elite, not the safety of the masses.

Support for the formation of each of these arms of criminal justice was galvanized through manufactured racial fears and resentment. Those they target for criminalization are the victims of violence—former slaves, refugees, indigenous people, poor people, survivors of sexual and intimate partner violence—not its source. As a necessary form of reparations, all must be replaced with resources that restore healing and balance to the communities that have been displaced, impoverished, and violated through colonization, enslavement, and war.

A world existed before this criminal justice system was ever conceived of; a world without it is equally conceivable.

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Organized Communities Against Deportations appeared at the #KeepFamiliesTogether rally and march last weekend in Chicago as an intervention into the problematic messaging of the event’s non-immigrant organizers that called for migrant families to be reunited, but not for the decisive ending of their criminalization nor detention. OCAD member Irene Romulo said from the stage:

Down the streets where we’ll be marching, there’s hundreds of youth of color that are being incarcerated and disappeared in the county’s juvenile detention center. And meanwhile, police in Chicago continue to murder Black people with impunity, separating them from their loved ones forever. Let’s extend the same outrage and support we have here to the thousands of people currently incarcerated, separated from their families through prisons and jails. Because even the most criminalized among us deserve to be fought for.

While the burgeoning of any new political concept into mainstream consciousness always requires clarification to be made salient and cohesive, it is crucial we distinguish between philosophies which are on their way to becoming avowedly abolitionist, and those mimicking liberatory rhetoric. The latter serves only to restore faith in the entrenched and deeply-racist criminal justice system—whose reach extends far beyond that of any one agency.

The present abuse of migrant youth at the border has pushed some to question the abuse of youth by various other branches of the criminal justice system. Youth detention is often the issue that radicalizes those on the ground to recognize that no one—no matter their identity, background, nor legal status—belongs in a cage. The current call to #AbolishICE must become a call to abolish cages wherever they exist, whoever is inside them.

Honoring the demands of immigrant communities, and staying on message with the organizing that has given us this moment of upheaval means making the connections between ICE and the other racist structures that birthed it. It means fighting for an end to all deportation and detention, the abolition of all systems that make policing and incarceration possible.

Benji Hart is a Black, queer, femme artist and educator currently living in Chicago. They are the writer behind the blog Radical Faggot, and have essays featured in the anthologies Rebellious Mourning: The Collective Work of Grief (2017) and Taking Sides: Radical Solidarity and the Poverty of Liberalism (2015), both from AK Press. Their writing has also been published in Truthout, Salon Magazine, Socialist Worker, and other feminist and abolitionist media.